search   index   by subject   by year   biographies   books  SF Activities  shop museum   contact


BARBARY COAST 1887
AN ODD CORNER OF SAN FRANCISCO

When one steps off the car which deposits him at the Oakland Ferry wharf, it never occurs to him to turn and look back, or, if it did. his glance would be too superficial a one to appreciate what lay behind. He would see nothing but a network of streets. which grew dirtier as they approached the water', edge. and yet he is standing upon the threshold of a phase of civilization which is quite as much of a curiosity as Chinatown. It may almost be said that he is standing between two civilizations. On the one side of the broad street are the wide wharves, with their fresh, clean street cars, and beyond their comfortable waiting-rooms the array of whistling steamboats, the tout ensemble making up a picture which could stand as the representative of all that modern invention and progress have accomplished. Turn your back upon all this, push your way through the busy, hurrying crowd, hold vour breath as you, dodge between a labyrinth of street cars and carriages, cross the broad way, and suddenly you find yourself in a quarter where the world seems to have gone to sleep, and which is as un-American as any old forgotten seaport in Europe. You are no longer in San Francisco, you are in Sailortown, a village which, owing probably to the nomadic character of its inhabitants, has no distinct individuality apart from the numberless quarters of a similar character which are scattered over the face of the earth, but which bas a very distinct individuality indeed from the city at whose feet it lies. Its boundaries are as sharply defined as those of Chinatown, and beyond them you rarely see a sailor. Here its inhabitants have all the homes they ever knew or share. Here they eat, drink and are merry (extremely merry at times.) Here they buy their limited wardrobes and sell the curious things picked up in their wanderings. Here they have their restaurants, churches, clubs, libraries, stores and gin-shops. It is a town so complete in itself that they seldom feel the need of the great city beyond. One finds nothing in their shops but those articles peculiarly demanded by the saIlor, except the curios, and these preserve the local color, for they can be found in bulk nowhere else. They come mainly from the South Sea Islands, or other islands little known to the everyday traveler, and some of them are very handsome: There are arrow-heads of mother-of-pearl and carved walrus tusks, which would bring a round sum further up town, but which can be had for a mere song here. Some of the curios of savage workmanship are well worth buying, and the alchoholized tarantulas and scorpions which one sees in these low-roofed, crowded little shops divest our native specimens of all their terror. The most acceptable articles which one sometimes runs across in his researches among Sailortown curios are the black pearls. Occasionally a half cup full will be pushed across the counter toward you, and the price asked is a bagatelle.

Sailor-town is an extremely orderly place in the day time. The few men who are loafing about with a pipe in their mouth, are sober, and one never sees a woman until the street lamps are turned up. Then, tradition says, Sailortown is a lively place. It would be a courageous citizen, indeed, who would venture within its charmed precincts after nightfall unattended by a policeman, and it is the safest place on the coast in which a criminal can hide. But in the day time Nob Hill is not more serene. One climbs up into their public library and beholds a dozen sailors-each one a study for an artist poring over the newspapers or a book, and one fails to realize that gin is a factor of some importance in the sailor's existence. Across the hall from the library is the bethel, which is a curiosity in its way. It is quite large, very clean, very bare, very devoid of all comfort. The pulpit is the stern of a ship and the altar a wheel, while over the latter is the inscription ďAnd the Lord preached to the multitude out of the ship."

I have intimated before that an artist would find plenty to do in Sailortown. There is one corner in particular which would make an effective picture from its specific nature and its lowness of tone. One climbs up two steep flights of stairs, and at the top of a rickety building finds himself in a sail-loft. Fancy a long, narrow room, with bare whitewashed walls and through a window far down at the end a glimpse of red brick buildings-a wonderful study in perspective. The floor is bare, the light is cold and white, and bending over great pieces of sail, are three or four men, working with great precision and rapidity and in absolute silence. That is all. There is not an atom of color or a suggestion of the picturesque, but there is a wonderful harmony, and the picture lives in one's memory when more brilliant ones are forgotten. The rugged head and deep-seamed face of one old man would make a picture by itself.

The line of caste is as sharply drawn among these sailors as on a man-of-war. The mates and men never mingle in their carousals. Each saloon has an outer and an inner room. In the outer the common sailors spend the nights over their rum and their cards, but the inner chamber is sacred to their superiors. The latter have their own methods of amusement. The room is generally ill-lighted. In the centre is a table with a great bowl of steaming punch, and about it are a dozen hardened men, muffled in their overcoats, and with their caps pulled low over their eyes. Presently some one goes over to an attenuated piano in the corner and begins to bang. Then two or three of the men about the table get up and solemnly dance. I use the word solemnly advisedly. They never smile, and their terpsichorean efforts consist of a kind of slow, monotonous jig, which they keep up until exhausted, when others take their place. An artist, however, had better not attempt to obtain access to one of these stately revels. It would be as much as his life was worth.
Another curious feature of Sailortown is the little harbor of the Italian fishermen. It is a miniature reproduction of the harbor at Genoa, and the Italian smacks, the picturesque figures in their red shirts, and the lazily alert air of the denizens of this small world, are
very characteristic of the mother country.

BONA DEA.


San Francisco News Letter

Page two

May 7, 1887

 

Home