San Francisco History

Westward Ho! from Meiggs' Wharf

by Walter J. Thompson

There is about that phrase “Westward Ho!” something which smacks of adventure of the wild and romantic order; something which causes one’s fancy to conjure up pictures of Viking craft skimming over broad areas of bounding billows, and visions of Columbus standing on the deck of the Santa Maria, peering over the port bow toward the undiscovered shores he dreamed of; something remindful of that citizen of Androscoggin who started out to find the Golden West and got bewildered on his way.

Except in the case of pole seekers, all adventurers streaked it for the West when they got in motion. And always was there some boundary line which served as a starting base, on one side of which was a territory as familiar as the family woodshed, while on the other was a sort of terra incognita which was the lure to their longing eyes.

So it was to young San Francisco in the days when the peninsula ozone was still heavily charged with the electricity of adventure that had sped the spreading sails of the argonauts. Meiggs’ wharf was such a starting point to the youth of the city in quest of adventure along shore. While the country to the west of it was not exactly a terra incognita, it certainly was a stretch of soil of the antres vast and deserts idle pattern, with all manner of possibilities in the way of moving accidents by flood and field, and hair-breadth ‘scapes such as enterprising youth loves to dream of and mingle with. When Harry Meiggs, in the heyday of his financial supremacy, built the wharf it was dedicated to commercial purposes. But when Meiggs carried out a contract with himself to transfer to South America, a certain amount of cold cash belonging to other folks without their consent, the wharf was left apparently without an owner. With that cloud upon its title and with the gossip about Meiggs still going the rounds, young San Francisco, when it became active and numerous enough to assert its rights in the community, took over a half interest in the wharf and maintained it for many a day. The occupation was not of an arbitrary or swaggering order. Masters of the bay and other craft were accorded full privileges in use of the wharf as long as they did not crowd their vessels and interfere with piscatorial pursuits or shut off views of the bay from various angles.

It mattered little what section of the city a boy lived in, if he decided to become a roving blade for a day he sought Meiggs’ wharf first, if from south of Market street, he hiked along Kearny, only stopping once to glance admiringly in the window of Mercer, the candy man, to see if there was any new angle to the struggle that was ever going on there between three vaqueros on horseback who had lassoed a grizzly bear and were holding him in position with taut lariats. One other stopping place was there on Stockton street, near Union, where a saloonman named Scully had a section of the Sacramento or some other river in his window, together with a model quartz mill that was ever manipulating its gritty grist.

The Norvals of Russian and Telegraph hills also filed down from their heights to the wharf to decide upon the itinerary of the day. District mass meetings occupied most of the wharf space and stevedoring operations were hampered, if not brought to a standstill, until momentous matters were settled, and the demon of discord, who usually acted as chairman, had toppled overboard.

A certain number there were who preferred a monotonous existence, such as bestriding a stringer and angling for anything that would accept bait—usually a three-inch shiner as flat as a postage stamp. But it was Westward Ho! With the majority, and right resolutely and bravely did they set out to explore the domain where the ways of Rob the Rover were fashionable and the ethics of Buccaneer Morgan were the vogue.

As far as practicable the shore line was followed by the crusading boats, which, however, did not travel en masse, but divided up into congenial bands which, while holding aloof from each other, were always ready to coalesce if threatened by natives of the invaded territory.

At Black Point a drive inland was necessary, because Uncle Sam had pre-empted the headland and fortified with cannon. With hostile natives on every hand, it would have been folly to have provoked a clash with Federal forces that had so recently been the heroes of a great civil war. The crusaders deployed and made no demonstration as they trudged unmurmuringly over the hills of sand unadorned by a patch of vegetation.

Soon the low-lying streamlet-streaked flats of Cow Hollow were sighted. Never did emigrants in prairie schooners have more need of caution in crossing the Indian infested plains did the crusaders in going through Cow Hollow, where the Saracens were of a most warlike disposition. It was war to the bloody hilt, and the sites of battlefields that had been fought over again and again were more numerous than the bovine herds that roamed thereon. Always was there a battle as the Saracens rallied around their altars, or rather their cow-yard fences. At Cow Hollow the identity of the Paladins as a homogeneous mass was lost. Nothing was to be gained by fighting in serried phalanx against the tactics of the impetuous cowboys. General Braddock had tried that once with Indians and failed. A composite manual of military tactics was called for. The situation demanded action on a blended scale, such as: “Up, guards, and at ‘em; every fellow for himself; soak him a good one and run!” And though the crusaders were scattered like autumn leaves, and many were frayed and torn, and perhaps hatless, they arrived at Harbor View in good time to oversee the landing of the fishermen with their nets. In those sunny days, before the trusts were born and monopoly’s hand had fallen like a blight upon the industries of the land, the city got its supply of fish in a delightfully primitive way. The industry was in the hands of a band of happy hearted individuals from Genoa or Venice, with gold rings in their ears and a mahogany tan on their faces, who lived in a fleet of gondolas which skimmed over the bay or ocean, dragging long seines, which scooped up countless thousands of Father Neptune’s subjects, ranging in variety from a shrimp to a shark.

