Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail is a fun and active way to explore this historic and beautiful city. The trail is roughly four miles in length and meanders through several colorful neighborhoods and districts.
You can follow the sidewalk markers along the entire length, but to really unlock some of the stories use a guidebook. I found, “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon, an invaluable tool.
I started the trail at the majestic Old United States Mint located at the corner of 5th and Market Street. This “Granite Lady” is reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple, it is a grand and massive stone building with 6 Doric columns gracing the front entrance. The Old Mint was built in 1874 and at one time “held a third of all the gold reserves in the United States, making it the Fort Knox of the West.” Today, the great doors of the Old Mint are closed, but the Mint is undergoing a renaissance of sorts and may soon reopen as a premier cultural and historic center for the city.
Crossing Market Street was Hallidie Plaza and the cable car turnaround. The Plaza is named after Andrew Smith Hallidie who is considered the father of San Francisco’s Cable Car system. Here a small section of track turns on a circular disk and allows the trolley to return the way it came. Two empty cable cars were queued along the track, an operator allowed one cable car to move forward onto the turnaround, a release switch was thrown and several operators began to physically push the trolley 180 degrees on the track until it stopped. Then the cable car pulled forward a few feet to a boarding area and a group of about twenty passengers climbed aboard. They were off.
Just ahead is Union Square, an open area consisting of several acres. On this sunny day, the square was alive with an art fair featuring colorful paintings and etchings. Everyone was friendly and the artists were eager to talk with prospective customers. In just a short time I heard half-a-dozen different languages being spoken by tourists, it just reinforced that San Francisco is a world-class destination for people from all over the world. At the plaza’s periphery was an outdoor café serving coffee and sandwiches. The cafe patrons were enjoying the sun, working on laptops, reading, or just having a good conversation with friends. Some young kids were playing and jumping off a small ledge into the arms of their parents. Among the visitors was a young man playing a large wooden flute. After a few minutes, he was approached by several young travelers who appeared to be from Europe, he showed them the flute and later showed them several Tai Chi movements. The square was restful and energetic at the same time.
The pleasant setting seemed distant from the controversy of slavery that was passionately debated at this location in the mid-1800s. At that time southern sympathizers were advocating the new state of California secede from the Union and join the southern cause. Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian Minister, and charismatic speaker with “extraordinary eloquence and spellbinding oratory” drew large rallies to the square. His speeches are greatly credited for rousing the public and keeping California in the Union. Union Square takes its name from these pro-Union rallies.
On the western edge of Union Square a large American flag waves over the doorway of the Westin St. Francis Hotel. The hotel was built in 1904 and has been graced by celebrities and the powerful ever since. In 1975 there was a failed assassination attempt of President Ford. There is still a small bullet hole above the hotel’s door.
The centerpiece of the plaza is a large white Corinthian column that rises 97 feet over the square. This is the Dewey Monument; atop the column is the statue of a tall woman holding a raised trident and a wreath, symbolizing the people the monument honors. This monument commemorates both Admiral Dewey’s victory in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 during the Spanish and American War and to President McKinley who was killed in office by an assassin in 1901. The woman who modeled for the statue, Alma de Bretteville, has a rags-to-riches story of her own; by being born into poverty and later becoming one of the wealthiest women in the state. Some of her later accomplishment include building the Palace Of the Legion of Honor (a fine art museum in San Francisco) and being instrumental in the creation of the National Maritime Museum at Aquatic Park, which is a destination on the Barbary Coast Trail.
Just east of Union Square is the quiet Maiden Lane.
Today, Maiden Lane is a clean well-lit street with cafes and outdoor seating. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the maiden in Maiden Lane referred to the numerous prostitutes who “naked to the waist hung out of the narrow wooden shanties” in an attempt to entice patrons inside.
Walking through the now gentrified alley, the sound of Italian Opera was in the air. At the corner of Grant Street, a man was standing – his arms outstretched in song. This was the Tenor of Maiden Lane and according to his brochure has performed on the street since 1998. He apparently chose this spot on Maiden Lane because of the acoustics. I listened to his performance for some time. Walking north his voice echoed off the building for several blocks. Listening to such wonderful music was an elegant way to end this section of the Barbary Coast Trail.
Ahead was the ornate Chinatown Gate guarded by two statues, the mythical Chinese lions, called “Foo Dogs.”
Learn more about the Tenor of Maiden Lane:
Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.