San Francisco History

Jeems Pipes of Pipesville

PipesvilleBy Walter J. Thompson

“Oh, Solitude, where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Ha! Hum!
Here, free from all duns and alarms,
Solitude’s a sweet resting place.”

In such strain did “Jeems, Pipes” in the early fifties of the last century paraphrase Cowper and eulogize his own retreat in the picturesque according to artistic temperaments, if not particularly thriving suburb of San Francisco known as “Pipesville.”

For the benefit of a later generation, to which the happenings and personages of the city’s golden age bear relatively the same proportion of glamour and degree of interest as did the heroic age of Greece to those who came after the Trojan war and the quest of the Golden Fleece, it should be set forth that “Jeems Pipes” was a celebrated litterateur of that golden age and that “Pipesville,” which he founded, was in the district now bounded by Market, Seventh, Eighth and Mission streets.

In the heyday of its suburban splendor Pipesville had no definite borders. It was simply overlooked by those tawny-hued Mission hills on one side and on the other by vista after vista of drifting sand spotted over with bunches of lupin and scrub oak. It was just within the outermost lines of the city as laid down by Jasper O’Farrell in his official design of thoroughfares to be, and in which the numerals as applied to streets stopped at Fifth street—Sixth was simply Simmons street, Seventh was Harris street, Eighth was Price street, but, like Market and McAllister, then known as Mellus street, they were all up in the air, and Jeems Pipes, in plodding his homeward way, when he sought seclusion from the strenuous activity of the new burg by the bay shore, did not have to waste any time in consulting signs and street corners.

There was but one approach to Pipesville. That was by the old Mission road, leaving the town at Happy valley—now filled up with the Palace Hotel and winding its sinuous course as closely to the line of Mission street as the shifting sands would permit, out to where the big red roses blossomed about the adobe residences of some of the old Spanish families, grouped about the clearing in which was set Mission Dolores Church.

The path to Pipesville left this road near Seventh street, where a rough wooden bridge was thrown across the marsh. This same path also led to Yerba Buena Cemetery in the triangle formed by Market, McAllister and Larkin streets.

It must also be admitted that Pipesville never did have either on parchment scroll or on graven map any official standing. San Franciscans only knew of its existence through the fame of its founder as embodied in articles in the literature of the day, signed by “Jeems Pipes of Pipesville,” and by a sight when visiting the cemetery of Jeems Pipes’ lordly castle, a reproduction of which accompanies this article. The beholder could be under no misapprehension as to the location and the patriotism of the lord of the manor. From the staff there over proudly floated the Star Spangled Banner and a long stream on which “Pipesville” was painted.

The mellow yellow haze of that past golden age is about Pipesville. Who toted the timbers out there and erected that domicile, how Jeems Pipes came to be its possessor and how he maintained himself there under the laws of squatter sovereignty for a long period are lost records—as well ask the name of the man who made the blue prints for the wooden horse which the Greeks stabled in Troy for its undoing.

Jeems Pipes was one of the many strikingly original personalities that drifted to Western shores with the argonaut band of 1849. His name was Stephen C. Massett—Steven Massett—and he made quite a reputation for himself as a writer, composer of ballads and a poet who was able to sing his own songs. He was a bright fellow and a bohemian of the days when bohemianism was an artistic occupation and not a trade. His conversational mannerism smacked of New England training, but there was nothing of the austereness of the Puritan about him.

There was a dash of the irresistible and irresponsible Artemus Ward in his conversation and in his prose writings and in his ballads, a strong strain of the sentimentalism which went to seed along Parnassian trails, followed by the poets who tried to imitate Byron, Moore and Mrs. Hemans. This sentimentalism ran like garlic through the ballads of the time.

Then gaily did the troubadour, with no perceptible means of support, touch his guitar and sing amorous numbers. Then did some sighing Romeo with delicious frankness assure his Juliet that his heart and lute were the only store of assets that he could bring home on pay day. There was much ado about the silvery moon, the nightingale was indefatigable in pouring out liquid lays in shaded dells, shells and other bric-a-brac were gathered by sea-beat shores, and weeping willows waved over mysterious graves on uncharted hillsides or in deep dank glades where an echo would die of fright. It was among such material that Massett reveled when the ballad genii held his spirit enthralled. Such spells were wont to seize him when in dealing with the ups and downs of life, the downs were temporarily triumphant and made ugly faces at the prostrate ups.

