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Preview: San Francisco History Podcast - Sparkletack

San Francisco History Podcast – Sparkletack

San Francisco history stories

Last Build Date: Tue, 15 Mar 2016 18:48:14 +0000

Copyright: 2008


Sun, 16 Feb 2014 17:42:23 +0000

San Francisco history lovers: A notice that’s a bit overdue: I haven’t recorded a podcast for years, now, and the chances that I’ll return to this project are slim. That said, I’m committed to leaving ALL THESE PODCASTS online – as a resource for San Franciscans, of course, but also for lovers of this fascinating […](image) – Map of the San Francisco Public Library’s Historical Photo Collection

Wed, 24 Aug 2011 20:27:26 +0000

Just received an email from an old contact — and though I’ve not been actively updating Sparkletack, this project is just too fantastic not to mention. I’ve pillaged the San Francisco History Center’s online photo archive myself many, many times … and often dreamed of a resource exactly like this one. in Dan’s own […](image)

Bimbo’s 365 Club

Wed, 04 Aug 2010 20:23:42 +0000

A couple of days ago, Toby of Bimbo’s 365 Club dropped me a line: “Here at Bimbo’s, we’ve recently stated to scan some of the amazing things we have in our archives here at the club. We have soooo much stuff. We’ve posted some things in our blog and galleries. We’ve just started this and […](image)

SepiaTown — a virtual San Francisco

Thu, 25 Feb 2010 23:43:23 +0000

This is awesome. SepiaTown is a brand new website integrating mapping technology with crowd-sourced historical photos to create a virtually strollable San Francisco. They’ve collected over 150 images of San Francisco thus far, mostly clustered around California, Montgomery, and Market Streets … but it’s easy to see how the entire city could be reconstructed. Reconstructed […](image)

“Frisco”? I think not.

Sun, 14 Feb 2010 19:17:25 +0000

It’s not because Herb Caen got hot under the collar about it. And yeah, I know it was practically the official name of the City in the decades following the Gold Rush — a moniker beloved by locals and visitors alike. In fact, here’s Exhibit A on the pro-Frisco side, a song sung by thousands […](image)

Lefty O’Doul Hall of Fame Campaign

Sat, 16 Jan 2010 00:54:54 +0000

For years I’ve said that the enshrinement of San Francisco’s favourite son Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul at Cooperstown is overdue. LONG overdue. Sure, we in San Francisco named a drawbridge after him — but Lefty is due some recognition at a national level. I’ll resist the urge to restate my entire podcast about Lefty’s colorful […](image)

Gangs of San Francisco

Mon, 14 Dec 2009 01:30:29 +0000

I’ve been meaning to post about these amazing T-shirts forever. Because they’re — I kid you not — unbearably cool. It’s an idea so good that I’ve been kicking myself constantly (though ever so gently) for not having thought of it first! What we have here is a series of San Francisco historical T-shirts, each […](image)

A map that’s just my type

Fri, 30 Oct 2009 21:48:19 +0000

Ork Posters has created something guaranteed to delight typophiles (that’s me) and San Francisco neighborhood geeks (check) alike. It’s a typographic neighborhood map of Our Fair City. See? Oh sure, they do it for a bunch of their other favourite cities too. But this is so cool that I forgive them for that. Screen-printed. Multiple […](image)

Lefty O’Doul’s green suit — in color

Fri, 29 May 2009 08:57:50 +0000

In honor of that most noble of American pastimes, a lovely painting inspired by a favourite photo of the great San Francisco character, Lefty O’Doul … otherwise known as Mr. Lefty not-yet-in-the-damn-Hall-of-Fame O’Doul. But I digress. If you’ve heard my podcast about Lefty, you’ll have guessed that this photo was taken on one of Lefty’s […](image)

Inspiration! “Secret Histories of San Francisco”

Mon, 25 May 2009 23:16:28 +0000

"Thank you for making such an awesome show. It's really helped me out with this art project I've been working on.

I'm in an art show at the San Francisco Arts Commission and the theme is "Trace Elements", or uh, Hidden Histories of San Francisco, so I'm making an illustrated map of San Francisco with bits of its hidden history. I probably wouldn't be where I'm at with this thing if it wasn't for your podcast."

How cool is that?! read on ... (image)

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast 05.18.09 - Flappers in the newspapers

Mon, 18 May 2009 08:29:22 +0000

THIS WEEK'S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: 1922: Flappers in the newspapers

May 19, 1922

(image) Right off the bat I have to admit the fact that -- to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck -- what I don't know about San Francisco in the 1920s is a lot.

I did know that all sorts of great Prohibition and gangster stuff must have gone on, though, so I started leafing through a couple of 1922 editions of the Chronicle looking for stories.

And was immediately distracted by the flappers.

You know, flappers.

Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker, Zelda Fitzgerald ...

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast 05.11.09 - Charles Warren Stoddard, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rincon Hill

Mon, 11 May 2009 08:06:29 +0000

1879: Stoddard, Stevenson, and Rincon Hill

Sometime in 1879:
The house on Rincon Hill

Last week I read to you from In the Footprints of the Padres, Charles Warren Stoddard's 1902 reminiscences about the early days of San Francisco.

That piece recounted a boyhood adventure, but this book is full of California stories from the latter years of the 19th century; some deservedly obscure, but some that ring pretty loud bells.

Todays' short text is a great example of the latter, one that dovetails beautifully with two other San Francisco stories, both of which I've talked about at Sparkletack: the story of the Second Street Cut and the visit of Robert Louis Stevenson.

The now all-grown-up Stoddard had returned to San Francisco after the Polynesian peregrinations that would inspire his best-known work, and Stevenson had just arrived from Scotland in hot pursuit of the woman he loved.

The two authors hit it off, and -- as you'll hear at the end of today's Timecapsule -- it's to Stoddard and the house on Rincon Hill that we owe Stevenson's eventual fascination with the South Seas.

(image) South Park and Rincon Hill!

Do the native sons of the golden West ever recall those names and think what dignity they once conferred upon the favored few who basked in the sunshine of their prosperity?

South Park, with its line of omnibuses running across the city to North Beach; its long, narrow oval, filled with dusty foliage and offering a very weak apology for a park; its two rows of houses with, a formal air, all looking very much alike, and all evidently feeling their importance. There were young people's "parties" in those days, and the height of felicity was to be invited to them.

As a height o'ertops a hollow, so Rincon Hill looked down upon South Park. There was more elbow-room on the breezy height; not that the height was so high or so broad, but it was breezy; and there was room for the breeze to blow over gardens that spread about the detached houses their wealth of color and perfume.

How are the mighty fallen! The Hill, of course, had the farthest to fall. South Parkites merely moved out: they went to another and a better place. There was a decline in respectability and the rent-roll, and no one thinks of South Park now, -- at least no one speaks of it above a whisper.

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast 05.04.09 - A boyhood outing from "In the Footsteps of the Padres" by Charles Warren Stoddard

Mon, 04 May 2009 08:37:12 +0000

1854: A future poet's boyhood outing

(image) Spring 1854
Charles Warren Stoddard

In 1854, the down-on-their-luck Stoddard family set off from New York City to try their luck in that brand new metropolis of the West: San Francisco.

Charles Warren Stoddard was just 11 years old, and San Francisco -- still in the throes of the Gold Rush, a vital, chaotic, cosmopolitan stew pot -- was the most exciting place a little boy could dream of.

Charles would grow up to play a crucial part in San Francisco's burgeoning literary scene. He was just a teenager when his first poems were published in the Golden Era, and his talent and sweet personality were such that he developed long-lasting friendships with the other usual-suspect San Francisco bohemians, Ambrose Bierce, Ina Coolbrith, Bret Harte, and Samuel Clemens.

Stoddard is probably best remembered for the mildly homo-erotic short stories inspired by his extensive travels in the South Seas, but in 1902 he published a kind of memoir entitled In the Footprints of the Padres. As the old song goes, it recalls "the days of old, the days of gold, the days of '49" from a very personal point of view.

The reviewers of the New York Times praised the work for Stoddard's "vivid and poetic charm", but I have to admit that I'm mainly in it for his memories.

(image) In this piece, Charles and his little gang of pals are about to embark on a day-long ramble along the north-eastern edge of the city. Let's roll the clock back to 1854, and with Charles' help, put ourselves into the shoes of an 11-year-old boy anticipating the freedom of a sunny spring Saturday.

read on ... (image)

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San Francisco history timecapsule podcast 04.20.09 - Hotaling's Whiskey is spared by the 1906 Great Fire and Earthquake

Mon, 20 Apr 2009 08:38:00 +0000

1906: Hotaling's Whiskey is spared by the Great Fire and Earthquake

(image) April 20th, 1906
The deliverance of Hotaling's Whiskey

As of Friday the 20th, San Francisco was still on fire. The Great Earthquake had happened two days earlier, but the Fire (or fires) that devastated the city were still well underway.

The eastern quarter of the city -- nearly five square miles -- would be almost completely destroyed. But after the smoke cleared, a few precious blocks would emerged unscathed. Among these survivors would be the two blocks bounded by Montgomery, Jackson, Battery and Washington Streets.

(image) Oceans of ink have been spilled in documenting the incredible individual heroism and unfathomable professional incompetence displayed in fighting those fires. One of the best books on the subject is "The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906" by Philip Fradkin, from which I've swiped much of today's timecapsule.

This is the story of a single building, but one of vital importance to the delicate Western palette: AP Hotaling & Co.’s warehouse at 451 Jackson Street -- the largest depository of whiskey on the West Coast.

