Walking into San Francisco's Golden Past

By Chris & Rick Millikan

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Convenient public transit supports our recent series of revealing walks into San Francisco’s past. Perfectly situated at Queen Anne Hotel, our wide-range of investigations start with a Victorian Homes Walk.
Our guide, Shonna, introduces us to our Victorian lodgings. “Often mistaken for a mansion, this four-story landmark began as a girl’s finishing school in 1890. Corner turret, bay windows and gabled roof reflect Queen Anne architecture.” Inside, she notes how teachers once taught ballroom dance in the lounge where guests like us now sip afternoon sherry among period antiques. “In our breakfast salon, girls once enjoyed mealtimes, and learned proper etiquette.”

Strolling through Pacific Heights, we view 200 meticulously restored row houses; Shonna points out distinguished Queen Annes, ornate Italianates featuring fancy columns and rounded bay windows and Stick designs with lacy gingerbread trim. 

At the tour’s conclusion, we descend to lively Union Street and hop a bus to Fisherman’s Wharf. We enter Ghirardelli’s former chocolate factory complex and cross brick-terraced courtyards toward the waterfront. After inspecting the marine park’s vintage vessels and taking a spectacular Bay Cruise, we savour chowder dinners and return on Powell Street’s cable car.

Next morning is dedicated to roaming Golden Gate Park. Designed in the 1870s, distinctive trees and plants transformed its natural sand dunes into an urban sanctuary. After posing near the turn-of-the-century Conservatory of Flowers, we meander through Shakespearean, Japanese and Botanical Gardens - and the new Academy of Science. 
Joining Urban Trek in Union Square on another day, chief trekkie Anton shows us historic photos recounting, “In 1850, Mayor Geary established this square, named for pro-union rallies before and during the Civil War; that 30-metre monument commemorates Admiral Dewey’s Spanish American War victory. The sculpted Victory atop reveals a much-loved benefactor.

Born into a large, poor family, Alma de Bretteville earned cash posing nude at Mark Hopkins Institute of Art. While modelling for Victory, she became besotted with sugar heir Adolph Spreckels. Though twice her age, she married her sugar daddy five years later! Alma is affectionately known as San Francisco’s great-grandmother.” Departing the square, everybody admires Heart Art. Four such vibrant sculptures decorate each corner, welcoming all to surrounding benches, open-air cafés, frequent concerts, art shows and impromptu protests.

In an adjacent, now upscale shopping enclave, Anton grins, “Maiden Lane was once a hotbed of entertaining women - and definitely not maidens!” San Francisco’s newspaper-of-the-day reported the ramshackle collection of cheap brothels, gambling halls and saloons as “a carnival of crime.”

Between the 1848 discovery of gold and 1906 earthquake, nine-blocks enclosed the infamous Barbary Coast, named after pirate-plagued North Africa. Here, sea captains “shanghaied” unsuspecting drunk and drugged seamen from bars – who eventually awoke sailing away to China! As the city rebuilt after the earthquake, the Barbary Coast fell into oblivion, soon facing laws prohibiting such districts.      

Next to Chinatown’s dragon-adorned Pagoda Gate, our group learns debauchery reigned here for another decade, with opium dens, houses of prostitution, gambling and crime. Nowadays, North America’s oldest and largest Chinatown encompasses 24-blocks of exotic atmosphere: pagoda-roofed buildings, strings of red lanterns and bustling markets displaying colourful fruit, vegetables and fish; specialty shops, traditional pharmacies, temples, fortune cookie factories and fine Chinese eateries.

Emerging from a small bakery, we devour fresh warm egg custard tarts on the sidewalk. At Portsmouth Square, where Chinese elders play cards and chess under prolific pink cherry blossoms, we discover San Francisco began here as Yerba Buena, then was renamed in 1847 after the Bay. In this pueblo’s former plaza, plaques mark its first public school site and where “Stars and Stripes” first flew after the young California Republic joined the U.S.

When Sam Brannan found gold on the American River, this village exploded to over 20,000.   The earliest cable cars ran past this park in 1873. Using mining car technology, cable manufacturer Hallidie introduced them along Clay Street for five cents a ride. The earthquake disrupted the popular route and others. Although streetcars and buses replaced most cable cars, three lines remain as National Historic Landmarks.

