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Interesting Facts About San Francisco's Colorful Past 

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Golden Gate Park

I grew up playing and riding my bike with friends in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. It never occurred to me then to wonder how long the park had been there, or how it came to be in the first place. As an adult, however, I became curious about the park's beginnings. It's a fascinating story!

Shortly after 1866, the people of San Francisco began clamoring for a large public park. It was at about that time that New York had begun work on Central Park, and Boston was planning its beautiful Public Garden. In order to keep up the city's civic pride, San Francisco decided that it, too, should have a park of its own.

The first problem the city faced was where to place the new park, especially when it was discovered that the best land had already been appropriated. In 1868, the mayor ordered the board of supervisors to make a survey of sites available. They recommended certain areas west of Divisadero Street toward the beach -- a total of 1013 acres known as the Outside Lands.

Unfortunately, there had long been dispute over ownership of this land, which had been parts of the pueblo of San Francisco ceded to the government under the old Spanish and Mexican grants. In the late 1860s, the land was held by squatters and outlaws, who were in no hurry to vacate. After a great deal of bickering, the city finally raised enough money to purchase the land for $810,595.

Ownership of this property, however, was only the beginning of the problems the city would have to face in order to build their new park. In 1871, the area was just an arid, windswept tract of shifting sand dunes. Many experts believed that trees could not be grown on the site, which had less water and more sand than any other section of the city.

Still, while San Franciscans jeered, the grounds were surveyed and the landscape plan designed by William Hammond Hall, who also undertook the first control of the sand. Small boys were hired to go out into the hills and collect seed from the wild lupine and this, together with beach grass, was sown to provide anchorage. Whenever a plant took root, seedlings of cypress, pine and gum trees were planted on the spot.

Meanwhile, thousands of tons of soil were being hauled from near-by hills and mixed with the sand to give it ballast. Humus and peat, straw, grass cuttings and tons of manure were spaded into it. Little by little, fertile soil was made and the tawny dunes began to take on tints of green. It was a true miracle of sorts; grass and shrub and tress grew where none had ever grown before. And at last there came a day when San Franciscans looking out to sea across the onetime rolling sand, were able to gaze upon hundreds of acres of lush and verdant park land.

No discussion of Golden Gate Park would be complete without mentioning the park's presiding genius, John McLaren. From 1890 to his death in 1943, McLaren dedicated his life to creating a recreation ground for beauty and utility. It is largely because of this man that San Francisco's great park was preserved, nurtured and cultivated into the lovely oasis that it remains to this day.

Sources: "Suddenly San Francisco, The Early Years" by Charles Lockwood, "Golden Gate, The Park of a Thousand Vistas" by Katherine Wilson, "San Francisco Secrets", by John Snyder, and "San Francisco Almanac" by Gladys Hansen.

San Francisco's Famous Cliff House

The first of the four Cliff Houses to occupy the northwest tip of San Francisco -- at the entrance to the Golden Gate where the land ends and the Pacific crashes against the cliffs and shore -- was erected in 1863 by Charles Butler, a local real estate man. Not only did it afford a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, but its many visitors were greatly entertained by the antics of thousands of sea lions, otters and the famous seals from which the massive sandstone cliffs -- once a part of the mainland -- were named.

Before the first Europeans arrived in the seventeen hundreds, Ocean Beach was part of one vast sand dune with not a tree in sight. In 1857, Harper's Weekly had this to say about Ocean Beach: "The voyager is impressed with the gloomy appearance of the scene before him; a multitude of low, black sand hills are partially visible over which continually sweep, like disturbed spirits, flying clouds of dense mist. Passing gradually into the strait, the scene constantly increases in interest. The surrounding hills assume a more positive form; the islands become bold and rocky, and in some parts precipitous, swelling at times into towering mountains. The strong winds and heavy fog which constantly assail the land, prevents trees and luxuriant vegetation.

Despite the fog and frequent winds, this first Cliff House had everything necessary to ensure its success. Except easy access. Located at what was popularly referred to as Lands End, Ocean Beach was so far out of the city, and so difficult to reach, that it wasn't until a toll road was finished in 1864 that visitors could finally travel there in relative comfort and a great deal less time.

In 1866, the proprietor of the first Cliff House was Capt. Junius G. Foster, who was a jovial, innovative innkeeper. People flocked in from San Francisco for good food and drink, horse racing and other recreation. The mile-and-a-quarter-long "speedway" (one of the final sections of the toll road) was constantly rolled to keep it smooth and watered to hold down the dust. Such famous men as Senator George Hearst, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker regularly raced their trotters on this improvised speedway.

In 1868, Captain Foster tripled the size of the building by adding two wings and a long balcony to the original structure, thus making it what is now referred to as the "second" Cliff House, and providing overnight lodging for his guests. It became one of the premiere attractions for all the first families of the city. But in the late 1870s, the guests began to complain that the outings to Lands End weren't as much fun as they had once been. The reason for this wasn't difficult to find: Cliff House was now crawling with tourists. On nice afternoons, it wasn't unusual to see 1,200 teams hitched in front of the buildings. As the genteel clientele disappeared, the Cliff House began attracting more moneyed gamblers, politicians, and lobbyists, along with their assorted collection of lady friends.