Day One: the first escape

Hotaling's warehouse was threatened on the very first day of the fires, Wednesday, April 18th. This particular blaze was one of the many inspired by rampant and ill-advised dynamiting, in this case by an allegedly drunken John Bermingham, not coincidentally the president of the California Powder Works.

Encouraged by the blast, the fire roared towards the whiskey-packed warehouse. Its cornices began to smoulder, but a quick-acting fireman bravely clambered to the top and hacked them off.

This was Hotaling's first escape.


Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast 04.13.09 Giants play the Dodgers, first major league baseball game on the West Coast

Mon, 13 Apr 2009 08:18:12 +0000

1958: The Giants play the Dodgers in the first major league baseball game on the West Coast

April 15, 1958
Major League Baseball in San Francisco!

(image) Exactly fifty-one years ago today, two New York City transplants faced each other for the first time on the fertile soil of the West Coast.

Decades of storied rivalry already under their respective belts, these two legendary New York baseball clubs -- the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers -- were trapped in aging, unsuitable parks. Giants owner Horace Stoneham had been considering a move to Minnesota until Dodger owner Walter O'Malley -- whose plans for a new Brooklyn park were being blocked -- set his sights on the demographic paradise of Los Angeles.

The National League wouldn't allow just one team to make such a drastic geographic move, so O'Malley talked Stoneham into taking a look at San Francisco. To the eternal regret and dismay of their New York fans, following the 1957 season, both teams pulled up stakes and headed for the welcoming arms of California.

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 04.06.09,

Mon, 06 Apr 2009 08:06:17 +0000

1871: The fall of a hoodlum king

April 9, 1871:
A hoodlum king's power is broken, and all because he hated the sound of music. Apparently.

(image) This isn't going to come as a surprise, but one of my favourite histories of this fair city is Herbert Asbury's Barbary Coast, first published in 1933. That's where I ran into the little story of Billy Smith, one of the most notorious hoodlums that San Francisco ever produced.

In the early 1870s, Billy Smith was the leader of a gang known as the Rising Star Club. This was a group of Barbary Coast thugs about 200 men strong, and Billy ruled them -- and the Coast -- with an iron fist. Literally. Billy was a monster of a man, and scoffed at the notion of using a knife, club or gun. No, Billy's weapon of choice was a gigantic pair of corrugated iron knuckles, which he used to tear his antagonists into shreds.


This low-tech weaponry was actually not unusual for San Francisco hoodlums. They rarely used guns, since -- bullies that they were -- they tended to enter battle only when massively outnumbering their opponent ... a lone Chinese laundryman, for example, or a recalcitrant shopkeeper.

I've written about the derivation of the term "hoodlum" in a previous blog post, but what's just as interesting is how proud the Barbary Coast hoodlums were of that appellation. According to Asbury,

"Sometimes when they sallied forth on their nefarious errands, they heralded their progress through the streets of San Francisco by cries of "The Hoodlums are coming!" and "Look out for the Hoodlums"! Many of them had the curious idea that the very sound of the word "hoodlum" terrified the police, and that by so identifying themselves they automatically became immune to arrest."


Media Files:

The mysterious letter “E”

Tue, 31 Mar 2009 19:49:39 +0000

I get a lot of history questions here at Sparkletack — some I can handle, but others stump me completely. A few weeks ago, a longtime listener named Demetrios hit me with one of those stumpers: “This is regarding the Sparkletack posting I sent you with regards to the letters ‘E’ that I keep seeing […](image)

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 03.30.09,

Mon, 30 Mar 2009 08:42:42 +0000

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:The San Francisco “Cocktail Route” 1890-something The Cocktail Route — “Champagne Days of San Francisco” Spring is most definitely in the air right now, which has brought my thoughts back to one of the great phenomena of San Francisco’s pre-earthquake era, the “Cocktail Route”. I know I’ve mentioned the “Cocktail Route” in […](image)

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San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 03.23.09,

Mon, 23 Mar 2009 08:37:42 +0000

Slumming the Barbary Coast

"A Barbary Cruise"

I've been thinking about the fact that -- just like our out-of-town guests inevitably insist that we take 'em to Chinatown or Fisherman's Wharf -- in the 1870s, visitors from back in "the States" just had to go slumming in the infamous Barbary Coast.

The piece I'm about to read to you was written by Mr. Albert Evans, a reporter from the good ol' Alta California. The Barbary Coast was part of his beat, and this gave him connections with the hardnosed cops whose duty it was to maintain some kind of order in that "colorful" part of town.

As romanticized as it has become in popular memory, the Coast was a "hell" of a place -- filthy, violent and extremely dangerous for greenhorns.

When some visitors came to town in about 1871, Albert asked one of his policeman buddies to join them on the tour. His account of this "Barbary Cruise" is a remarkable firsthand snapshot of the territory bounded by Montgomery, Stockton, Washington and Broadway. But what's almost more interesting is the way he reports it; the purple prose, the pursed-lip moralizing, and -- though I've skipped the Chinatown part of the tour -- the absolutely matter-of-fact racism on display.

This is the Barbary Coast seen through the eyes of white, bourgeois, and extremely Victorian San Francisco -- prepare to be both educated and annoyed.

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 03.09.09,

Tue, 10 Mar 2009 22:59:46 +0000

America's "Master Birdman" makes his final flight

(image) March 15, 1915:
"The Man Who Owns the Sky"

It was the year of the legendary Panama-Pacific International Exposition. San Francisco had once again earned that phoenix on her flag by rising from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake and fire -- and just nine years later, the city celebrated its rebirth by winning the right to host the World's Fair. Visitors from every point on the compass swarmed towards California to visit the resurgent city.

You probably know that the site of the Fair was the neighborhood now called the Marina, that acres of shoreline mudflats were filled in to create space for a grand and temporary city, and that the mournfully elegant Palace of Fine Arts is its lone survivor. The exhibits and attractions on offer were endless and famously enchanting, but one of the most spectacular events took place in the air above the Fair.

On March 15, a quarter of a million people gathered in the fairgrounds and on the hills above them to see a man in an ultra-modern experimental airplane perform unparalleled feats of aeronautical acrobatics.

That man was Lincoln Beachey, and in 1915 he was the most famous aviator in the country -- known from coast to coast as "The Man Who Owns the Sky".

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 03.03.09,

Mon, 02 Mar 2009 08:34:21 +0000

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: 1956: Gold medals or Gold records? An athletic crooner makes a life-changing choice 1956: “Send blank contracts” Of course you know Johnny Mathis. The velvet-voiced crooner is a fixture of the softer side of American pop culture, providing reliably romantic background music for cuddling couples for over sixty years. He’s sold […](image)

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San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 02.23.09,

Mon, 23 Feb 2009 08:32:11 +0000

THIS WEEK'S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: 1852: English adventurer Frank Marryat pays a visit to a San Francisco Gold Rush barbershop. 1852: A Gold Rush shaving-saloon I love personal accounts of the goings-on in our little town more than just about anything. The sights, the smells, the daily routine ... I want the nuts and bolts of what it was like to live here THEN! It's even better when the eyeballs taking it all in belong to an outsider, a visiting alien to whom everything's an oddity. For my birthday a couple of years ago my Lady Friend gave me a book that's packed to the gills with this kind of first-person account. It's called -- aptly enough -- San Francisco Memories. And because I'm kind of a dope, it's only just occurred to me that this stuff is the absolute epitome of what a timecapsule should be -- and that I really ought to be sharing some of this early San Francisco gold with you. Ahem. So share it I will. Our correspondent: Frank Marryat Frank Marryat was the son of Captain Frederick Marryat, famous English adventurer and author of popular seafaring tales. A chip off the old block, young Frank had himself already written a book of traveler's tales from Borneo and the Indian archipelago. Looking for a new writing subject, he set his sights on an even more exotic locale -- Gold Rush California. In 1850, with manservant and three hunting dogs in tow, Frank left the civilized shores of England behind, crossed the Atlantic and the Isthmus of Panama, and made his way towards the Golden Gate. The book that resulted, California Mountains and Molehills, would be published in 1855 -- ironically the year of Marryat's own demise from yellow fever. He covers a phenomenal amount of oddball San Francisco and early California history, all neatly collected to satisfy the curiousity of his English reading public -- the Chinese question, the Committee of Vigilance, squatter wars, bears, rats, oysters, gold, even the pickled head of Joaquin Murieta -- and to top it off, Marryat sailed into the Bay just as San Francisco was being destroyed (again) by fire, this one the Great June Fire of 1850! Don't worry. They'll have the city rebuilt in a couple of weeks, in plenty of time for Frank to spend some quality months slumming in the Gold Country, and then, like the rest of the Argonauts, ride down into the big city for supplies -- and a shave. That's right -- put your feet up and relax -- in today's Timecapsule, we're going to visit a Gold Rush barber shop. read on ... [...]

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 02.16.09,

Mon, 16 Feb 2009 08:46:40 +0000

1921: the cornerstone of the Palace of the Legion of Honor is laid ... but what was underneath?

(image) February 19, 1921
Ghosts of Lands End

On this date the cornerstone for San Francisco's spectacular Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum was levered into place.

The Museum was to be a vehicle for the cultural pretensions of the notorious Alma Spreckels. This social-climbing dynamo envisioned her Museum as a far western outpost of French art and culture. Drawing on the vast fortune of her husband -- sugar baron Adolph Spreckels -- she constructed a replica of the Palace of Versailles out at Lands End. Alma would stock the place with art treasures from her own vast collection -- including one of the finest assemblages of Rodin sculpture on the planet.

