San Francisco History

Cruising Along the Old Water Front

by Walter J. Thompson

In the good old times when every day was filled with sunshine and there were no clouds in the blue sky that we remember save a few pearly white lumps that went drifting by, assuming fantastic shapes under the impulse of the caressing summer zephyrs, and when sullen-faced steamers were few and graceful windjammers were many, San Francisco had a picturesque and likeable a water front as any seaport would desire to boast of. It was not as extensive nor pretentious a one as some older and larger cities possessed, but in its modest span it embraced every variety of shipping, all the phases of changeful life belonging to a water front. With its numerous long wharves, with no board barricades obstructing entry to the piers and shutting off the most magnificent marinescape in the world, it presented a charming aspect that was remindful of the freedom of the broad seas which those vessels had traversed. Everyone was welcome to parade along the bay line and to camp on the docks and revel in the life and environment which over and above the activity of commerce was tinged with the flavor of romance and the glamour of adventure always connected with ships and sailors. Under such prevailing conditions, how could young San Francisco help loving the water front and its wonders? The river and round-the-bay ferry-boats congregated at Davis street near Pacific and Broadway, and the first-named thoroughfare was the avenue of approach; other docks were reached by different streets by the ordinary citizen. But to the younger generation, the Bedouins of the downtown district and the Arabs of the hills above, there was but one grand causeway (except, of course, on picnic days) stretching to the bay. It was down the planked pavement of Market street which brought one to the heart of a whirl of a many craft that brought all sorts of products to the city markets. This was trodden by the Arabs. Then would factional strife be forgotten. With gardens of delight and fields of adventure spreading on every hand they capered on their joyous journeying on afternoons when schools had adjourned and Saturdays which were always given over to freedom’s cause. Home and kindred were banished to Greenland and one gave himself up to the exhilarating abandon of the occasion. From Sansome street down the wide thoroughfare a medieval tourney, a Roman arena and a circus parade were all thrown together in one bewildering aggregation of marvels.

Comfortable and roomy one and two story buildings stood where now are the tall, sour looking structures which shut out the sunshine from the street and the song of manufacturing industry was heard through the day. They were spectacular industries, and their number could be judged from the clamor of the noon-hour whistles which threw off a chorus of blasts that stirred the echoes living near Twin Peaks and set a-nodding the tufts of lupine on the dunes of the western wilds. Like the water front, everything was upon the open-faced, free and easy plan.

The planing-mills had no doors and gave an inviting show, the lumber yards were so many liberty halls and laths, which the Arab used as a pilgrim his staff, were lying around in profusion; the flour mills were grinding merrily and tossing out bags of flour and meal along their chutes in an endless stream; there were grocery stores and produce depots, the owners of which were never haunted by the ghost of the high cost of living, and spread their wares about in such profusion and never cared if apples or oranges and the like played hide and seek with the passing amalgamated nomads and hid in their pockets. Nor did the box factory man, who kept a Newfoundland dog as big as a grizzly bear, give a whoop if the Arabs occasionally grabbed a square of soft white pine wood for whittling or some other purpose.

Then it was a ten-to-one wager that either a band of long-horned steers or a drove of irresponsible piebald mustangs would be met with on their way from the landing place to some uptown slaughter-house or stock depot. Often they would break away from the care of the lone vaquero and what a yelling and dashing about of frightened citizens would ensue.

Into the midst of this whirlwind the undaunted and unafraid Arabs threw themselves, and by darting hither and thither, waving their arms and augmenting the yelling chorus, they would scatter the animals as to prevent them from making a solid charge on the fleeing citizens. Then, while the vaquero would start out rounding up his stock, the Arabs went on their way, rejoicing that they had done their duty in probably preventing a wholesale mangling, if not killing, of unprotected men and women by the maddened animals.

So much for the approach to the water front, which was as full of adventure and surprises as was the march of the Crusaders on their way to Ascalon or the roadway leading to Giant Thunderblow’s bungalow. East street of that period was an open roadstead, with but few havens for anchorage on the west side. Over the way the vessels lay side by side like bands of brothers tried and true, surrounded by their rich cargoes representing the products of hundreds of up-river farms and samples of nature’s bounty from lands beyond the ocean’s blue rim.

