The Barbary Coast Trail


Illustration by Yongiki Yoon

Hiding in the shadows of a Chinatown alley and behind the arched windows of a Jackson Street antique shop lurks a phantom spirit. On foggy nights it envelops the Embarcadero wharves, and, in the dawn's early light, you can see it hovering faintly over Union Square. Trampled by progress and made to feel obsolete by MTV, this shy specter often lies dormant, acknowledged only by a few, easily missed, plaques. It is the ghost of San Francisco Past.
Compared to the heritage of eastern cities, San Francisco Past is a neglected toddler. William Richardson erected the first structure of Yerba Buena a mere 162 years ago. Yerba Buena became San Francisco, and San Francisco became the gateway to the Gold Rush. Since then, The City has been too preoccupied making history to pay much attention to preserving it.
But now with the help of dedicated volunteers, this colorful spirit who shanghaied sailors in the old Barbary Coast, who devised a hill-conquering cable contraption, who built palatial mansions on top of Nob Hill, who saved sing-song slave girls in daring raids, is emerging from dark haunts into the light of day.
Inspired by Boston's popular Freedom Trail, the San Francisco Historical Society has created a walk through the heart of old San Francisco. Down Gold Rush-era streets and Chinatown alleys, past Barbary Coast bawdy houses, and Bonanza King mansions, the 3.8 mile trail wends its way from downtown to Aquatic Park. Named the Barbary Coast Trail after the 19th-century maritime district, the project has been embraced by Mayor Willie Brown, who said it will enable San Francisco to "go right past Paris as one of the best walking cities in the world."
The trail will be marked with a series of handsome bronze plaques embedded in each street corner along the route. Hundreds of walkers have already explored the trail, using the guide Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail, now available in bookstores.
Beginning at the Old Mint at Fifth and Mission streets, the trail immediately delves into San Francisco's dramatic past. Built in 1874, the venerable Old Mint survived the 1906 earthquake, but the fire afterward was another story. The earthquake triggered multiple fires that swept through South of Market's wooden tenements and raced toward the Old Mint. Fortunately, 15 men reported to work that morning and, with the help of soldiers, waged a heroic seven-hour battle to protect the mint and the $200 million in gold stored in its vaults. As flames licked the iron shutters and temperatures outside soared into the thousands, the handful of men armed with only a one-inch water hose stood their ground hour after hour while the exterior of the building turned black from flame and smoke. When the fire finally moved on, the men emerged from the still-standing mint to a smoldering downtown in ruins.
The firestorm burned all the banks in San Francisco to the ground. As the only source of coins, the Old Mint was drafted into service as an umbrella bank, making good on the demands of depositors from banks out of currency. This allowed citizens access to their money and provided much-needed funds for survival and rebuilding.
A few blocks farther along the trail, shoppers and sightseers scurry across Union Square, center of San Francisco's lively and thriving shopping district. At the start of the Civil War, the square served as the stage where Thomas Starr King's passionate oratory held California on the Union side during the conflict.
In the 1800s, Union Square was surrounded by Gothic churches and exclusive social clubs, so it's surprising to learn the history of its neighbor. Just off the square is a sunny street with a very shady past. Today called Maiden Lane, it was once an infamous crib alley, lined with wooden shanties where prostitutes often hung out of windows naked to the waist. Occasionally, a respectable matron from Union Square would walk down the alley only to find herself assaulted by a gauntlet of prostitutes screaming epithets like "Look out, girls, here's some charity competition!"
Further along, the trail enters the Jackson Square Historic District. At Jackson and Montgomery streets, Victorian lampposts and Gold Rush-era buildings give one a wonderful sense of what it was like to walk down a 19th-century commercial street. This is also the heart of the Old Barbary Coast, a district that sprang up during the raucous, lawless days when gold dust was plentiful and sailors were scarce. One denizen of the Coast was a character by the name of Shanghai Kelly, who wore a red beard and had a fiery temper to match. Kelly was a crimp‹one who procured sailors for ships in need of crew‹and the tools of his trade were knock-out drops and a blackjack.
In the mid-1850s, three ships sat stranded off San Francisco Bay for lack of crew. The captains of the three vessels had particularly bad reputations, and sober sailors in town gave their officers a wide berth. The three desperate captains rowed ashore and appealed to the one man whose record for supplying sailors was second-to-none. After considering the potential profit in such a tall order, Kelly hatched the sting of all Barbary Coast stings.
The next day he issued an open invitation throughout the Barbary Coast for all his friends to join him on a bay cruise to celebrate his "birthday." One hundred salivating sailors, who couldn't resist his generous offer of free grub, grog, and revelry, boarded the paddle wheeler Goliath. As the cruise left the dock, Kelly proposed a toast, "To all my faithful friends: you've made me what I am today (heh-heh). Now down the hatch."
Within three hours, all but Kelly and his cronies were knocked out cold by the opium-laced whiskey. Kelly pulled the party boat beside each ship where his men hoisted the lifeless sailors over the bulwarks. Next day far at sea, the shanghaied seamen woke up to the familiar sound of salt spray hitting the deck and trade winds flapping the sails. From then on, Barbary Coasters crowned Shanghai Kelly "King of the Crimps."
The Barbary Coast Trail is strewn with amusing anecdotes, but it is also the site of a dramatic event that heralded a new era in the American West as much as "The redcoats are coming!" awakened the original thirteen colonies. On a warm spring morning in 1848, Sam Brannan came charging up Clay Street and paraded across Portsmouth Square, waving a bottle of gold dust above his head. In a booming voice he cried, "Gold, gold, gold from the American River!" His clarion call electrified the sleepy village. It was a watershed moment that would bring the world rushing in and change the face of San Francisco and the West forever. Within a few days, most San Franciscans had fled to the foothills, beginning the world-famous Gold Rush.
With the establishment of the Barbary Coast Trail, San Francisco history will no longer be relegated to old monuments. Sightseers and school children, strollers and shoppers will transform the legacy of San Francisco Past from a ghostly apparition into a vital part of our present urban landscape. And when you walk along, reliving San Francisco's colorful heritage, the gentle exercise and intellectual stimulation will do wonders for your head and heart as you travel though time on the Barbary Coast Trail.