I've already talked myself hoarse on the subject of Alma Spreckels' rags-to-riches clamber up the social slopes of Pacific Heights, but what's really interesting me today is not what's inside her museum, but what lay underneath that cornerstone in 1921. read on ...


Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 02.09.09,

Mon, 09 Feb 2009 08:00:00 +0000

THIS WEEK'S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: 1869: the fashionable neighborhood of Rincon Hill is sliced in two. February, 1869 The battle for Rincon Hill is over There aren't too many people living who remember this now, but Rincon Hill was once the fanciest neighborhood in San Francisco. You know the place, right? It's south of Market Street, an asphalt-covered lump of rock with the Bay Bridge sticking out of the north-east side and Second Street running by, out to the Giants' ballpark. That's Rincon Hill. What's left of it, anyway. Exactly 140 years ago this month, the California Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to a scheme which would destroy it. San Francisco's first fashionable address As San Francisco's Gold Rush-era population explosion of tents and rickety clapboard started to settle down, the bank accounts of merchants and lucky miners started to fill up. Men were becoming civilized, acquiring culture, and the sort of women known as "wives" were moving into town. This led to a demand for a neighborhood that was distinctly separate from the barbarous Barbary Coast, and with its sunny weather, gentle elevation, and spectacular views of the Bay, Rincon Hill filled the bill. According to the Annals of San Francisco, by 1853 Rincon Hill was dotted with "numerous elegant structures" -- including the little gated community of South Park. By the 1860s, the Hill was covered with mansions in a riot of architectural styles, and had become the social epicenter of the young city. And then in 1968 (cue evil-real-estate-developer music here) a San Franciscan named John Middleton got himself elected to the California State Legislature. According to some sources, his elevation was part of a conspiracy to push through a specific radical civic "improvement". The Second Street "Cut" Here's the situation that required "improving": at the time, there was a high volume of heavy commercial horse cart traffic to the busy South Beach wharves from Market Street. Second Street provided a direct route, but -- since it went up and over the highest part of Rincon Hill -- horse carts were obliged to take the long way around via Third Street. Middleton's plan was simplicity itself: carve a deep channel through the heart of the hill, right along Second Street. He just happened to own a big chunk of property at Second and Bryant Streets, and couldn't wait to see his property values go through the roof. "But wait," you're saying, "what about the owners of those lovely homes up on fashionable Rincon Hill? Won't they object to having their front doors open up to a 100-foot canyon instead of a sidewalk? Do they even have the technology to pull this off? And what about the horrific mess the construction is going to make? We are talking high society here, right?" read on ... [...]

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 02.02.09,

Mon, 02 Feb 2009 08:16:14 +0000

THIS WEEK'S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: 1849: As the fateful year of 1849 begins, a newspaper editor scrutinizes San Francisco's gold rush future. February 1, 1849 The eye of the Gold Rush hurricane The spring of 1849 -- dawn of a year forever branded into the national consciousness as the era of the California Gold Rush. And so it was -- but that was back East, in the "States". In San Francisco, the Gold Rush had actually begun an entire year earlier. I'd better set the scene. The United States were at war with Mexico -- it's President Polk and "Manifest Destiny" time. San Francisco (then Yerba Buena) was conquered without a shot in July of 1847. In the first month of 1848, gold was quietly discovered in the foothills east of Sutter's Fort. Days later, the Mexican war came to an end, and Alta California became sole property of the United States. Sam Brannan kick-starts things in '48 San Francisco was skeptical about the gold strike, but in May of '48, Sam Brannan made his famous appearance on Market Street brandishing a bottle of gold dust. His shouts of "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River" triggered the first wave of the Gold Rush. The village of about 500 souls was emptied almost overnight as its inhabitants hotfooted it for the hills. Among the many businesses left completely in the lurch was Sam Brannan's own newspaper, the California Star. While the entrepreneurial Brannan was busy becoming a millionaire selling shovels to gold miners, by June his entire staff had abandoned the paper and set off to make their own fortunes. Edward Kemble publishes the Alta California >Brannan sold what was left of his newspaper to a more civic-minded businessman, Mr. Edward Cleveland Kemble. Kemble resuscitated the Star (along with San Francisco's other gold rush-crippled paper, the Californian) as a brand spanking new paper he called the Alta California. The first issue appeared at the tail end of 1848. That brings us right up to today's timecapsule. The editorial on the front page of issue #5 of the new paper is a treasure trove of contemporary San Francisco perspectives. As editor Kemble was composing this piece -- a retrospective of the previous year, and a peek into the uncertain future -- it was the dead of winter, and the first wave of the Rush had crested and broken back towards the city. Kemble was first and foremost a businessman, and he was concerned with the civic and financial future of San Francisco. He points out that the city is poorly governed, a little short on law and order, already swelling with gold-seekers from Mexico and Oregon, and -- to sum it up -- is woefully unprepared for the onslaught of humanity, the avalanche of "49ers" already looming on the horizon. But though he's aware that the next wave is going to be a doozy, with 20-20 historical hindsight we know that he doesn't really have a clue. What Kemble doesn't know ... yet. By the end of 1849, the village of San Francisco will have burst at every seam, with a population exploding from 2000 to 25,000. Tens of thousands of gold seekers will flow through the port and even more will stagger in overland from the East, all in all 100,000 strong. The beautiful harbour will be choked with hundreds of deserted, rotting ships, and the local government will prove to be ineffectual and almost totally corrupt. By the end of '49 San Francisco will have become a wild, sprawling, lawless shanty boomtow[...]

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 01.26.09,

Mon, 26 Jan 2009 08:00:37 +0000

THIS WEEK'S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: 1847: Thanks to a Spanish noblewoman and the quick thinking of Yerba Buena's first American alcalde, San Francisco gets its name. January 30, 1847: Yerba Buena becomes San Francisco Yerba Buena That was the name given to the tiny bayside settlement back in 1835, a name taken from the wild mint growing on the sand dunes that surrounded it. And if it hadn't been for the lucky first name of an elegant Spanish noblewoman, that's what the city of San Francisco would still be called today. Our magnificent bay had already worn the name of San Francisco since 1769 -- but though some in Yerba Buena apparently used it as a nickname, it never occurred to its motley population to make "San Francisco" official. In July of 1846 Yerba Buena was just 11 years old, a sleepy hamlet in Mexican territory with just about 200 residents. The place woke up some when Captain John B. Montgomery sailed into the harbour, marched into the center of town and raised the Stars and Stripes. The Mexican alcalde and other officials split town before Montgomery's marines arrived, so -- at least as far as Yerba Buena was concerned -- the annexation of California in the Mexican-American war took place without a fight. Don Mariano Vallejo, Dr. Robert Semple and the Bear Flag connection A couple of weeks earlier up in Sonoma, the rancho of Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo had been invaded by a ragtag collection of American frontiersman. They were attempting to strike a blow for California's independence from Mexico. Don Vallejo, one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the Mexican territory of Alta California, was arrested -- kidnapped, perhaps -- and transported to Sutter's Fort on the Sacramento River. You'll undoubtedly recognize this as a scene from the infamous "Bear Flag Revolt" -- a terrific story, but I'm in grave danger of digressing here. In fact, I mention it only because the route taken by Vallejo's captors led them across some of the General's considerable Mexican land-grant holdings, specifically those around the convergence of the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay. read on ... [...]

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 01.19.09,

Mon, 19 Jan 2009 08:00:39 +0000

1890: Nellie Bly blows through town; 1897: "Little Pete" (the King of Chinatown) is murdered in a barbershop.

(image) January 20, 1890
Miss Nellie Bly whizzes past San Francisco

I got a hot tip that this was the anniversary of the day Miss Nellie Bly stopped by on the home stretch of her dash around the world. But as it turns out, well ... some background first, I guess.

For starters, who the heck was Nellie Bly?

Sixteen years old in 1880, Miss Elizabeth Jane Cochrane of Pittsburgh was a budding feminist. When a blatantly sexist column appeared in the local paper, the teenager fired off a scathing rebuttal. The editor was so struck by her spunk and intellect that he (wisely) hired her, assigning a nom de plume taken from the popular song: "Nellie Bly".

Her early investigative reportage focused on the travails of working women, but the straitjacket of Victorian expectations soon squeezed her into the ghetto of the women's section -- fashion, gardening, and society tea-parties.

Nellie despised this, and tore off to Mexico for a year to write her own kind of stories. Back in the States, she talked her way into a job at Joseph Pulitzer's legendary New York World. Her first assignment was a doozy -- going undercover as a patient into New York's infamous Women's Lunatic Asylum. Her passionate reporting of the brutality and neglect uncovered there shook the world, and Nellie Bly became a household name.

More exposés followed -- sweatshops, baby-selling -- but then, in 1888, Nellie was struck by a different idea. read on ...


Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 01.12.09,

Mon, 12 Jan 2009 08:00:56 +0000

1861: the notorious countess Lola Montez dies in New York; 1899: a small boy defends himself in a San Francisco courtroom.

(image) January 17, 1861
Countess Lola Montez -- in Memorium

As was undoubtedly marked on your calendar, San Francisco's patron saint Emperor Norton died last week, January 7, 1880.

But his was not the only January passing worthy of note. Ten days later (and nineteen years earlier), we lost perhaps the most notorious personage ever to grace the streets of our fair city.