In the early 1880s, Adolph Sutro -- a quiet and scholarly German who made his fortune by solving the drainage and ventilation problems at the Comstock Lode -- bought the Cliff House and much of the surrounding land, In fact, at one time Sutro owned 1/12 of the city of San Francisco! He went on to build a vast mansion, a conservatory, a park, and the largest indoor public bath complex in the world.

When the "second" Cliff House burned to the ground in 1894, Adolph Sutro rebuilt, but this time on a much grander scale. (Incidentally, this is the Cliff House pictured on the jacket of THE CLIFF HOUSE STRANGLER, chosen, if fifteen years ahead of its time, because it is so much more dramatic and recognizable than the actual building which stood there at that time). This new structure was so ornate that it quickly became known as the "Gingerbread Palace". It was a gradiose and eye-catching ediface, and went on to host many of the celebrities and luminaries of the day, such as Sarah Bernhardt, Adelina Patti, Presidents Hays, Grant, Teddi Roosevelt and Taft. In his quest to attract more working-class families to the Cliff House, Sutro discontinued offering hotel services, leading the establishment to become a popular venue for dining, receptions, private lunches, galleries, gift shops and exhibits.

Adolph Sutro died in 1898, and thus did not live long enough to see his beloved Cliff House bravely withstand the ravages of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Unfortunately, its good fortune was short-lived. On September 7, 1907, the Gingerbread Palace Cliff House burned completely down to the rocks. Sutro's daughter, Dr. Emma Merritt, erected the "fourth" Cliff House, but rather than creating another elaborate structure, she opted to build one of concrete and steel that would blend in with its surroundings. This Cliff House opened its doors on July 1, 1909. After the unique and expansive Sutro Baths burned down in 1966, part of its contents -- the Musee Mecanique -- moved into the Cliff House where it still remains. The Cliff House closed once more in 1969, but reopened again in 1973 with restaurants, bars and shops. In 1977, the Golden Gate National Parks Association became the owner of the property for $3,791,000.

To this day, the San Francisco Cliff House remains one of the city's most beloved and exciting landmarks, attracting millions of visitors every year from all over the world.

Sources: "San Francisciana: Photographs of the Cliff House," by Marilyn Blaisdell; "San Francisco's Ocean Beach," by Kathleen Manning and Jim Dickson, Arcadia Books; "Suddenly San Francisco: The Early Years of an Instant City," by Charles Lockwood, A California Living Book.

San Francisco's Infamous Barbary Coast

Fifty Raucous Years Of Villainy!

The history of the Barbary Coast – named after the pirate-infested North African coastline – began with the 1849 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort in California’s Sacramento Valley.

It was not until sometime in the 1860s, however, that the region bounded by Broadway, Embarcadero, Grant, and Washington came into its own, rapidly becoming notorious for its saloons, bordellos, gambling houses and crime. San Francisco's citizens knew it to be the most dangerous district in the city.

It was said that within the Barbary Coast confines, more than three thousand licenses to serve liquor were issued in one year – according to these statistics, there existed a saloon here for every ninety-five persons in the entire city! Among various gangs of toughs on the waterfront, were the Barbary Coast Rangers, who terrorized shops, robbed harlots and fell upon unwary citizens who foolishly ventured into the sailortown streets at night. By day it was crowded with people of the sea; at night criminals worked from its shadows!

To San Francisco goes the dubious honor of coining the word “shanghai” – the process of delivering drunk, drugged or, if all else failed, beaten sailors to crew ships waiting in the harbor. Men known as “crimps”, paid “runners” from three to five dollars for each man they brought to his saloon or boarding establishment. There, the sailors were given drinks “on the house”, then beguiled by heavily painted ladies who watched for an opportunity to slip a few drops of laudanum into the man’s whiskey. If a sailor became cantankerous, he was promptly silenced by a blow to the back of his head. Once he’d been rendered unconscious – and rolled for his money and valuables – he was unceremoniously dropped through trapdoors where more men waited to deliver him to the wet pine deck of an outward-bound long-voyage ship. Many a sailor’s stay in port ended up being as short as an hour, depending on the demand for ship hands.

Prostitution was unarguably the Coast’s primary source of income. However, profits from shanghaiing was tallied in the millions of dollars, and murders were numbered in the thousands. Almost everyone living within the district was either a harlot, killer, crooked politician, pimp, thief, runner, crimp, or fugitive. Some historians claim that throughout its fifty some years of existence, the Barbary Coast committed every crime known to man.

Most San Franciscans abhorred the depravity, crimes and excesses of the Coast. However, periodic attempts at reform met with little success, partly due to protection from crooked officials who received payoffs or shared in the profits from various saloons, brothels, boarding houses and other establishments.