Barbary Coast Trail At a Glance

Walking Length: 3.8 miles from the Old Mint to Aquatic Park.

Cable Car: Each end of walking trail is connected by the Powell-Hyde cable car line.

A Few Highlights:
1. Birthplace of the Gold Rush,
Portsmouth Square: the first Gold Rushers were inspired here by Sam Brannan in May 1848.
2. Pony Express, Clay Street near Montgomery, the western terminus is marked by four plaques.
3. Wells Fargo History Room, 420 Montgomery St., the best Gold Rush museum in the city, including stage coaches, gold nuggets, highway bandits.
4. Parisian Mansion, 742 Commercial Street, Madame Marcelle ran a popular bordello here in the early 1900s.
5. Niantic, Clay Street just west of Sansome, a plaque marks the site of a buried Gold Rush ship that was converted into a hotel.
6. Belli Building, 722 Montgomery Street, originally a waterfront tobacco warehouse built in 1851, later converted into a Barbary Coast melodeon.
7. Hotaling Place, this quaint historic alley marks the original shoreline of pre-Gold Rush San Francisco.
8. Hotaling Building, 451 Jackson Street, built in 1860, this is the finest Italianate commercial building in San Francisco.

Guidebook: Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail. Available in local bookstores, or call the San Francisco Historical Society (see below).

Bronze Plaques: The trail will be designated by 150 bronze plaques set into the sidewalk at every corner. For $1,846 sponsors will have their name permanently cast on a plaque that marks the trail.

Information: San Francisco Historical Society, P.O. Box 420569, San Francisco, CA 94142; 415-775-1111.

About the author: Daniel Bacon is the author of an entertaining, anecdotal guide entitled Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail, which navigates the reader either out on the trail or in a favorite reading chair. $15.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 415-775-1111 or click here.