I speak, of course, of Countess Lola Montez . Yes, that's the one -- "whatever Lola wants, Lola gets".

You already know Lola's story, of course. You don't? The breathtakingly gorgeous Irish peasant girl with the soul of a grifter and the heart of a despot? How she -- with a few sexy dance steps, a fraudulent back story involving Spanish noble blood and the claim of Lord Byron as her father -- turned Europe upside down and provoked a revolution in Bavaria?

Still doesn't ring a bell, hmm? Well, Lola's whole story is a little too large for this space. She'd already lived about three lifetimes' worth of adventure -- and burned through romances with personalities from King Ludwig the First to Sam Brannan -- before conquering Gold Rush-era San Francisco with her scandalous "Spider Dance".

If you missed the Sparkletack podcast about this amazing character, you might want to rectify that little omission.

After her European escapades, Lola found that freewheeling San Francisco suited her tempestuous eccentricity to a T. Brandishing the title of "Countess" -- a Bavarian souvenir -- she drank and caroused and became the absolute center of the young city's attention.

It's said that men would come pouring out of Barbary Coast saloons to gawk at the raven-haired vision sashaying through the mud with a pair of greyhounds at her heels, a white cockatoo perched on one shoulder, and a cigar cocked jauntily from her lips ... and do I even need to mention her pet grizzly bears?

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

Emperor Norton Day:

Fri, 09 Jan 2009 00:32:01 +0000

It’s Emperor Norton Day One hundred and twenty-nine years ago today, the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico crumpled in front of Old St. Mary’s Church on the edge of Chinatown, and died on the way to the hospital. Thirty thousand citizens attended his funeral, and the San Francisco Chronicle commemorated the […](image)

San Francisco history - Sparkletack interview Amateur Traveler podcast

Tue, 06 Jan 2009 19:09:37 +0000


As I mentioned here recently, a couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of goofing around with Chris Christensen from the Amateur Traveler podcast.

I hadn't really known what aspect of San Francisco we were going to talk about, but the result was a spontaneous guided tour of the western and northern edges of the city -- from the Great Highway to the Marina.

It was great fun to gossip about Our Favourite City while the tape rolled (extemporaneously for a change), but the real reason I'm bringing this up again is this:

Chris has just posted a complete transcript online.

This is perfect for those of you who take stuff in through the eyes better than the ear -- drop by, have a little read, and feel free leave him a comment!


San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, 01.05.09,

Mon, 05 Jan 2009 08:39:29 +0000

THIS WEEK: San Francisco's notorious "Demon of the Belfry" goes to the gallows. January 7, 1898: The execution of Gilded Age San Francisco's most notorious criminal Sure, Jack the Ripper had set a certain tone for serial killing just a few years earlier, but the crimes of Theodore Durrant were even more shocking. See, Jack's victims had been prostitutes, but San Francisco's "Demon of the Belfry" had murdered a pair of girls who were respectable churchgoers. In his very own church. On the day before Easter Sunday, 1896, a group of women held a meeting at the Emmanual Baptist Church in the Mission District. As they bustled about the small kitchen preparing tea, one woman reached towards a cupboard, looking for teacups. As the door swung open, she shrieked in horror and fainted. Crammed inside was the butchered and violated body of Miss Minnie Williams. Minnie had been a devoted church-goer, and the police quickly connected her death with the case of another young woman who'd gone missing two weeks earlier. The vivacious Blanche Lamont had also been a member of the church, so the grounds were searched from bottom to top. The body was found in the dusty, disused bell tower -- two weeks dead, arranged like a medical cadaver, and brutalized in an equally horrifying way. Suspicion fell upon a young medical student and assistant Sunday School superintendent who had been close to both women -- Theo Durrant. News of the police's interest in Durrant spread through the Mission and then infected all of San Francisco. By the time he was actually picked up, only a massive police presence prevented the angry mob from stringing him up on the spot. San Francisco's "Crime of the Century" Bankers, judges, hack drivers and bootblacks gossiped about little else, and people lined up for blocks to view the victims' identical white coffins at a local funeral parlor. The City's many newspapers were absolutely thrilled with the story, of course -- during the next couple of years, well over 400 articles about it would appear in the San Francisco Chronicle alone. It wasn't just that the two young women were such "upstanding citizens" -- the angle that made it horrifying and captivating to San Francisco was the fact that Theo Durrant was such a nice, normal guy. He was a handsome young man, friendly and open in demeanour, well-liked, of excellent reputation, and (again) the assistant superintendent of a Sunday School. Our modern cliché of the serial killer as the "guy next door who wouldn't hurt a fly" was still a long way off. It seemed absolutely incredible to San Francisco that such a -- well, such a 'gentleman' could be capable of such bestial and savage acts. read on ... [...]

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, December 22-31,

Mon, 22 Dec 2008 08:00:59 +0000

THIS WEEK: the fiery fate of the first Cliff House, and the case of a parrot who would not sing. Click the audio player above to listen in, or just read on ... December 25, 1894: First San Francisco Cliff House burns On Christmas Day, 1894, the first San Francisco Cliff House burned to the ground. As the Chronicle poetically reported the next morning, San Francisco's most historic landmark has gone up in flames. The Cliff House is a smouldering ruin, where the silent ghosts of memory hover pale and wan over the blackened embers. Ah, yes. We discussed this first incarnation of the Cliff House a few weeks ago -- its novel location at the edge of the world, its singular popularity with San Francisco's beautiful people, and its subsequent decline into a house of ill-repute. Well, before it could rise from that undignified state to the status of a beloved landmark, San Francisco's original "destination resort" needed a white knight to ride to the rescue. That knight would be Mr. Adolph Sutro, who -- in 1881 -- purchased not only the faded Cliff House, but acres of land surrounding it. Mining engineer millionaire and future San Francisco mayor, the larger-than-life Sutro had already established a fabulous estate on the heights above the Cliff House, and by the mid-1880s could count 10% of San Francisco as his personal property. Unlike the robber barons atop Nob Hill, though, Adolph believed in sharing his good fortune -- you can hear more about his eccentric philanthropy in the "Adolph Sutro" podcast right here at Sutro's first order of business upon making acquiring the property was to instruct his architect to turn the Cliff House into a "respectable resort with no bolts on the doors or beds in the house." This was just a small part of Sutro's grand entertain-the-heck-out-of-San-Francisco scheme. The elaborate gardens of his estate were already open to the public, and the soon-to-be-famous Sutro Baths were on the drawing board. His goal was to create a lavish and family safe environment out at Land's End, and that's just how things worked out. With streetcar lines beginning to move into the brand new Golden Gate Park, and the City's acquisition of the Point Lobos Toll Road (now Geary Boulevard), the western edge of the City was becoming more attractive and accessible, and over the next decade, families did indeed flock to Adolph's resuscitated resort. And then in 1894, it happened. About 8 o'clock on Christmas evening, after most of the holiday visitors had gone home for the day, a small fire broke out in a kitchen chimney. As the flames shot up inside the walls, the horrified staff quickly learned that none of the fire-extinguishers around the place actually worked. Within minutes, the entire building was engulfed in flames. The resort burned so quickly, in fact, that its famous guest book, inscribed by such notables as Mark Twain, Ulysses S Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes, was lost along with the building itself. As the Chronicle went on to report, the Cliff House "... went up as befitted such a shell of remembrances, in a blaze of glory. Fifty miles at sea the incinerating fires easily shone out, reflected from the high rocks beyond." Sutro [...]

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, December 5-21,

Mon, 15 Dec 2008 08:00:33 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. THIS WEEK:a couple of items from the newspaper files, and an escape from Alcatraz -- perhaps!

December 15, 1849:
The London Times looks west


As I perused the pages of an 1849-era copy of the Alta California this week, I ran across a little item reprinted from the venerable London Times.

I'd been on the hunt for, you know, colorful "Gold Rush-y" stuff, but sandwiched between reports on the progress of the new Mormon Settlement at the Great Salt Lake and a cholera epidemic in Marseilles, was a piece nicely showcasing British condescension towards their American cousins, particularly the slightly barbarous variety found out West.

I assume it was reprinted here because the Alta California took it as a compliment, but the author responsible is probably best pictured wearing a frock coat, a monocle, and a supercilious expression.

The London Times has received a copy of the Alta California of June last and ruminates thereon as follows:

"Before us lies a real California newspaper, with all its politics, paragraphs, and advertisements, printed and published at San Francisco in the 14th of last June. In a literary or professional point of view, there is nothing very remarkable in this production. Journalism is a science so intuitively comprehended by American citizens, that their most rudimentary efforts in this line are sure to be tolerably successful. Newspapers are to them what theatres and cafés are to Frenchmen.

In the Mexican war, the occupation of each successive town by the invading (American) army was signalized by the immediate establishment of a weekly journal, and of a "bar" for retailing those spirituous compounds known by the generic denomination of "American drinks".

The same fashions have been adopted in California, and the opinions of the American portion of that strange population are already represented by journals of more than average ability and intelligence."

