San Francisco History

San Francisco and Thereabout
 by Charles Keeler
The California Promotion Committee of San Francisco, Publisher, 1902


        A group of sailor men stood in the doorway of an outfitting store, talking in loud thick voices.  "You're just a good-for-nothing coot," cried one brawny fisted sea dog to a companion disappearing around the corner.  The dim lights shone feebly down the dark street.  Arc lamps on the docks illuminated the rigging of the many masts along shore.  On the window of a saloony-looking restaurant was painted "Sanguinetti's," and three Bohemians doing the Barbary Coast entered.  The master of ceremonies stood behind his counter--red-faced, bullet-headed, bull-necked, with one eye gone and the other betwixt a leer and a twinkle.  He was in his shirt sleeves with a sort of apron tucked about his ample form.  Two darkies strummed a banjo and guitar, singing while the hilarious coon songs.  We stepped noiselessly over the sawdust floor to a table at one side and ordered clam chowder, spaghetti, chicken with garlic sauce, and rum omelette, with Italian entrées and a bottle of water-front claret for good cheer.

        A buxom middle-aged lass of heroic build was so affected by the strenuous twanging of Old Black Joe that she got up and danced.  Everybody joined in the songs; everbody talked to his or her nieghbors, sans ceremony.  There was an ex-policeman present with his best girl, the captain of a bay schooner, a tenderloin politician or two, and several misses who scarecely looked like school marms as they warbled coon songs and sipped maraschino.

        After dining, we dropped into "Lucchetti's" next door, where it is the custom to lead your partner through the mazes of the waltz when dinner is over and before going uptown to see the marionette show.  One feels safer on the streets of this quarter at night when he elbows a good companion.  No doubt there is no danger, but stories of sand-baggers, and of boarding masters armed with hose pipe and knock-out drops for shanghaiing luckless wayfarers and smuggling them off to some deep-water ship outward bound, will crop up in the mind of the lonely pedestrian.

        By day, the waterfront is a scene of romantic interest.  Every weatherbeaten vagabond who walks the street is itching to tell you stories of the ends of the earth.  Every grimy grog shop has its quota of yarn spinners who like nothing better than an excuse to talk and tipple from morn to dewy eve.  Go where you will along those miles of docks, an endless rim of shipping reminds you of the lands across the sea;  and every wedding guest is in the clutches of some ancient mariner.

        Schooners with five masts all of a size, and with scanty upper rigging, are discharging pine from Puget Sound.  English steel ships deep laden with coal from Wellington lie alongside the wharves.  Yonder is a clumsy old square Sacramento River steamer with stern paddle wheel and double smokestacks.  A rakish brig from the South Sea Islands crowds up alongside of a stumpy little green flat bottom sloop which plies on the bay.

        Sparrows chatter on the dusty wharf and scarcely budge for the heavy dray, drawn by ponderous Norman horses that shake the planks beneath them as they thunder along.  Donkey engines rattle and clatter at unloading coal into cars of bridges leading across the street to the huge grimy coal store-houses.  Teamsters pass with big lumber trucks and wagons loaded with sacks of grain.  A group of heavy-set, stolid coal passers shuffles by.  Idle beach combers and wharf rats with sooty faces lounge on lumber piles and stare vacantly at the scene.

        A vista through the shipping shows the steely blue water of the bay with a lavender-gray background of fog.  There is a medley of schooners, scows, tenders and tugs along shore and a black, three-syksail Yankee clipper ship, the queen of them all, anchored out in the stream.  A whirl of sawdust comes with the salt breeze;  a tug toots as it passes, dock engines gasp and pant, vans rumble past, and thus commerce thrives on the grit of the waterfront.

        Great grim steamers lie in narrow berths loading or discharging--the tramp from Liverpool, a Panama liner, monster boats for South America, a big black Australian mail ship and others for China or Japan.  White transports with buff funnels striped with red, white and blue, tell of the Philippines.  A steamer is just in from Nome with returning miners, and another is billed to sail in the afternoon for the inside passage to Alaska.

        The most picturesque spot on the waterfront is Fisherman's Wharf.  Here the Greek fishers moor their little decked boats rigged with graceful lateen sails.  One must be up betimes to see them to advantage, for the fisher folk are early birds.  Their brown three-cornered sails may be seen dotting the bay at all hours, but the return of the fleet at sundown, like a flock of sea birds scudding on the wind to their roost, throws the spell of the Mediterranean over this far western haven.  Although some years have elapsed, I still have vivid recollection of a conference at five in the morning with a captain and crew of one of these boats.  The men were boozy and sleepy as we talked, in the little waterfront saloon, of our prospective trip to the Farallones, and they appeared so stupid that we had grave doubts concerning their ability to navigate a boat.  We found the long double wharf crowded with perhaps a hundred fishing boats, pointed stem and stern, decked, and with their long cross booms on the masts making an unusual effect.  A few bronzed fishermen in blue shirts, rubber hip boots, and bright sashes, were at work at the first peep of sun, washing and hauling in a seine to dry or cleaning off the decks of their boats.  The men proved to be skilled sailors depite the bad water-front whisky, and at the turn of the tide we sped away under a brisk head wind, bound out through the Golden Gate.



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