It was the custom of these simple, swarthy sons of the sea to land on the low shingle at Harbor View, and there, with a yo-heave-ho in choicest Meditteraneanese, drag ashore a few tons of fish meat, all alive and squirming. Then would they hurl themselves with an ardor and zeal that was sometimes misunderstood by the mahogany-hued toilers, who, being the wearers of huge boots modeled after the fashion of those worn by swashbuckling gallants in the days of the Merry Monarch, got around rather clumsily while the nimble-footed crusaders danced about like sunbeams, picking out the choicest and best of the “finnies” in their efforts to expedite the distribution of the catch. And they passed caustic remarks on the shiner sluggards on the stringers of Meiggs’ wharf as they took up their pilgrimage, each with several tails and fins protruding from pockets ajar. They had unselfishly sacrificed much valuable time to aid those merry fishermen, who in their excitable way shouted their appreciation in intelligible phrases and made such funny gestures in then funny foreign way, all of which the crusaders did not stop to interpret.

At the Presidio there happened what always occurs to all big expeditionary forces not bound together by the strongest kind of military discipline. A division of opinion arose between the leaders as to the objective point of the crusade, whether the walls of Ascalon on the beach should be reached by way of Fort Point, involving a dash through the Presidio, or via Mountain lake and the wild recesses of Wildcat canyon, lying over the hilltop. The majority usually favored the Alpine maneuver over the slopes, then bare to barrenness, where now are the bosky dells and inviting groves of the United States reservation. It was the veteran crusaders who voted for the hillside charge.

Everyone knows that the seasoned soldiers of many campaigns are always the most considerate and thoughtful in a profession that is supposed to lack these things. So with the veteran crusaders who would fight their way like demons through a hostile territory, yet were ever ready to lend a willing arm in scattering deeds of kindness as they strolled. They knew that just over the ridge and along that stretch of soil now decorated and dotted with the pretty garden-surrounded homes of Lake street and the intersecting avenues, there was a settlement of worthy husbandmen, like the fishermen, swarthy of countenance, and many with earrings, who had laid off the ground in big square tracts, and beautified these squares with long rows of bright green vegetables, placed so evenly that the land looked as though it had been plastered with wallpaper. These worthy landscape gardeners catered to the city’s needs in the vegetable line.

But, they were harassed and hampered in their noble work by bands of brigand crows, piratical blackbirds and all kinds of unprincipled feathered bipeds. It was a hopeless task to keep a sufficient battalion of scarecrows on the premises, as the gardeners couldn’t wear out their clothes fast enough to put them in a sufficiently dilapidated condition to scare the birds. It was an uneven fight. Their predicament was known to the crusaders who chose the hill route, and they went to the rescue with a vim.

Over the ridges they came warily. Through and under the fences they crept in order to surprise the feathered robbers, who were busily engaged in tearing up carrots, turnips and cabbages, and viciously cutting potato vines and ripping corn from the stalk with their beaks. All was in vain. The feathered bandits sighted the crusaders, and with jawing and cawings of abuse and protest they winged their way off. This aroused the attention of the gardeners, who, perceiving the situation, left their work and, with waving hoes and rakes and shouting at the top of their voices, headed toward the scene of the action. Swiftly flew the birds, swiftly flew the crusaders, brandishing bunches of vegetables, and full swiftly, too, flew the gardeners with their implements of industry. It was an exhilarating scene. But the bold and brave crusaders were too modest to stand and await the reception of the grateful gardeners’ thanks at close range. They kept right on, waving bunches of carrots and turnips to show that they had been satisfactorily and well paid in being allowed to take these samples of the soil’s products to munch as they continued on their way to Mountain lake and faced the dangers of Wildcat canyon.

The lake is still there, with Old Glory floating from the Marine Hospital staff. But it is only a ghost of itself when it supplied a section of the city with water and its surface was of wider expanse and the wildflowers and rushes grew around its shores.

Wildcat canyon is there, also in dilapidated shape and possessing few of the wild features it had when Lobos creek rolled its tide of water between the trees and rabbits and squirrels crossed the path of the crusaders, who always kept a watchful eye for the savage feline who founded the canyon and gave it its name, as they passed on to meet their comrades at the beach and plan an exploration of the mysterious pirate caves in the cliffs overlooking the sunlit sea.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 15 October 1916. 28.

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