Alta California -- 12.15.1849
read on ... (image)

Media Files:

San Francisco history timecapsule podcast, December 8-14,

Mon, 08 Dec 2008 08:00:27 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. THIS WEEK: a hanging from 1852, and a Miss Goldie Griffin wants to become a cop in 1912. December 10, 1852: San Francisco's first official execution It certainly wasn't for any lack of local mayhem that it took so long for San Francisco to order its first "official" execution. The sleepy hamlet of Yerba Buena had ballooned from fewer than 500 to over 36,000 people in 1852 -- and the famous camaraderie of the '49ers notwithstanding, not all of them had the best interests of their fellow men at heart. During the first few years of the Gold Rush, San Francisco managed to average almost one murder per day. The murders that made it to court in these semi-lawless days were seen by sympathetic juries mostly as cases of "the guy had it coming". And concerning executions of the un-official variety, Sam Brannan's Committee of Vigilance -- that would be the first one -- had taken matters into their own hands and lynched four miscreants just a year earlier. As the San Francisco Examiner would describe the event 35 years later, "The crime which inaugurated public executions was of a very commonplace character. A Spaniard named José (Forner) struck down an unknown Mexican in (Happy) Valley, stabbing him with a dagger, for as he claimed, attempting to rob him. ... after a very prompt trial, (Forner) was sentenced to be hanged two months later." Was it because he wasn't white? Lack of bribery money? Some secret grudge? José had claimed self defense just like everybody else, and turns out to have been a man of relatively high birth in Spain, oddly enough a confectioner by trade -- and we can only speculate as to the reason he ended up the first victim of San Francisco's official rope. The execution was to take place up on Russian Hill, at the oldest cemetery in the young city -- a cemetery which, due to the fact that a group of Russian sailors had first been buried there back in '42, had actually given the hill its name. If you've heard the Sparkletack "Moving the Dead" episode, you know that this burial ground is long gone now -- and in fact, its remote location up on the hill had already caused it to fall out of use by 1850. I guess that made it seem perfect for an early winter hanging. Let's go back to the Examiner's account: "(The location) did not deter some three thousand people from attending, parents taking children to see the unusual sight, and women on foot and in carriages forcing their way to the front. Between 12 and 1 o’clock the condemned man was taken to the scaffold in a wagon drawn by four black horses, escorted by the California Guard. The Marion Rifles under Captain Schaeffer kept the crowd back from the scaffold. The man died game, after a pathetic little farewell speech, in which he said: “The Americans are good people; they have ever treated me well and kindly; I thank them for it. I have nothing but love and kindly feelings for all. Farewell, people of San Francisco. World, farewell!” A dramatically chilling engraving of the scene can be seen by clicking the[...]

Media Files:

Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast, San Francisco December 1-7

Mon, 01 Dec 2008 08:00:32 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. THIS WEEK: In 1856, the birth of a great newspaper; and in 1896, a legendary gunfighter referees a boxing match. December 1, 1856: Birthday of the "San Francisco Call" One of San Francisco's Gilded Age newspaper giants begins its life today: the San Francisco Call. San Francisco was lousy with newspapers in the Gold Rush era -- by 1858 there were at least a dozen -- but the Call, with its conservative Republican leanings and working class base, quickly nosed to the front of the pack to become San Francisco's number one morning paper. It would stay there for nearly half a century. By the summer of 1864, the Call already claimed the highest daily circulation in town, and it was this point that the paper famously gave employment to a busted gold miner and trouble-making journalist from Nevada by the name of Samuel Clemens -- er, Mark Twain. The Call had published a few of his pieces from Virginia City, but upon Twain's arrival in the Big City the paper employed him full time as a beat reporter and general purpose man. In just a few months at the Call's old digs at number 617 Commercial Street, Mark Twain cranked out hundreds of articles on local crime, culture, and politics. I don't know that Twain was cut out for newspapering. Years later he spoke of those days as "... fearful, soulless drudgery ... (raking) the town from end to end, gathering such material as we might, wherewith to fill our required columns -- and if there were no fires to report, we started some." Twain's attempts to liven up the work with the occasional wildly fictitious embellishment were frowned upon -- the conservative Call was apparently interested in just the facts, thank you very much. Twain also had a few problems with the Call's editorial policy. In a common sort of incident, notorious only because he'd witnessed it, Twain observed a gang of hoodlums run down and stone a Chinese laundryman -- as a San Francisco city cop just stood by and watched. "I wrote up the incident with considerable warmth and holy indignation. There was fire in it and I believe there was literature." Twain was enraged when the article was spiked, but his editor -- and this can't help but remind you that some things never really change -- his editor made it clear that "the Call ... gathered its livelihood from the poor and must respect their prejudices or perish ... the Call could not afford to publish articles criticizing the hoodlums for stoning Chinamen." A campaign of passive-aggressive resistance to doing any work at all was Twain's response -- perhaps better described as "slacking" -- and he was fired shortly thereafter. read on ... [...]

Media Files:

Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast, San Francisco November 24-30

Mon, 24 Nov 2008 08:00:51 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

November 24, 1899:
Collars, ties, and Butchertown mayhem


Our first item flowed from the pen of some long-forgotten San Francisco Chronicle beat writer, a piece in which a neighborhood dispute is lovingly detailed.

Butchertown was a tough old San Francisco neighborhood on the edge of today's Bay View district, around the mouth of Islais Creek. It was comprised mostly of German and Irish immigrants -- ballplayer Lefty O'Doul was probably its most famous son -- and it was absolutely packed with slaughterhouses, meat packers and (here's a shocker) butchers.

Without further ado, a dash of local color circa 1899:

Haberdashery Issue Stirs Butchertown

Whether William Beckman and Thomas O'Leary quarreled over a love affair or over collars and neckties is a mooted question.

Beckman is a butcher employed in one of the many abattoirs of South San Francisco. A few months ago he married the former Mrs. O'Leary, and when O'Leary, after a three years absence, returned to town two weeks ago and found that his divorced wife had become Mrs. Beckman, there was trouble in Butchertown. It all resulted in the arrest of O'Leary on a charge of making threats against life, and the case came up yesterday in Police Judge Conlan's Court.

Beckman told of a long knife with which O'Leary threatened to perform an autopsy on (him). There was also a dispute, Beckman said, as to whether the wearing of collars and neckties was proper form in Butchertown.

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

San Francisco Treasure Island Museum reopens, November 12, 2008

Thu, 13 Nov 2008 16:00:49 +0000

Since writing and recording the (epic!) Sparkletack two-podcast series on the history of Treasure Island, Anne Schnoebeln Schnoebelen of the Treasure Island Museum Association has been a regular correspondent of mine — keeping me posted about the struggle to reopen the long-shuttered Treasure Island Museum. To get you quickly up to speed, as plans for […](image)

Sparkletack San Francisco Interview: Amateur Traveler Podcast

Tue, 11 Nov 2008 20:10:35 +0000


In which I am interviewed by the capable Chris Christensen of the Amateur Traveler podcast -- a wonderful show devoted to travel and travel stories from around the globe.

It was great fun, with graveyards, greasy spoons, and "houses of ill repute" somehow working their way into the conversation -- not to mention Alma Spreckels, Diego Rivera, chantey singing, Louie's Restaurant, the Wave Organ, and more ...

I pretty much just let the stream of consciousness flow, describing my usual cock-eyed plan for showing visitors around the City. The result? A loosely structured aural tour of north-western San Francisco, starting on the Great Highway, wrapping around Land's End, and running out of time somewhere in the Marina District.

I have to admit that -- given my tendency for excited babbling about my favourite subject -- I listened to the final result with some trepidation, but Chris is a very good interviewer. You can hear how well he moderates the flow with well-placed questions, comments, and (thank goodness) excellent final-cut editing.

Give it a listen here.


Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast, San Francisco November 10-16

Mon, 10 Nov 2008 08:00:52 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. November 10, 1849: Gold Rush ships choke Yerba Buena Harbor In the closing days of 1848, President Polk sent a message to Congress confirming the discovery of gold in California. This marked the beginning of the gold rush from the east coast. By June of 1849 there were already about 200 ships floating deserted in the harbor, abandoned by gold-seeking crews. On this date -- November 10, 1849 -- the Collector of the Port of San Francisco filed an official report stating that since April 1st, 697 ships had already arrived. For the record, 401 of these were American vessels and the remaining 296 had sailed in from foreign shores. This brings to mind the famous daguerreotypes of Yerba Buena Harbor looking like a burned-out forest of ship masts, but searching for that little item led me serendipitously to another. This next piece is a far more interesting story, and one that took place just seven years later. November 15, 1856: Mary Ann Patten, Heroine of Cape Horn It was the era of the tall-masted clipper ship, an era of speed, adventure and danger, with every trip around the Horn a race against time, other ships, and the odds. In late June of 1856, three clippers cleared New York Harbour and set off for the race to San Francisco Bay. One of these -- Neptune's Car -- was captained by Joshua Patten. This was to be Captain Patten's second voyage on this vessel, the first having been a memorable one. It had been his maiden command, and he'd made the 15,000-mile trip from New York Harbour round the Horn to the Golden Gate in a mere 100 days, 23 1/2 hours -- a time as good or better than the fastest clippers on the water. Even more interesting, the promising young sailor had refused to accept the command until the shipping company allowed him to sail with his new wife, Mary. Though no one yet knew it, this was to be Mary's story. read on ... [...]

Media Files:

San Francisco toothpick sculpture contraption ... with video!