When, as the saying is, the grass—long green, you know—was short—when there was a heavy frost on the glasses at Harry & Patten’s emporium of liquid delights and the trend of conversation over the Parker House mahogany was suggestive of snow-capped Sierra under a leaden sky—then would Jeems Pipes follow the star of empire over the wastes to the sand-bespangled mead of Pipesville, and there in the poet’s corner of his castle would he fix his world-weary eyes in ecstasy in the morning on that spot in the east where Diablo’s purple peak was gilded with the sun’s first streak, and in the gloaming watch the evening shadows draw their curtains around Phoebus as he took his dip in the sunset sea and—write ballads, all of which later found ready sale, followed by temporary desertion of Pipesville for the haunts of pleasure on Montgomery and Kearny streets.

But somberness was not the keynote of Jeems Pipes’ nature. It only overcame him by spasms. Buoyance was in his make-up and cheerfulness was his godfather. Mark Tapley had nothing on him in figuring out a point of view. In no way was this trait better displayed than when discoursing about his beloved suburban retreat.

It was often pointed out to him by well meaning friends that his much-vaunted suburban paradise was nothing else but a desolate, flea-haunted desert, backed by bogs, inhabited by the most disreputable gang of bullfrogs that ever made the night air shudder with their diabolical and discordant war whoops, and a section where even the coyotes would not linger.

But Jeems would have none of this palaver.

When the moon beamed in all its glorious effulgence from the starry vault of heaven and threw a halo of peacefulness over the landscape, it was a delight, he said, to lounge upon his spacious veranda and hearken for those light-hearted frogs under the bridge crossing the marsh giving vent to their exuberant spirits in a sort of paean of praise to fate that had cast their lot amid such pleasant surroundings; or to heal their amphibian brethren of the big pool in the cemetery, babbling in rhythmic tones the secrets of the city of the dead.

Lonesome? No, indeed.

Mansions there were not many as yet, but then, think of the prospect for future growth.

Fleas—well, as natives of the soil, one could not deny them an existence, but then what an aid to the physical well-being of Pipesvillans as exercise promoters! No need for a gymnasium or a handball court.

But above all was the high character of the neighbors with a sweep of his arm toward the cemetery, Jeems Pipes would maintain that his neighbors were most law abiding and conservative. No gossip was bandied between them, no scandal-mongering flourished, if conviviality sometimes lapsed into indiscretion, the neighbors knew enough to keep still about it, quietness was their particular business, and they minded their business.

The original of the accompanying sketch was drawn by an artist friend of Jeems Pipes and the latter prized it highly. What he always admired most in the picture was the coyote, which he said, served to refute the libel that those of quadrupedal degenerates considered Pipesville haunted ground.

Pipesville did not need boosting, he said, for it flourished like a June rose without it, but that cavorting coyote represented confidence of the most exalted type. The easy manner, the freedom from sneakish gait, with which it approached the Pipes palace showed that it had confidence unbounded in the neighborhood, confidence in the palace and confidence in the owner thereof. What more was to be desired? When a coyote had confidence in man or a place it was opt for any mortal to cast aspersions or question the source of that inspired feeling which made even its ululations as agreeable as the notes of a Persian nightingale.

It is not only as Jeems Pipes that Massett holds a place in local history. He had the distinction, before founding Pipesville, of being the first one to give a concert in the new city. Then it was that he was a gay companion among the bewhiskered argonauts centered around Portsmouth Square. He was conspicuous by his fine figure, surmounted by a massive head which was covered by a mass of wavy black hair, and was addressed as Mr. Stephen C. Massett, composer and ballad singer, of New York and Boston.

The entertainment was given in the old building on the northwest corner of the Plaza and Portsmouth Square. It was there that Judge Almond held court, and it was also used as a public school.

Massett was the sole performer, except the pianist, who accompanied him on the only piano in Alta California, loaned for the occasion by Collector of the Port Harrison. . .Massett did well on that occasion. The old building was crowded to its capacity and those who were unable to obtain standing room inside found it outside, hugging the windows in order to hear the melodious voice of the versatile individual who could render fourteen different numbers without tiring his audience. There were four women present.

Massett lived many years in California before he finally returned to the scenes of his early youth. He was a contributor to the old Sunday Mercury, the Golden Era and other long since defunct journals. He lived to see Pipesville lose its identity, when it was engulfed by the city’s progress and its “mansions” were many.

He sleeps far from the spot he once considered his occasional home—his summer residence with its poet’s corner, and sometimes his winters retreat—when the grass was short—where, under the silvery moon, the evening zephyrs fan—going over the sand dunes from the slopes of Twin Peaks, were once vibrant with the hoarsely bawled gossip exchanged between the frogs of Yerba Buena Park ad the frogs of the Mission-street marsh, and where once the confident cavorting coyote was the sweet-voiced bulbul of Market street.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 18 June 1916. 28.

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