San Francisco History

Strolling on Sunday Afternoons

By Walter J. Thompson

Strolling on Sunday afternoons as a pastime appears to have undergone a fading process in San Francisco, where once it was so popular. It came into fashion early in the sixties [1860s], and had quite a run, but succumbed to the expansion of distances in the built-up districts and the swelling of the street-car census, and later the auto rolls.

As the years went by, San Francisco formed the habit of distributing themselves over the landscape during their hours of recreation awheel rather than on foot. There is nothing about the modern way to recommend it to the belittlement of the alluring charm of those old close-to-home-walks, when the city was in its youth and one could cover it in the course of an afternoon and keep in touch with the hand of progress, as well as hearing the gossip of the various sections. As nearly everybody was out for an airing, one met nearly everybody.

Perhaps there was not as much to see, and amusements lacked the variety of later days. There was no magnificent Park with its museum of carefully arranged marvels, its drives, pathways and nooks; the ocean beach was like a foreign strand, so far away did it lie over the sandy tracts; there was no alluring prospect beyond the brown Mission hills and down the peninsula, even if the strollers should become hikers; transbay attractions were in course of preparation. So the strollers kept close to the city.

Montgomery street was a famous promenade on Sunday. The thoroughfare, which for six days in the week had been a hive of commercial industry and money-making, took on an entirely different aspect, and seemed like the citizens to doff its working-day uniform and step forth attired in raiment suitable for the day. The big bonanza blizzard had not yet swept down the lane in full force, although the stock brokers’ signs were increasing daily, and the youngster following his strolling father might gaze apprehensively around as he heard “dad” discuss with a friend the presence of “bulls and bears” on the street.

A great deal of the scenery and many of the actors belonging to the strenuous decade of the fifties featured the street, and were particularly conspicuous on strolling day. Sunday was their time to shine, and they were objects of much interest.

Chief among the original characters that clung to Montgomery street was Emperor Norton, whose royal name will live in the early annals of the city as one whose idiosyncrasies met with the approval and sympathy of his fellow citizens.

The life story of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, has been written. His personality was an enigma. The bank failure in which it was said he lost his all clouded his intellect only partially. Outside of his delusion of being a royal ruler, the Emperor’s mind worked along normal grooves, and his comprehension of affairs of the world was not arranged on a crazy quilt pattern, either. On Sundays, however, he was more royal than usual. Not that his dingy uniform of blue looked any brighter, his tinsel epaulets shinier or his spiral cane any nobler, but he threw more dignity into his crawl and was more affable to such of his subjects as he deigned to notice.

His principle of life was modeled on the plan of the chap of shabby genteel fame who was too proud to beg and too honest to steal. On Sundays especially was he open to negotiation of his scrip, and all supporters of his dynasty were given the privilege of exchanging a piece of minted metal for a $5 bill guaranteed by sacred honor of his majesty. Suavity and politeness prevailed in his presence. Amiably would he amble into Martin & Horton’s cocktail resort and greet the Chesterfieldian Mr. Martin with a sweeping royal salute.

“Good morning, your majesty,” would be the response of the ever-polite Martin, pushing over a bottle of the Emperor’s favorite tipple.

“May you prosper, Mr. Martin,” would be royalty’s condescending compliment, and the Emperor’s thick lips would twist into a smile, causing his red, bulbous nose to expand until the six or seven hairs ornamenting its tip gave a foxtrot swing in different directions. Exit the Emperor. There was no false ring or any other kind of a ring to such effervescent courtesy.

Approaching the amusement center at Washington and Montgomery streets, where were the Metropolitan and Maguire’s Opera house, with the circus lot at Jackson street as a popular background, other interesting characters were met with whom the stroller could take an interest in without being called upon to sacrifice dignity or dimes. They lived off their friends, undoubtedly, but they asked no alms and were not chary of displaying their talents along such lines as were most developed.

