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Travel: Print Edition

San Francisco's Wild and Wicked Walk

By Cathleen Miller
Sunday, March 12, 2000; Page E04

In 1848, in the tiny outpost of San Francisco, American publisher Sam Brannan waved a bottle of gold dust above his head, crying, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"--words that launched ships and brought thousands of people west. What they found when they arrived ranged from untold riches to dubious opportunities, prompting local reporter Mark Twain's opinion of prospecting: "A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar on top."

Today, Portsmouth Square--where Brannan cried "Gold!"--is a pivotal point along the city's Barbary Coast Trail, a treat for those who like to take their history on foot rather than from textbooks.

For almost four miles, handsome bronze sidewalk plaques mark the self-guided tour and lead visitors through some of the city's most scenic and historic neighborhoods. In fact, the trail--which starts at the Old Mint, meanders down to Acquatic Park then ends at Nob Hill--makes a great first-day excursion for those new to San Francisco. You can take it at your own pace and meander off the path to investigate any park, shop, mansion, pub or bistro that strikes your fancy. In the process, most will gain an appreciation for how this unique city sprang up following Brannan's speech.

The trail was the brainchild of local author Daniel Bacon, who, upon visiting Boston's Freedom Trail in 1993, envisioned a similar educational path for his home town. He spent the next two years researching and selecting sites that would best chronicle the city's history. The San Francisco Historical Society now sponsors his project, and Bacon has published an indispensable trail guide, "Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail."

The 20 sites cover the breadth of San Francisco's past, including the Hyde Street Pier, which has the largest collection of historic ships in the United States; Nob Hill, where the railroad barons built their mansions; Washington Square in North Beach, home of the city's Italian community; and landmarks of the Beat Generation, where such writers as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac met to spawn a cultural revolution in the 1950s.

But some of the more interesting footnotes are to be found along the Old Barbary Coast and Jackson Square Historic District.

The Embarcadero, as it's called today, was known in the 19th century as Barbary Coast, a name provided by sailors who likened it to the African region infested with pirates. A big business of the day involved "crimps"--men who shanghaied unsuspecting, able-bodied locals by slipping them opium-laced whiskey. When the kidnapped awoke, they were out to sea, having unwillingly become sailors.

Pacific Avenue between Columbus Avenue and Sansome Street was the heart of the ribald action. "The Terrific Pacific," as it was known, burned with wall-to-wall sin as every building housed a dance hall, saloon, gambling hall or brothel--several offering live sex shows. One favorite watering hole was the Fierce Grizzly, not really a metaphor because a live grizzly bear was chained inside the door.

Unfortunately, much of the city's physical history was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. The last surviving Barbary Coast-era buildings can be found around Jackson Square, the only area to escape the firestorm.

Three Italianate Victorians at Hotaling Place are particularly notable, as they make up the location of Anson Hotaling's whiskey distillery, an establishment that supplied refreshment to the entire West Coast. As the city burned, the wind shifted just before Hotaling's was engulfed in flames, and the distillery was miraculously spared. This mysterious intervention prompted one poet to ponder:

If, as they say, God spanked the town for being over frisky,

Why did he burn the churches down

and spare Hotaling's whiskey?

For more information on the Barbary Coast Trail, contact the San Francisco Historical Society at 415-775-1111 or check out its Web site, www.sfhistory.org, which includes a route map. Other sources include, "The Official Guide to San Francisco's Barbary Coast Trail," ($8.95) or Daniel Bacon's "Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail" ($13.95). Both can be found at the San Francisco Visitor's Bureau at Hallidie Plaza (Powell and Market streets), Borders Books at Union Square or the Maritime Store at Fisherman's Wharf.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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