Over there stood Watermelon Bob, the lanky, red-haired guardian of a patch of wharf sacred to the accommodation of a daily crop of rich green melons brought in by the big stern-wheeler Comanche. What an exhilarating sight it was to see those rotund melons being tossed from deck to dock and piled in huge pyramids, Bob counting each one as it was laid. And Bob, whose copper-colored, tanned face twisted itself into knots as he smiled, appeared to enjoy the company of the Arabs. Had he not confided to them in chummy moments his many adventures the world over? Had he not know when in New York “Ragged Dick” and “Tattered Tom,” glorified by Horatio Alger in numerous volumes? Hadn’t he trekked it over the wild stretches of Southern Africa with Captain Mayne Reid’s Bush Boys after giraffes and lions? He modestly admitted all this and much more and then would good-naturedly allow the Arabs to aid in passing melons to the peddlers’ wagons with the strict injunction not to drop them. Solemnly would the Arabs vow to treat the melons as carefully as though they were precious pearls from the depths of Oman’s green water. But there are bungling fingers even among well-trained Arabs and soon half a dozen melons would be lying shattered on the dock with their red hearts upturned to the sky. This would Bob assume anger and roar like a bull of Bashan denouncing the Arabs and ordering them to get the broken melons out of sight. The fragments disappeared in short order—the rinds went overboard.

Freighted with watermelons, the Arabs continued their pilgrimage, sniffing with keen enjoyment the ozone ladened with the aroma of bilge water and tarry ropes. Beyond lay a barkentine, probably the Tropic Bird, just in from the South seas. There were treasures being unloaded there that were worthy of admiration. Everything aboard the craft smacked of palm trees and sunny isles and blue wavelets dancing in a flood of sunshine—everything that Arabs love. Huge bunches of bananas done up in leaves, the half-green fruit peeping through the crevices in an inviting way; cocoanuts in their heavy fibrous armor; hundreds of crates of pale yellow oranges and other mysterious bundles, the contents of which could only be guessed at. Investigation of these tropical marvels had to be carried on with caution, held in check as the Arabs were by an awe of a couple of brown-skinned Malays that hovered about the ship and wharf, rolling their glittering black eyes over the scene with no trace of friendliness on their stern-set features. No diplomacy such as won the confidence of Watermelon Bob would avail with those alert brown men, who, according to the legendary lore of the Arabs, were former Malay pirate chieftains who had stripped and scuttled many a good craft in far-off Malay waters, and who were capable at any moment of hauling out a corkscrew creese and cutting an enemy into zigzag segments. Strategy and agility were required, and the Arabs were past masters at both.

It was necessary to separate, each Arab strolling apparently aimlessly and unconcernedly about, narrowly watching with one eye the pirate chiefs and inspecting bundles of bananas and crates with the other. With the attention of the pirates diverted, it was easy to drop behind a bale and tear the leaves apart and rip out half a dozen bananas. Others would stroll by the cocoanut patch, and it would be strange, indeed, if several of those cocoanuts did not begin to roll toward the land end of the wharf, the movement being carefully screened by artful Arabs. Thus were the wary and watchful pirates beguiled and deceived. As the Arabs moved away in a cloud of dust, purposely kicked up, the pirates congratulated themselves that their fierce scowls had caused the seeming disorderly rout and retreat of the Arabs.

What Arab, though, will forget the day when they received a shock that thrilled them to the marrow. Out from the depths of the vessel arose two forms beside which the two pirates were insignificant. They were those of two dark-skinned men, tall as lampposts, dressed in white trousers and shirts with sleeves rolled up, showing bare, brown, sinewy arms. But what struck the Arabs were their heads. Dark and forbidding were their features, and the rolling of their eyes was truly diabolical, but those heads were surrounded as by a halo two feet in width with masses of curly hair, and, oh, jiminy crickets! One head was scarlet and the other was a brilliant ultramarine blue. The Arabs halted in unfeigned dismay if not affright. No Arab had ever seen the like of these visions before. Suddenly, Ali Mickey of Russian Hill, who had read every dime novel ever published, gasped out in startled accents, “Cannibals, fellers!” Everyone paled, hardly knowing how to act.

