The California Gold Rush saw the beginning of many personal fortunes. That fact is commonly known. Not so common is the knowledge that the same time in history also saw the beginning of San Francisco’s infamous Barbary Coast.
Located mostly in what is now the city’s Financial and Chinatown Districts, the Barbary Coast was arguably the most corrupt, lawless and licentious area of the United States between 1849-1915. (California was granted statehood in 1850; San Francisco was an unincorporated territory of the U.S. between 1847-50.)
Named by sailors after the Barbary Coast of North Africa, home to many pirates of the day, this then-seedy section of town was home to hundreds of brothels, saloons and gambling halls. Places like The Old Ship Saloon (still located at Pacific and Battery), Spider Kelly’s, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s House and the Hippodrome is where many residents and travelers would venture to have good-times of all types.
Of course, it was not uncommon for some of the less fortunate patrons to be drugged and knocked over the head, only to wake up on a ship halfway to Shanghai.
Lola Montez, the Irish-born Spanish-dancer who coined the phrase, “What Lola wants, Lola gets,” the self-proclaimed Emperor Norton, and sideshow-wildman Oofty-Goofty were just several of more colorful characters in San Francisco’s history who either frequented or made The Barbary Coast their home.
Today, you can experience some of that history either through a guided tour or by following the 170 bronze medallions found along the 3.8-mile stretch now called The Barbary Coast Trail.
The first of the arrow-accompanied markers can be found in front of the Old U.S. Mint located at 88 5th Street at Mission. However, if you do, be sure to keep your eyes open so you don’t end up finding yourself halfway to Shanghai!
If you are interested in taking such a tour, visit the BARBARY COAST TRAIL website or call them at 415-454-2355 in order to make an appointment or download one of their audio tours.
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