Tue, 04 Nov 2008 16:11:25 +0000

The obsessions that San Francisco provokes are a clear measure of the city’s seductively nutty power. This video takes the biscuit; a Rube Goldberg toothpick vision of San Francisco — constructed during the course of 35 years from over 100,000 toothpicks. And some glue. What’s even crazier is that the whole thing is basically a […](image)

Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast, San Francisco November 3-9

Mon, 03 Nov 2008 08:00:58 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. November 7, 1595: The accidental naming of San Francisco Bay All right. Let's get serious about going back in time, way, way, WAY back, 413 years into the past. How can this even be related to San Francisco, you ask? Well, it isn't, but then again, yes it is -- the first of a long chain of events leading up to the naming of our fair city. Here's how it began: Captain Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño was dispatched by the Spanish to sail up the coast of Alta California and find a safe harbour for the pirate-harassed galleons sailing between New Spain and the Philippines. A violent storm off of what would one day be named Point Reyes forced him to head for shore -- yup, "any port in a storm" -- and his ship fetched up in Drake's Bay. He'd missed discovering the Golden Gate by just a few miles. Cermeño's ship, the "San Agustin", ran aground, destroying it -- and the loyal captain claimed that ground for Spain. Not knowing that Sir Francis Drake had shown up in the same spot 16 years earlier -- or so we think -- Cermeño named the bay "Puerto de San Francisco". The industrious Cermeño and his crew salvaged a small launch from the wreckage and sailed it all the way back down to Baja California, incidentally discovering San Diego's bay along the way. But how does this relate to our bay? Well, almost 200 years later, scouts from the Spanish mission-building expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá and Fray Junipero Serra discovered the Golden Gate from the land side. Mistaking it for the body of water named by Cermeño, they called it San Francisco Bay -- and this time, the name stuck. read on ... [...]

Media Files:

Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast, San Francisco October 27-November 2

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 08:00:15 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 28, 1881:
A murder in Chinatown


A murder in Chinatown.

Newspapers, particularly the often very nasty San Francisco Chronicle, were full of anti-Chinese propaganda in the last decades before the turn of the century. Stories dealing with Chinese people were usually over-heated, pretty racist, and sometimes hard to even get through.

This item was short and straightforward, though, and I might have even skipped over it if I hadn't noticed an article about the very same case in a legal journal. The tiny bit of testimony from the victim in that piece helps capture the flavour of the parallel world of 1880s Chinatown.

Shooting of a Courtesan in Kum Cook Alley

Between 7:30 and 8 o'clock last evening, while Choy Gum, a Chinese courtesan, was bargaining with a fruitdealer in her room on Kum Cook Alley, a Chinaman named Fong Ah Sing walked up to her door and fired a shot at her ... read on ...


Media Files:

Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast, San Francisco October 20-26

Mon, 20 Oct 2008 08:00:21 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 24, 1861


The transcontinental telegraph line is finished, literally uniting the United States by wire just as the country was disintegrating into Civil War.

Just before the shooting started, Congress had offered a substantial bribe (known as a subsidy) to any company agreeing to take on the seemingly impossible project -- a hair-brained plan to hang a thin wire on poles marching hundreds of miles across the Great Plains, up the Rockies, and into the Wild West.

Work began in June of 1861. Just like the transcontinental railroad a few years later, one section started in the east, one in the west, with the goal of linking up in Utah.


The two crews worked their ways toward Salt Lake City for six long months, following the route established less than a year and a half earlier by the Pony Express. It was an epic struggle. Thousands of poles were planted in scorching heat and freezing snow, and the workers negotiated not only with the hostile elements, but with Native Americans and Mormons.

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast, San Francisco October 13-19

Mon, 13 Oct 2008 08:00:48 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 18, 1851


On this date, after endless politicking and interminable delay, the mail ship Oregon steamed into San Francisco harbor with the news that California had been admitted to the Union.

The reaction of San Francisco's 25,000 citizens is something I'll allow the Daily Alta California to report:

"Business of almost every description was instantly suspended, the courts adjourned in the midst of their work, and men rushed from every house into the streets and towards the wharves, to hail the harbinger of the welcome news. When the steamer rounded Clark's Point and came in front of the city, her masts literally covered with flags and signals, a universal shout arose from ten thousand voices on the wharves, in the streets, upon the hills, house-tops, and the world of shipping in the bay.

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast, San Francisco October 6-12

Mon, 06 Oct 2008 08:00:14 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 9, 1776


Two hundred and thirty-two years ago this week, the original "Mission San Francisco de Asis" -- better known as Mission Dolores -- was officially dedicated on the banks of Dolores Lagoon, in today's aptly named Mission District.

I'm not talking about the graceful white-washed adobe that stands at 16th and Dolores streets today -- it would be some 15 years before the good padres, in an early chapter of the church's "problematic" relationship with native Americans, would draft members of the Ohlone to construct that edifice. No, this was more like a cabin, a temporary log and thatch structure hacked together a little over a block east of the present Mission, near the intersection of Camp and Albion Streets.

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast -- San Francisco, September 29-October 5

Mon, 29 Sep 2008 08:00:28 +0000

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 1, 1938


On a foggy Saturday in 1938, a swaybacked, 12-year-old horse named Blackie swam -- dog-paddled, really -- completely across the choppy waters of the Golden Gate. The horse not only made aquatic history with that trip, but he soundly defeated two human challengers from the Olympic Club, and won a $1000 bet for his trainer Shorty Roberts too.

It took the horse only 23 minutes, 15 seconds to make the nearly mile-long trip, and the short film made of the adventure shows that Blackie wasn't even breathing hard as he emerged from the waters at Crissy Field.

His trainer Shorty couldn't swim, but he made the trip, too -- and this was part of the bet -- by hanging onto Blackie's tail. A rowboat led the way, with Shorty's brother offering a handful of sugar cubes from the stern to keep the sweets-lovin' horse on track.

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

Sparkletack weekly timecapsule podcast, San Francisco September 22-28

Mon, 22 Sep 2008 08:00:07 +0000

September 24, 1855


The preserved head of Joaquin Murieta and the hand of Three-Fingered Jack were sold at auction today to settle their owner's legal problems. Joaquin Murieta was a notorious and romantic figure in the early history of California.

With Jack, his right-hand man, Murieta led a gang of Mexican bandits through the countryside on a three-year rampage, brutally "liberating" more than $100,000 in gold, killing 22 people (including three lawmen), and outrunning three separate posses. After posse #4 tracked him down and chopped off his head -- or at least the head of someone who might possibly have maybe looked like him -- Murieta's story entered California folklore.

read on ... (image)

Media Files:

Sparkletack weekly time-capsule podcast, September 15-21

Thu, 18 Sep 2008 02:24:03 +0000

A little explanation is in order

So. The schedule of Sparkletack production has fallen off a bit during the past year, and for that I apologize. I miss the show myself, so I've decided to tweak the format a bit.

Here's my new plan. I started to think about the fact that every time the planet spins around its axis, it's the anniversary of some interesting, odd, or somehow notable happening in the history of our fair city.

I'm going to select a handful of these every week, and put together a short piece just to remind you -- and myself -- of the marvelous and wacky things that have taken place all around us during the past 170 years or so.

The format is far from settled yet -- this is officially an experiment, and I'm open to suggestions.

The longer, more in-depth shows won't disappear -- the plan is to keep producing them as well, at a more comfortable pace. They'll just appear when they appear. The Sparkletack blog won't change at all, and I should mention here that I really love the tips and info that you constantly send me, dear listeners ... thanks, and keep 'em coming.

(image) read on ... (image)

Media Files:

Lana Turner -- her father's death, a San Francisco noir

Mon, 15 Sep 2008 17:15:54 +0000


Yet another one for the "there's always a San Francisco angle" files ...

Years before the discovery of the platinum haired Lana Turner at a Hollywood cafe propelled her into a life of glamour and super-stardom, her lifeline intersected San Francisco -- and with tragedy.

I suppose we could begin the tale in Oklahoma, 1920.

check out the rest of the post ... (image)

Sunset Neighborhood televisions tour with Woody LaBounty - Western Neighborhood Project

Thu, 28 Aug 2008 19:11:44 +0000

The ubiquitous and erudite Woody LaBounty of the Western Neighborhood Project takes Brian Hackney of CBS Channel 5 on a televised history tour of his beloved Sunset stomping grounds. Just in case you’ve been missing out, the Western Neighborhood Project ( is a wonderful organization, a non-profit passionately dedicated to uncovering and preserving the legacies […](image)

Vintage snapshots of San Francisco pt. 2: Google-mapped

Mon, 18 Aug 2008 16:25:38 +0000

A couple days after I passed on this alert to the amazing Charles Cushman photo collection, another reader immediately saw possibilities for this carefully filed and annotated archive of our city in the '30s, '40s, and '50s.

He's created a Google map, digitally mapping over 200 of the enormous collection's slides to their places of origin.

This looks like it must have been a TON of work, but as Dan wrote, "Richard -- this wasn't so much effort as it looks. Google maps has a geocoder which takes street intersections and turns them into GPS coordinates. I wrote a script to download the Cushman archive pages, look up the street addresses in the geocoder, and add them to the map."

Right -- it's easy if you know how! And I suspect that slightly more energy went into this project than Dan is letting on.

Though just a bit over 10% of the 1791 images in the San Francisco portion of the archive were readily identifiable, it's more than enough to pull you back into a visceral, three-dimensional experience of our city in the era of Kodachrome.


Time capsule -- vintage San Francisco snapshots

Wed, 13 Aug 2008 23:22:16 +0000

A reader alerted me to an amazing post that just popped up over at Laughing Squid.

See the two photos below? The first comes from an online collection of vintage color snapshots of San Francisco, courtesy of an online gallery at Indiana University -- it's the intersection of South Van Ness and Army, snapped by who-knows-who back in 1953.

The second one was snapped by Todd Lappin just yesterday -- and at first glance, not much has changed in the last fifty years but the trees on the Bernal Hill and the price of gas!