In the nearby Financial District at the initial Bank of America, all eyes peer through windows at its massive vault. Anton tells us, “In 1904, Amadeo Giannini founded the Bank of Italy, which became the Bank of America. Giannini introduced branch banking, loaning cash to workers in the back of a Green Street saloon. Transporting assets hidden under a wagon load of produce, locals told how his money smelled like peaches after the earthquake!”

Wave-like pavements recreate the Bay’s previous shoreline in Jackson Square Historic District, one of San Francisco’s oldest commercial neighbourhoods. Anton shows us 1850s warehouses that barely survived the earthquake’s raging fires. The army decided against blasting this area as a firebreak, thanks to hundreds of stored barrels of whiskey that would have stoked the inferno. Now upscale galleries, restaurants and clubs, some of these three-story brick buildings retain cast iron shutters as fire protection.

A nearby inscription describes how, in 1855, the future Union General Sherman established its corner bank and resided on the second floor. Reaching North Beach, we’re immersed in old world deli coffee houses, where European traditions remain, and haunts where Jack Kerouac spun his tales, and Allan Ginsberg waxed poetic during the 1950s Beatnik era. Popping into Café Trieste, we find a wall plastered with 50 years of glossy photos, some showing Francis Copolla who wrote *The Godfather* screenplay here, and Pavarotti sipping pungent coffee after delivering rousing arias. Across grassy Washington Square rises glorious twin spired Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe posed for photos after marrying at City Hall.

Catching a bus up Telegraph Hill, Anton explains that in mid-1800, a marine telegraph stood there, two high wooden arms semaphoring ships’ arrivals. The 210-foot [64 m] Coit Tower was the legacy of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who bequeathed one-third of her fortune to beautify her beloved city. We’d just seen a different Coit legacy in Washington Square: a sculpture of three firefighters carrying a woman. Rescued from fire as a child, riding Knickerbocker Engine Number 5 by 15 and honorary firefighter as an adult, Lillie had a lifelong relationship with firefighters. Some say the Art Deco Coit Tower resembles a fire hose nozzle, another tribute to Lillie’s heroes.

Inside the tower, Diego Rivera-inspired murals depict California’s Depression Era. Stepping outside, everyone soaks up spectacular views of the Bay Bridge, the world’s longest steel high-level bridge; Treasure Island, manmade for 1939’s Golden Gate Exposition; Yerba Buena Island, coastguard home; Alcatraz’s abandoned maximum security prison; Angel Island, where Asian immigrants once landed and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge painted international orange for visibility in fog, subtly blending with nature and enhancing the Bay’s entrance since 1937.

Zigzagging down the steep Filbert Steps through lush hillside gardens to Levi Strauss Plaza and museum, we view early blue jeans exhibits detailing how Strauss and his partner initially developed riveted tough denim pants for miners.   

A vintage streetcar takes us along the Embarcadero. After removing earthquake   damaged double-decker freeway in 1989, the beaux art Ferry Building emerged and was refurbished for artisans, gourmet shops, restaurants and outdoor Farmers Markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Returning near Union Square on Bay Area Rapid Transit [BART] subway, we head for century-old John’s Grill. Amid oak-panelled walls covered with photos of old San Francisco, we fork up more succulent seafood and toast the city’s rollicking past.


* www.queenanne.com - offers charm and convenience among Victorian homes of

Pacific Heights.

* www.victorianwalk.com - reveals insights on San Francisco’s distinctive

architecture, restoration, beautiful gardens and some famous homes.

* www.redandwhite.com - founded in 1892, narrated cruises include one to

the Golden Gate.

* www.franciscanrestaurant.com - offers luscious seafood selections with

magnificent panoramas of San Francisco Bay.

* www.urbantrekusa.com - provides guided walks into the city’s riveting


* www.johnsgrill.com - a national literary landmark immortalized in

Dashiell Hammett’s *Maltese Falcon*; serves luscious grilled meats, seafood

and pasta.

* www.sfcityguides.org/current_schedule.html - outlines many of the

available free-guided walking tours.











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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

last few days our group held a similar discussion on this subject and you illustrate something we have not covered yet, appreciate that.

- Kris

Posted by mallorca mietwagen | October 22, 2010 Report Violation

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