Old Barbary Coast

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

San Francisco’s original Barbary Coast was a once hive of opium dens, brothels, bars, and gambling houses.

It was along the waterfront that some of the bawdiest establishments catered to an unsavory mix of rough and tumble sailors and miners. This place was so lawless that it was named after the pirate-infested ‘Barbary Coast’ from Africa’s northern coastline of centuries past. From the time of the Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast remained a fixture of the city until it ended in 1917 with societal and police crackdowns. Today, quiet streets and upscale businesses only hint at its tawdry past.

My exploration of this section of the Barbary Coast Trail began at the Redwood Park located near the Transamerica Pyramid Building. Just across the street, Hotaling Alley caught my attention. The alley follows the original shoreline and the pavement have been designed to represent waves lapping a shore. Adorning the sides of the street are antique lampposts and curious looking hitching posts each topped with a horse head. These are actually bumpers to prevent autos from backing into potted trees, but they artfully pay respect to a time when this area was the location of the Hotaling Stables.

At the end of the street is the beautifully decorated Hotaling building. It was built in 1866 and for a good many years “housed the largest liquor repository on the west coast.” The thirsty saloons of the Barbary Coast demanded whiskey and this warehouse gladly provided it. In 1906 San Francisco was devastated by a large earthquake and a firestorm burned much of the city. All looked lost for this part of San Francisco, but just before the wall of fire reached the Hotaling building the wind shifted and the warehouse of whiskey was saved. Some in the country suggested San Francisco was being punished by divine retribution for its sinful nature; in response, the following was penned –

“If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did he burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whiskey?”

Today, this doggerel remains as a plaque outside the old whiskey building.

Turning onto Jackson St. I returned to the path of the Barbary Coast Trail. A minute later, at the corner of Montgomery Street, I looked at an unassuming building of granite and brick. Here was the old Bank of Lucas and Turner and Company. It was constructed in 1853-54 and had an unusual first manager named Mr. Sherman. Mr. Sherman already had a history in California but it was the time he served in the Union Army during America’s Civil War that would immortalize him. Mr. Sherman would later be known for the ‘March to the Sea’ and oversee the burning of Atlanta, Georgia. History knows the man who worked here as General William Tecumseh Sherman.

I returned to the Hotaling Whiskey warehouse and just past it was the old Ghirardelli Building. It is here that in 1865 a process for storing chocolate was discovered that allowed it to be easily stored and shipped long distances. This discovery made Ghirardelli Chocolate a household name. Also at this location is a quiet alley called Balance. The alley can be walked in about 25 steps; its length matches a ship’s hull that is buried beneath. The Balance had sailed around the horn of South America and made several lengthy ocean voyages, but in 1849 it was moored here and abandoned as the crew headed to the goldfields. The ship quickly became part of the growing fleet of ‘ghost ships” that was anchored in the bay and later became the foundations for the buildings in modern San Francisco. All that remains of the Balance today is a street sign.

At the end of Balance is the quaint looking Gold Street. Gold Street is quiet now but during the Gold Rush, this place was likely swarmed with miners who had brought saddlebags full of gold to be weighed and tested for purity. Here the first Assaying Office was opened during the Gold Rush. One can only imagine the fortunes and dreams that were realized or lost on this tiny street. Today, a small plaque at the back of an upscale club marks the location of the old Assayer’s Office.

We followed the inlaid sidewalk markers identifying we were on the Barbary Coast Trail to the tree-lined Pacific Street. Here we passed a number of old brick buildings where sailors and miners once found entertainment and drink. Although this place is very different now some of the stories of that time remain; one such story involves sailors and miners being “Shanghaied.”

Shanghaied means to be kidnapped and sent to sea. The most notorious person involved in this unscrupulous business was Shanghai Kelly. His henchmen, known as ‘runners,’ would befriend unsuspecting sailors who had newly arrived from a voyage and likely had a pocket full of money. The runners would bring the sailors to Kelly’s bar for drinks, laughter, and the promise of female companionship. At some point, the sailor would be given drug-laced whiskey, once the drugs took effect the wobbly sailor would be whacked on the head and knocked out cold. The story goes that Shanghai Kelly would pull a lever opening a trap door in the floor – the unconscious sailor would instantly disappear. Underneath the bar, among the pillars of the wharf, the unconscious sailor would be relieved of his money, taken to a sailing vessel, and sold to an unsavory captain. The next day the sailor would wake to find that he had been kidnapped, penniless, was far out to sea, and likely working for an ogre of a captain…possibly sailing to Shanghai, one of the most distant ports in terms of travel time. If the sailor was fortunate and survived the harsh round-trip voyage, poor food, cramped conditions, and hard labor then he might just return to the Barbary Coast several years later.

Another story involves Shanghai Kelly having a ‘Birthday Party’ in which he invited 100 of the Barbary Coast’s most desperate to join him for a bay cruise to ‘celebrate’ his birthday. At some point during the cruise, all of the guests were given opium-laced whiskey. After the ‘guests’ were unconscious Kelly’s ship delivered new crews to three vessels that were waiting to set sail. Kelly ended his party returning home with a full purse and 100 men departed the party bound for an unwelcome ocean voyage.

Make sure to make a stop at the art store at 555 on Pacific Ave. You can recognize it by the ornate decorations and lighting on the outside. This is the old Hippodrome, the bawdy center of the Barbary Coast. Today, it is a fantastic art store with newspaper articles on the inside wall about its past. There is also an old Prohibition tunnel.

The vibrant North Beach lay just ahead, it was home to the beatniks, Italian food, great coffee, a famous bookstore and colorful theater.

>> Continue with Part 5: North Beach

Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

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