San Francisco History

Some Boyhood Nooks about the Bay

By Walter J. Thompson

Old San Francisco—speaking of thirty-five of forty years ago—was an ideal boys’ town. It had all manner of appealing recommendations. William Dean Howells or any other writer never described a better boys’ town and no Tom Sawyer ever frolicked in a more congenial one.

Turn where one would, there was something attractive to the eye of a boy; something that gratified his love for natural playthings as against the artificial; a subtle influence that went hand in hand with an outdoor life that made for physical as well as moral development.

I shall refrain from touching on the pleasures of the ample streets and the rolling hills beyond and devote myself to the topography of the bay shore as “we boys” knew it.

With alluring prospects on every side, nowhere were they so abundant as along the bay shore—the water front if you insist upon it—from the brick fortress that squats by the Golden Gate through the mazes of wharves and slips to the Potrero marshes and across to Hunter’s Point.

Adventures afloat and ashore were to be had here in infinite variety—adventures some thrilling and more notable than any that ever happened to Admiral Columbus, Commodore Cook, or any one of those devil-may-care filibusters that invaded Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece.

The grip of realism was in these local happenings, while there was a vagueness of detail about the others which, even thought they read well, gave not the genuine thrill. Besides, some of them bore the detested bar sinister of school exercise relationship.

Every San Francisco boy looked forward to playing the beachcomber once a week—Saturday at least. Some sported along the shingle and the docks with elastic frequency, according to the proximity of their residences to the secnes of their gambols. To many of the boys the arena of enjoyment was one of the magnificent distances—magnificent in the opportunities spread over many blocks offered for unrestrained indulgence in pursuits combining commercialism and belligerency in a combination dear to the juvenile disposition. Perhaps the mention of these avocations requires some elucidation to those not on the remembrance roll.

Take the flying dash into Chinatown on the way to the water front, which shows the rapacity of certain Chinese street merchants. These barterers kept marts of trade in dark cellars and persisted in asking 10 cents for “Chinee clams” (dried abalones I believe they call ‘em now), when open market quotations fixed 5 cents as a unit of value. Naturally there was squabbling, as at all bargain counters, and everyone knows that things get upset when squabbling begins. Certainly the fellows tried to help the Celestial pick up the clams, but, plainly and frankly, a Chinese can never understand a boy’s awys, and what with their internal “ki-yiing,” the fellows would just have to run for it.

Another industrial center was the northeast corner of Washington and Sansome streets, where a versatile chap with a wooden leg kept a second-hand book stall. He was really a “literary man with a wooden leg,” and thoroughly remindful of Dickens’ Silas Wegg, the evil genius of Mr. Boffin.

At one corner of his stall was stored the masterpieces of literature. There were to be found dog-eared yellow Beadles’ “Dimes,” saffron-hued De Witt’s “Ten-Cent Romances,” Ornum’s “Populars” in pink tights, Munro’s “Boy’s Own” in salmon-tinted vests, and Frank Starr’s “American” novels in cream-colored overcoats.

Here the dickering for options and bargains was fierce. Silas Wegg knew every title and had read every volume. (He said so, at least, and was believed because he could win out under cross-examination.) With Beadle running favorite at a 5-cent cash valuation, or one to three against the field in exchange, and the others coming along neck and neck under wear-and-tear valuations, sale sessions were as exciting as any carried on in the Stock Exchange under bonanza auspices.

“Stick to Beadles’ Dimes, lad,” the wily Silas was wont to say, affectionately caressing a pile of yellow-backs.

“They’re reliable and not about Claude Duval, Sixteen-String Jack Rann, Jack Sheppard and other cutthroats such as Ornum’s and De Witt’s show up and who it don’t give you any tone to know about. Stick to Indian writers like Ole Coombs, Edward Ellis and Sylvanus Cobb, and sea yarners such as Capt’n Whittaker and Prentiss Ingraham, whose father was Professor Ingraham, who wrote ‘Captain Kidd, the Wizard of the Sea’ and ‘Lafitte, the Pirate of the Gulf,’ that your daddy used to read. That’s something you can point out to him if he catches you with one of these dimes in your pocket.”

Poor Silas Wegg lost his corner holding when Uncle Sam planned to erect the Appraisers’ building, and cold-blooded bureaucratic manipulations at Washington effectually shut out any hope Silas may have had of having his literary headquarters incorporated in the new brick corner.

Belligerency as a concomitant in beachcombing activities came about through community conditions as they were accepted by the rising generation. San Francisco was a city of districts and the adolescents were somewhat clannish in district affliations. In one group were the hill boys—the Russian Hill contingent and the Telegraph Hill crew; there were the “town smarties,” whose habitats were in or near the business sections; the Mission bands and the South Park and Rincon Hill squadrons. Each of these sections waved the banner of superiority, and belligerency was born in that waving.

The districts were also identified by school slogans as rallying cries—the Spring Valleys, the Hayes Valleys, the Lincolns, the Cosmopolitans, North and South, and so on.

Later, the High School—there was but one for the city—was the melting pot, and young San Francisco came out of it united and ready to fight the real battles of life shoulder to shoulder.

But in beachcombing days or on holidays, district feeling sometimes ran high and clashes were frequent between the district groups. Party feeling often overflowed, though into a large pool of good fellowship.

The north shore line had such a number of nooks, specially cut out, it would seem, by nature for boyish adventure and sport, that one could not be hoggish about showing them off, and the North-end boys often deemed it an honor when the Mission crowd, in the midst of the trapping season, and when the hills and slopes and dells of their district were full of “yellow hammers,” “redheads” and linnets just yearning to play peek-a-boo with the skylight on the upper story of a trapping cage, forsook their pleasure to revel in the beach surf. It was a distinct compliment to the natives of the North End and an acknowledgment of the superiority of its resources.