(image) check out the rest of the post ... (image)

NPR Kitchen Sisters "Birth of Rice-a-Roni", the story of the San Francisco Treat

Fri, 08 Aug 2008 17:30:06 +0000


1940s San Francisco. A young Canadian immigrant and her Italian pasta family husband move into the spare room of an old Armenian woman.

The result of this temporary arrangement? The boxed rice and pasta side dish which -- for good or ill -- would come to be as strongly associated with San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge:

"Rice-A-Roni - the San Francisco Treat"

check out rest of the post(image)

San Francisco Chronicle aerial photo 1949

Fri, 01 Aug 2008 20:35:39 +0000

My mother called a few days ago, opening the conversation with a breathless "I think I've found something that might interest you!"

She was right.

Her sister had recently gone through some papers belonging to my late grandfather Elmer Plett, a sober, hard-working dairy farmer who spent the majority of his adult life in the central valley town of Turlock.

Among piles of receipts and newspaper clippings my aunt discovered a mysterious item bearing the handwritten label "San Francisco picture, 1949". Sure enough, nestled between protective cardboard sheets was a large, glossy, black and white aerial photograph of San Francisco.

The shot is spectacular, taken on an unusually clear winter day. The angle is unusual too, looking almost precisely north towards Mount Shasta -- and according to the story of how the photo came to be taken (see below), that view of the distant volcano is what prompted the photographer to take to the air.

What we're interested in, though, is the city in the foreground -- captured in all its hat-wearing, freeway-building, pre-jet-age post-war glory. Take a look:


click image to view at full size

check out the rest of the post here, including photo details(image)

SFWeekly article - San Francisco's Colorful Characters: "Nonconformity Still Reigns"

Wed, 02 Jul 2008 15:52:58 +0000


Apparently yours truly is the go-to source on non-conformity in historical San Francisco. That's the way the SFWeekly is leaning, in any case. An hour of phone-schmoozing with intrepid reporter Lauren Smiley resulted in the following introduction to story about modern-day San Francisco kooks and characters:

In the beginning of our city's love affair with odd ducks, there was Emperor Norton. A businessman in Gold Rush San Francisco who lost his pants on an investment in Peruvian rice, he re-emerged as a grand character of his own invention: "Emperor of These United States" and "Protector of Mexico." He waltzed about town in a secondhand military uniform while newspapers printed his official edicts without caveat and establishments honored his fake currency.

If Los Angeles lionizes its celebrities, San Francisco has always embraced, or at least tolerated, its homegrown eccentrics. "I can't imagine any other city in the world where [Emperor Norton] could have become what he became with the acceptance of the city," says Richard Miller, an armchair historian who creates podcasts on San Francisco legends for his Web site, Sparkletack. "Some say all the loose nuts rolled west ... people who hadn't made it elsewhere, or just different from the average bears."

Take a look at the rest of the SFWeekly's article, and not just because of that little quote -- Lauren hits the high spots from the Brown Twins (who refused to be interviews by the Weekly without cash on the barrelhead) to Frank Chu (who could not be contained). The premise of the story is that there's still hope for San Francisco ... and I hope she's right.


Steve McQueen "Bullitt" car chase - San Francisco geocoding video

Tue, 01 Jul 2008 09:56:37 +0000

This video takes Bullitt about ten steps further. It's a side-by-side display that -- through the techno-wizardry of geocoding -- shows the chase scene's logic-defying route from space. Now you can track Steve's '68 Mustang GT turn by screeching turn through every neighborhood in the city -- just like a James Bond super-villain:

(object) (embed)

Click to view at full size

check out the whole post here(image)

Book Review: Oakley Hall's Ambrose Bierce Mystery Novels, set in 1890s San Francisco

Fri, 20 Jun 2008 15:35:57 +0000


An inordinate number of my youthful hours were spent in the company of the mystery novel; Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers ... I couldn't get enough. Somewhere along the line, though, the fixation faded ...

But it's back.

I've discovered a series of detective novels that -- in a "you got chocolate on my peanut butter!" kind of way -- seem to have been written with me in mind:The setting is 1890's San Francisco, the lively heart of the Gilded Age. And the detective? None other than our own famously cynical wit-about-town, that brilliant literary misanthrope Mr. Ambrose "Bitter" Bierce.

See what I mean?

Just a minute: Ambrose who?


San Francisco History buried treasure

Thu, 12 Jun 2008 00:29:09 +0000

I love this blog, if for no other reason than the jawdropping diversity of the email that slips over the digital transom. This note from a few weeks ago just about takes the biscuit. In breathless terms it tells the story of a decades-long treasure hunt, a project just brimming with danger, doggedness and derring-do! […](image)

San Francisco History photos podcast

Mon, 26 May 2008 03:28:14 +0000

I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if […](image)

SFist: “A Jitney Elopement” — Charlie Chaplin’s San Francisco film

Wed, 30 Apr 2008 21:30:35 +0000

File this — again — under “there’s ALWAYS a San Francisco connection”. A reader recently alerted me to the fact that Charlie Chaplin, America’s favourite clown (and perhaps the most influential performer in motion picture history), shot one of his bazillion-odd silent movies on location in and around Golden Gate Park. “A Jitney Elopement” is […](image)

Pacifica is back!

Fri, 11 Apr 2008 17:29:54 +0000

When last we encountered this goddess-behemoth, she was being blown up by the Navy at the end of the ’39 Pan-Pacific Exposition. The mythical goddess Pacifica — symbol of the Fair — had loomed over Treasure Island for the duration, a sternly imposing concrete figure of some 80 feet tall. Though sculptor Ralph Stackpole had […](image)

sparkletack facebook group

Tue, 08 Apr 2008 21:23:32 +0000

Web 2.0 here we come … there’s a brand new Sparkletack group on Facebook. You can post photos and video, add links, start a discussion, or just join the group and show your enthusiasm for Sparkletack and San Francisco history. And if you’re not already part of Facebook, it’s painfully easy to join. C’mon, drop […](image)

tour review — san francisco ghost walk

Sun, 06 Apr 2008 18:09:38 +0000

I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there. Every so often I participate in one of these, try to pick up a thing or two, and take some notes for you. Ratings systems provide a useful shorthand, but your mileage may […](image)

san francisco steam coffee?

Fri, 21 Mar 2008 22:16:16 +0000

I ran across an old and beautiful (not to mention HUGE) coffee urn in front of a Portland antique store today. Just like a magpie, shiny objects catch my eye — so I stopped to check it out. It’s become a running joke that there’s always a San Francisco angle, and sure enough there was […](image)

sparkletack reviewed by “San Francisco City Guides”

Sun, 16 Mar 2008 17:46:49 +0000

Sparkletack is featured in this month’s “Guidelines”, the newsletter of the non-profit San Francisco City Guides. You know about them already, right? Free tours all over town run by smart, dedicated volunteers? I’ve experienced several (and reviewed a couple (1, 2) of their offerings, so it seems only fair that they’d take a look at […](image)

SFist — “not even jackassable”

Fri, 14 Mar 2008 21:42:49 +0000

The latest from my little column over at the SFist: “Not Even Jackassable” We perused the recent SFist post about the pitiable state of San Francisco’s streets with a certain sense of nostalgia for the good ol’ days. You know, the days before this newfangled “asphalt paving” even entered the scene. In the Year of […](image)

1907 harrison street mainline — photographic google map

Mon, 25 Feb 2008 18:11:51 +0000

It’s my favourite thing, finding physical evidence of times past in the landscape of contemporary San Francisco. That’s why I was delighted when Aaron, a Sparkletack reader, sent me to a page of photographs snapped by a railfan in 1907. The website displaying the photos is the passion of Amtrak engineer (and native San Franciscan) […](image)

SFist — whiskerless waiters at the palace hotel

Tue, 19 Feb 2008 22:40:05 +0000

The latest from my little column over at the SFist: Whiskerless Waiters at the Palace Hotel In the middle part of the 19th century, a thick set of whiskers were an essential facial feature of every man of Victorian respectability. These were not simply expressions of pride or masculine peacock vanity, but due to a […](image)

book review — “The Bottle Imp”

Fri, 15 Feb 2008 21:14:24 +0000

I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if […](image)

The fog rolls in — 24 hours in 144 seconds

Tue, 12 Feb 2008 20:01:06 +0000

This is spectacular. Twenty-four hours of San Francisco are compressed into less than three minutes of time-lapse video, gorgeously captured from the hills above Sausalito. The city and bay spend most of the day almost buried by a dramatically roiling mass of fog, which finally whisks itself out to sea to reveal the sparkling lights […](image)

#66: Alma de Bretteville Spreckels

Sun, 03 Feb 2008 16:17:47 +0000

It’s one of San Francisco’s best-loved monuments — the figure of a heartbreakingly beautiful girl balancing lightly atop a granite column high above Union Square. She soars above both pedestrians and pigeons, gracefully clutching trident and victory laurels, lifting her shapely arms in triumph over the city of San Francisco. It was intended to memorialize […](image)

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SFist — “Leg Bones for Baseball Bats”

Thu, 24 Jan 2008 20:55:14 +0000

Researching San Francisco history means spending way too much time sitting in the dark. In the library, I mean, staring at microfilm of old newspapers. Hours of scanning those scratched and blurry archives makes me a little punchy, so I blinked and rubbed my eyes at this gruesome headline from the February 13, 1902 edition […](image)

tour review — victorian home walk

Sat, 05 Jan 2008 00:37:41 +0000

I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there. Every so often I participate in one of these, try to pick up a thing or two, and take some notes for you. Ratings systems provide a useful shorthand, but your mileage may […](image)