There, seated on a fire hydrant or leaning against a billboard, the stroller would see “Dan of the Bowery,” a New York nomad who passed his days in curbstone pursuits and his evenings in the gallery of a theater. The glare of the footlights was his toy and the freedom of the streets his happiness. He was the idol of the gallery gods, and his vocabulary of slang was as inexhaustible as his thirst for exhilarating beverages. Such stories of stage life he could tell! Such color of the old Bowery Theater! How he would dilate on the old slogan, “Wake me up when Kirby dies”! The gusto with which he dwelt upon the great Kirby and his act of wrapping himself up in a stage edition of “Old Glory” and passing away in a whirlwind of death throes! Never a night did the boys of the Bowery miss attendance, but they slept through the rest of the performance, leaving the injunction to the non-sleepers to wake them up in time to see Kirby wrestle with the mortal coil. Dan sailed away one day to the Antipodes with Chiarini’s Royal Italian Circus, under promise of some old New York cronies connected with the show to take him back to the Bowery. Perhaps they did. Dan never came this way again.

The Sunday afternoon strollers were not afraid of hill slopes in their sauntering, and Montgomery street was only a small part of their field. The Rincon hill folk sometimes strayed to the south, and took in the bay shore of the foot of Second and Third streets, where ferry boats and other craft were in course of construction.

After doing Montgomery street, they would stroll up to Stockton street and out to North Beach, then quite a fashionable residence section. A stop would be made at Abe Warner’s cobweb palace and zoo on Francisco street, and then Meiggs wharf was next on the programme. It was always crowded with strollers and anglers. A hilltop was the ambition of many, and Russian hill was the popular section.

Jobson’s observation tower on Russian hill was more of an attraction than ever was the signal station on Telegraph hill and the strollers enjoyed it. The panorama of Nature appealed to them on every point of sentiment.

To the elders it recalled the time, not so very far back, when they first beheld the stretch of blue bay set in its circlet of brown and purple hills from the deck of the craft that had carried them from their Eastern homes to this golden El Dorado of the West, and once again they felt the glamour that was thrown about the beautiful drams of fancy which had buoyed them up during the long ocean voyage and which had been realized in varying degrees of satisfaction.

To the younger generation, looking adown the home-dotted slopes were many familiar objects and spots. There is the hollow at Greenwich street stood the brick schoolhouse where Kate Kennedy ruled as principal before the big Cosmopolitan School on Filbert street was erected for her; there was the pole with the flying ropes, recalling many a struggle for a handle bar to swing on. Bringing the gaze around to the west, one saw the remains of the old brickyard, the scene of many a battle with clay bullets and capturing of clay forts. Looking farther and taking in the scope of view to the horizon’s verge and under the white summer clouds that formed such fantastic shapes in the blue sky where the irregular tawny sand hills.

That far-off waste of shrub and sand had a weird fascination. One knew it was out there by the hill which was surmounted by a whitecross that the dead were buried, and if one were to die, he would be whisked out there in a big-windowed black wagon, followed by a lot of shiny ebony carriages. Even then in the yellow haze one could see the polished tops of those carriages glinting in the sunshine amid the white and green of the cemeteries. Good spirits were restored, however, as the eye followed along to the Golden Gate and Fort Point, and one wished he was out there walking that grand old flume that wound round the cliff; then to Black Point, looking like a terminal oasis to the desert sand, past Shelter Cove and the bulkhead, sacred to diving and swimming days; lingering for a moment at the home of Leonidas Haskell, which was once pointed out as the place where Senator Broderick died after his duel with Terry, and a bunch of homes of sea captains and pilots, and resting finally on the big blue bay with its pleasure craft going hither and thither.

One vaguely wished himself aboard the steamer Capital that was chugging its way up to Sacramento, or even on one of those frisky little plungers that were playing leap-frog with the whitecaps stirred up by the afternoon breeze.

In such fashion ran the mind of youth, while perhaps the elder stroller was watching a brig and a schooner, which with bulging sails were headed seaward, and thinking of the poet’s lines which compare human lives to ships and their destinies, and tell how one little craft is cast away—

“On her very first trip to Rabbicomb bay
While another rides safe at Port Natal.”

And he wondered why the lines occurred to him.

A dreamy witchery was always in the mellow haze that hangs over those blue bay waters, and it lurked in waiting for Sunday strollers close by the old tower on Russian hill.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 10 September 1916. 28.

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