Was there ever for natatory purposes a better stretch of water than was inclosed in the cove that indented the bay at the foot of Larkin street, with its end resting on Hyde street, and on Black Point, with its military headquarters at the foot of Van Ness avenue? Could anyone decry the Spring Valley boys for feeling chesty over the cove, with its clear water; its moss-covered rocks on one side, its bulkhead at the east end, with deep water at its base for diving? Robinson Crusoe never had a Bulkhead!

Yes, it all belonged to the Spring Valley boys. It was in a straight line from their school at Broadway and Larkin street. It must be admitted that the Washington School presumed to assert a lien on the Hyde street end of the cove and often held it down by superior numbers; also must it be admitted that the Smelting Company and the parties who ran the Mermaid bathing parlors claimed certain privileges around the cove, and their claims were given a certain amount of consideration owing to property entanglements. The Telegraph Hill squad, too, as dwellers by the sea, demanded shore line privileges which were originally allowed.

Plunger Dick added tone to Shelter Cove. He was connected in some way with the yachts that used to anchor offshore. He won his title through being the sole survivor of many plunger accidents that took place on gusty days on the bay. The plunger is a bay craft that is seen no more. Rigged with one mast, it had a habit of plunging about in a cranky fashion, and usually wound up its antics by turning turtle, its occupants being drowned. Plunger Dick was fond of telling of his varied experiences with these freakish craft.

“Don’t get me excited when she goes over,” he would say, “and git under her. You’ll never come up. But as she goes over you slip over this other side and first thing you know you’re astride of her keel. I kin do it without getting wet. Then a fellow comes out in a whitehall and tows you in and you’re good for another spin next Sunday. See?”

Grim tragedy threw its baleful shadow over the cove on more than one occasion. It was there that Ralston, the banker, met his death on that August day when his bank went to smash on the lee shore of financial ruin.

It was there that the young life of one of Spring Valley’s favorite pupils drifted out among the rippling waters of the sunlit bay and was lost. For a week classmates only mentioned the cove in whispers and refrained from the usual noontime dash down the hill to its cooling wavelets and gazed solemnly upon the wreath of blossoms that lay upon the dusk in the corner of the classroom where “Eddie” would sit no more.

The Spring Valley boys also had big property interests stretching past the Presidio where the soldiers fired the sunset gun at eve and the bugler sounded the reveille on the clear cool air, to Fort Point, where hung the great fog bell that boomed out so drearily at night when the gray banks drifted in from the ocean which they were willing to hold in common with Uncle Sam because the Presidio boys, who were world beaters as drummers and who wore Army blue trousers, were classmates at Spring Valley.

There was a network of creeks running over the sands to mingle with the bay, fed by springs and tidewater, around which hovered wild ducks and pelicans. And between the Presidio and the fort, among other natural advantages as a field for exploration, there were tule-tufted marshes forming everglades that Osceola would not have disdained as a place to make a grand-stand Seminole play in. Ah, the whole stretch was a stamping ground of wild and unalloyed pleasure many years before the Panama-Pacific Exposition there set up its temples of beauty and laid out its pathways of diversion and delight.

Along the water front proper there was less of the wild life atmosphere. There were doings on the docks, where the island and Panama steamers tied up, which were suggestive of sunny scenes under tropical skies, of the magic breath of coral isles and palm-lined beaches. Kanaka sailors, big-eyed and brown-skinned, put a finishing touch to the tent ensemble, which often was an inconvenient distinction when one had only a few precious moments for sorting over cargoes of bananas, pineapples and cocoanuts, which rough and ready men of the sea tossed out in reckless abandon on to the wharf, there to lie until the consignees found time to come around and claim what was left after the boys had sorted things out for them. There was the iceboats which infested Mission street wharf, bringing huge loads of icebergs, all trimmed and squared up by some ice carpenter. A prevailing impression was that these boats and their cool cargoes came direct from the Arctic circle and no one could conceive how with such a drain upon the cicrle’s resources there could be anything but an open polar sea clear to the pole itself.

Fishing saw its palmiest days off Long bridge, stretching from the foot of Fourth street in the direction of Butchertown. Even the finny denizents of the bay were proud of the locality—and in lively fashion in their mad scramble to sacrifice themselves on the hooks of young San Francisco, ranged in rows on the edges of the wharf.

Long bamboo poles were much in vogue with the anglers, although many paid out line, knotted at intervals, cut from the kite-string roll. There was little space wasted between these bright-eyed, freckle-faced fisher lads, and at times when a breeze swept along the watery surface, or an enthusiastic angler got a bit and made a reckless “haul in” the network of lines would resemble a huge cobweb in the confusion. Then would coversation swell into the gale of sound and a hooked tomcod would shudder itself into dull oblivion in frightened haste.

Then would the hairy man across the way, who sat in a canebrake of bamboo fishing poles (at 10 and 25 cents per) in “Wild Man of Borneo” sort of style, and his side-kicker, the old bait man, batten down hatches and take to stevedoring operations in the shifting of schooner cargoes in “Jake’s” near-by resort until the fury of the tempest had spent itself.

But the day is nearing its close and it’s a long hike home, and now is a good time to start, as walking is much easier keeping time to the foot-toot-tootsing calliope of the Chin Du Wan, as that noble ferry craft plows along on its bay mission, playing grand opera variations as she goes.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 30 July 1916. 28.

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