Then a-down the gangplank, their faces glowering and their eyes rolling fiendishly, straight toward the Arabs came the colorful pair. But a short while before the Arabs had faced snorting steers and cavorting cayuses, but this was too much. It was scat, and the cannibals take the hindmost. Retired Malay pirate chiefs were not so bad; they could be tricked and dodged. But cannibals are cannibals the world over. They never retire or reform. Ever are they hungry and on the alert for victims. There was menace in their movements as they advanced. Terror lent wings to the Arabs as they fled. Some wound up at the south beach shipyards and others scaled Telegraph Hill and reached Meiggs’ wharf.

Nor did they feel entirely at ease when they later saw the Fiji cannibals exhibit their skill in war dances and at swinging shark-toothed clubs at the City Gardens. The thrill of that first day of terror clung to them. No faith could be placed in cannibals. Along East street toward Howard and Folsom streets was the rendezvous of the lumber craft and the whaling fleet. There was not much excitement in watching the long planks being shoved out of a square hole in the bow of a ship, but there was a magnetic charm about those dingy, clumsy looking whalers, with a network of rigging that bewildered the eye as one wondered what the various ropes were for. Romance and mystery hung about those craft. It was also in the Arabs’ legendary lore that two Bedouins of North Beach, namely Shereef Lefty Smith and Sheik Porkey Williams, had left their homes surreptitiously and sailed away to the seas where the big whales blow. They had never returned, but, according to the legend, had been taken to a place called New Bedford, where all good whalers are born. But the Arabs never gave up the hope that some day they would meet Porky and Lefty and hear from them marvelous tales of adventure. Often did they quiz Jack Fairweather, the champion harpooner of the Narwal, but he had “never heard of them two scallywags; p’raps they were drownded.” And with this cheerful bit of surmise Jack would lean against an oil barrel and regale the Arabs with another installment of the adventures of his old shipmate, Tom Lanyard.

“As I was a-tellin’ you, young ‘uns, Tom was as keerless and reckless as a shark that don’t mind what he eats. When the cap’n put him in the galley till the cook got over the measles he come to the old man one day and ses, ‘Air we nigh port?’ ‘Why?’ ses the skipper. ‘Cause I got too much yeast powder in the plum duff and she’s a-swellin’. ‘Go ‘long,’ ses the cap’n. ‘Well, I warned yer,’ ses Tom. Sure enough in half an hour the galley bust open and out rolled a big brown steaming plum duff on to the deck. ‘Didn’t I tell yer,’ ses Tom, ‘an’ she’s a-swellin’ yet.’ Well, the cap’n dresses him down with cuss words and then orders all hands to the front with capstan bars and they pried that duff over the rail and it went into the sea with a mightly splash. But Tom went about gloomy-like and said we hadn’t seen the last of that duff; that there was a slew of powder in it. And, sure enough, that night we was bumped on the keel and soon the ship took to goin’ up’ards. Hanged if we wasn’t stuck like glue to that duff and it was still a-swellin’. By daylight we was fifteen feet in the air, ‘and she’s goin’ higher yet,’ ses Tom, which made the cap’n mad and he ses, ‘This is your work and if you don’t git us out of this fix I’ll hang you to the yardarm.’ ‘Twon’t do you no good, you’ll all freeze to death when you sit a mile or so up,’ ses Tom. By noon we was fifty feet up and still goin’. ‘Twas a wonderful sight that ere ship, Bouncin’ Betsy, a sittin’ atop of a plum duff in the middle of the Pacific ocean just like a duck on a rock. Well, come along agin, young ‘uns, an’ I’ll tell you how we got out of the fix,’ ” and off Jack would meander, puffing on his pipe, leaving the Arabs speechless.

There are no more old sailors like Jack Fairweather. They sailed away with the windjammers and never returned; there is no longer a picturesque and free and easy water front such as the Arabs knew. And I sometimes wonder if there are any Arabs of the old stock in this vicinity.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 3 December 1916. 30.

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