SFist — tippling with kipling, san francisco 1889

Wed, 05 Dec 2007 19:26:53 +0000

The 74th anniversary of “Repeal Day”, the end of Prohibition in the United States provided the inspiration for this entry. Tippling with Kipling, San Francisco 1889 Ah, today should be a citywide holiday, it really really should. December 5th marks the 74th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, just a tick of the geological clock […](image)

“the good herb” — yerba buena

Sat, 01 Dec 2007 19:27:24 +0000

San Francisco is following me around. You know what I mean — it probably happens to you too: wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, something pops up to bring your attention back to the City Formerly Known as Yerba Buena. Which brings me to my point: I’m in the midst of a short trip to […](image)

SFist — san francisco, “the paris of the west”

Mon, 26 Nov 2007 23:00:13 +0000

This meandering SFist entry was inspired by an email from a listener. Royce recalled hearing those evocative words in some episode or another, and just wondered if I could tell him which one it was. Turns out I’ve used them four times already — in episodes #26, #40, #43, and #55 if you’re keeping track. […](image)

the winnah and undisputed champeen

Thu, 15 Nov 2007 18:33:13 +0000

The results of the Sparkletack “favourite episode poll” are in! Okay, they’ve been in for a month already — but it isn’t as if the dominance of Emperor Norton is something that’s going to go stale … or even come as a real surprise. One hundred and twenty-seven years after his passing, the “Emperor of […](image)

’39 world’s fair butterfly

Sat, 10 Nov 2007 22:50:09 +0000

What is it exactly? It’s built like a notebook, with a couple of sheets of green and magenta construction paper sandwiched between its plastic wings … but it can’t really be opened for writing, and on the opposite wing — the Oakland side — there’s a patent number and the tiny word “bookmark”. Bookmark it […](image)

screwball time-traveling noir: the bay time detective

Wed, 17 Oct 2007 16:48:07 +0000

An email showed up last week which I found impossible to overlook, beginning as it did with the words “Hail, Sparkletack!” Clearly a writer of taste and intelligence! But wait — could a person of “taste and intelligence” be responsible for words like these?: Here’s the tale of three typically offbeat San Franciscans who do […](image)

love letter — san francisco history center

Mon, 08 Oct 2007 19:00:47 +0000

Dearest San Francisco History Center, I have longed to write to you for so long, but it has taken me months to work up the nerve. If only you could appreciate how wonderful you are. Here’s what you reveal about yourself on the official website, so typically demure and self-effacing: The Daniel E. Koshland San […](image)

#65: Memories of an Argonaut

Tue, 25 Sep 2007 21:00:26 +0000

To many of the thousands of gold-seekers pouring through the Golden Gate back in 1849, the word “Argonaut” was already a familiar one, drawn from the ancient myth of “Jason and the Golden Fleece”. “Argonaut” was the name applied to Jason’s band of heroic companions, combining the name of his ship — the “Argos” — […](image)

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book review — “Treasure Island; San Francisco’s Exhibition Years”

Sat, 22 Sep 2007 21:04:49 +0000

I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if […](image)

1938 san francisco street map

Tue, 28 Aug 2007 16:00:24 +0000

Mark Pritchard over at San Francisco Metroblog has alerted us to a fabulous new Flickr find; a 1938 street map of San Francisco in vivid pinks, blues, and greens. And why fabulous? In 1938 there are no freeways yet in sight. Lefty O’Doul’s Seals Stadium is still in place — as are the Sutro Baths. […](image)

#64: San Francisco’s Treasure Island (pt. 2)

Mon, 27 Aug 2007 16:00:12 +0000

What is Treasure Island? Why is it there? And where is it going? In the second episode of this 2-part podcast series, San Francisco’s plan for a mid-bay international airport is abruptly derailed by World War II. The US Navy seizes the island, transforming the former World’s Fair location into “Naval Station Treasure Island”. The […](image)

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“story of treasure island” transcript online

Fri, 24 Aug 2007 19:46:13 +0000

Transcripts for Sparkletack’s 2-part “Story of Treasure Island” podcast series are now online at the website of the upcoming Treasure Island Music Festival (September 15th-16th). » Transcript: Treasure Island Music Festival » Podcast: The Story of Treasure Island (part 1) » Podcast: The Story of Treasure Island (part 2) And why are they there? Well, […](image)

SFist — anniversary of a flesh wound

Wed, 22 Aug 2007 23:21:48 +0000

Number 6 in the new series of Sparkletack posts on, San Francisco’s collaborative urban blogging project. Anniversary of a Flesh Wound The violent melodrama characterizing the recent murder of a journalist investigating “Your Black Muslim Bakery” has conjured the entire Bay Area history of political violence into our memories. Dan White, James P. Casey, […](image)

poll: choose your favourite sparkletack episode!

Sun, 05 Aug 2007 19:29:22 +0000

An amazing 63 episodes of Sparkletack have floated out into the digital ether so far — 64 if you count the infamous “Trolls” episode. That’s well over two years of storytelling, and though I’ve read some fantastic individual comments, I don’t have a good sense of which stories you like the best. The style of […](image)

#63: San Francisco’s Treasure Island (pt. 1)

Sun, 05 Aug 2007 19:22:30 +0000

Treasure Island is easily visible from San Francisco’s Embarcadero, a low-lying front porch jutting out towards the Golden Gate from Yerba Buena Island. Palm trees in a silhouetted row set off massive white buildings, dwarfed by the towering silver Bay Bridge marching across the water towards Oakland. That bridge carries over 130,000 people a day […](image)

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“mr. summers’ 1941 vacation” — prelinger archive

Tue, 17 Jul 2007 22:08:05 +0000

I’m addicted to the “moving images” section of the Internet Archive — particularly the Prelinger Archives, recently absorbed into the Library of Congress. This massive collection of “ephemeral films”, a term which covers just about anything not made for commercial entertainment (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) is a fantastic source for unexpected historical treasures. I’ve […](image)

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book review — “San Francisco Almanac”

Mon, 02 Jul 2007 20:00:22 +0000

I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if […](image)

SFist — mark twain torched lake tahoe?

Fri, 29 Jun 2007 19:30:35 +0000

The re-post of #5 in the new series of Sparkletack posts on, San Francisco’s collaborative urban blogging project. Mark Twain Torched Lake Tahoe? The wildfire raging up near Lake Tahoe reminded us of our dear old cousin Mark. Mark Twain, that is, and what we remembered was his own brush with accidental arson up […](image)

#62: Samuel Holladay, Pioneer Squatter of Lafayette Park

Fri, 22 Jun 2007 22:10:26 +0000

On a recent Pacific Heights walking tour I found myself standing atop Lafayette Park. As I admired the spectacular view, the guide told an unfamiliar story about a mansion that once occupied this hill. The building is long gone now, of course, but its history is a wild one. Here’s the story: Samuel Holladay, respectable […](image)

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SFist — island for sale…

Wed, 20 Jun 2007 20:24:08 +0000

The re-post of #4 in the new series of pieces for the SFist, San Francisco’s collaborative urban blogging project. nugget o’ history — Island for Sale Who knew that one of the five islands in San Francisco Bay was privately owned? Even stranger, “Red Rock Island” is now up for sale, for a paltry $10 […](image)

SFist — sands-can-drift-so

Mon, 11 Jun 2007 23:52:09 +0000

Here it is, the re-post of #3 in the new series of little pieces for the SFist, one of San Francisco’s fastest growing collaborative blogging projects. nugget o’ history — Sands-can-drift-so San Francisco was once pretty much a giant sand dune. We’ve even heard it said that the very name derives from the once common […](image)

vintage san francisco maps — on the cheap!

Fri, 08 Jun 2007 22:40:04 +0000

File this under cheap and geeky thrills: full-size photocopies of old San Francisco maps for pocket change! I got a hot tip about this from a friend of mine several years ago, but with my usual alacrity, didn’t follow it up until this week! Kevin works in the public housing industry, and often has occasion […](image)

tour review – pacific heights (sf architectural heritage)

Tue, 05 Jun 2007 15:00:49 +0000

Here’s the thing — I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there, and every so often I take one. I do my best to keep my know-it-all mouth shut and learn a thing or two, pick up a few ideas for […](image)

SFist — at least today they’re being shot with cameras

Wed, 30 May 2007 22:45:04 +0000

Here it is, the re-post of #2 in the new series of little pieces for the SFist, one of San Francisco’s most well established collaborative blogging projects. At Least Today They’re Being Shot with Cameras Could it be that our lost little whale pair have finally had their sonar set to rights? And wouldn’t that […](image)

7×7 san francisco — on the newstands now

Wed, 30 May 2007 20:59:23 +0000

Well, the promised 7×7 interview has finally hit the streets. It’s a disconcerting experience to read one’s spoken words in print, especially if it turns out that they’ve been edited to fit the story! I’m not complaining, though — it’s all more or less correct. And the more San Franciscans are inspired tune in to […](image)

#61: Lefty O’Doul — The Man in the Green Suit

Mon, 28 May 2007 02:25:40 +0000

You’ve seen the green and white signs in front of the “Lefty O’Doul Restaurant and Piano Bar” down on Geary Street, but who is Lefty O’Doul? Just another phony Irish name invented to sell beer? Absolutely not! The silhouette of that left-handed slugger on the sign is a clue. Lefty O’Doul was a baseball player, […](image)

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