The Barbary Coast began its decline after the 1906 earthquake. When rebuilding started, many people protested that this area was too corrupt and low brow for an increasingly important city. The final blow came in 1914 when the Red Light Abatement Act – designed to close the many houses of prostitution – was passed by the state legislature. When the new law was upheld by the California Supreme Court in 1917, the area’s main attraction and source of revenue was cut off, and the once raucous Barbary Coast faded into history.

Sources: "Historic San Francisco", by Rand Richards, "Golden Gate", by Felix Riesenberg, Jr., "San Francisco Almanac", by Gladys Hansen and "The Great San Francisco", by Janet Bailey.

Emperor Joshua Norton

The man famously known in early San Francisco as His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was born in London, England, sometime between 1814 and 1819 (the exact date remains unclear). There was little to suggest, however, that the ambitious young Joshua A. Norton, who arrived in San Francisco in 1849, would go on to become one of the most colorful and beloved figures ever to take up residence in the rapidly expanding City by the Bay! Stepping off the boat from England, Joshua Norton carried with him the majestic sum of $40,000, inherited from his father who had died the previous year. The younger Norton enjoyed a highly successful career in the real estate market and as a merchant, so much so that by 1853 he had accumulted a fortune worth some $250,000. In an attempt to make a financial killing cornering the market on rice imported from Peru, he bought an entire shipload only to watch helplessly as tons of rice glutted the market, causing the price of rice to plummet. After years of litigation between Norton and his financial partners, the Supreme Court eventually dealt Norton a bitter defeat, leaving the young Englishman penniless. Norton declared bankruptcy in 1858 and left San Francisco for parts unknown.

When Norton returned to San Francisco from his self-imposed exile, he came back a changed man, acting decidedly odd and exhibiting delusions of grandeur. No one knew or remembered who he was or where he had come from, but his faultless attire and regal airs led to intense speculation and surmise. From beneath his polished silk hat fell a thick mane of black hair, and he walked with a curious flourish suggestive of the theater, his gold-headed cane held behind him. Supposedly, Norton spoke to no one, preserving the aura of mystery as he went his way unconcerned by the staring public. Every afternoon he would promenade down Montgomery Street absorbed in his own thoughts. Then on September 17, 1859, the mysterious stranger distributed letters to various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself to be Joshua A. Norton I, Emperor of these United States. Occasionally thereafter, he would add "Protector of Mexico" to this title, in the belief that America's neighbors to the south were in dire need of leadership and guidance. With these startling declarations, Norton began his unprecedented and remarkable 21-year "reign" over America.

It is not known how the citizens of San Fransisco initially felt about their new monarch, but they apparently soon got used to him, for he was often seen walking the streets of the city, dressed in his regal -- although frequently a bit worn -- alternating blue and grey uniform, to show his support for both the Union and the Confederacy, his beaver hat with its colored feathers, his saber at his side and gnarled cane and wiry umbrella in hand. When his uniform was worn out, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with a great deal of ceremony, presented him with another, for which he sent them a note of thanks and a patent for nobillity in perpetuity for each supervisor.

As Norton the I, Emperor of the United States of America, he lived at a boarding house on Commercial Street, and was registered as "Emperor, living at 624 Commercial St." in a census done August 1, 1870. He resided there for seventeen years, insisting on paying his rent by day instead of by the week. He was fed for free by some of San Fransisco's finest resturants, which he graciosly allowed to put up signs which said; "By Appointment to His Emperor, Joshua Norton I." He had a standing ticket, together with his two dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, at any play or concert in the city´s theatres. He was given a bicycle by the city as his means of royal transport, he was allowed to review the police to check that they performed their duty, and a special chair was reserved for him at each precinct. He marched at the head of the annual Police parade and reviewed the cadets at the University of California. In order to pay his bills he issued paper notes, mostly in 50 cent denominations but some $5 and $10 notes exist. Today they are worth far more than the face value (if they can be found).

In accordance with his self-appointed role of emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of state. Deeming that he had assumed power, he saw no further need for a legislature, and on October 12, 1859, he issued a decree that formally "dissolved" the United States Congress. Not surprisingly, Norton's "orders" had no effect on Congress, which continued in its activities unperturbed. Norton issued further "decrees" in 1860 that purported to dissolve the republic and to forbid the assembly of any members of the Congress. These, like all of Norton's decrees, passed unnoticed by the government in Washington, and by the nation at large. Refusing to be discouraged, Norton's battle against the elected leaders of America was to persist throughout his "reign", though it appears that he eventually, if somewhat grudgingly, accepted that Congress would continue to exist without his permission, although this didn't change his feelings on the matter.

His days consisted of inspecting the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform with tarnished gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco, and wearing a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. Frequently he enhanced this regal posture with a cane or umbrella. During his ministrations Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, the appearance of police officers, and attend to the needs of his subjects as they arose. He would frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot.

It was during one of his "Imperial inspections" that Norton is reputed to have performed one of his most famous acts. During the 1860s and 1870s there were a number of anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco, and ugly and fatal riots broke out on several occasions. During one such incident, Norton is alleged to have positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets, and with a bowed head began to recite the Lord's Prayer repeatedly. Shamed, the rioters dispersed without incident.

The Empreror had two dogs, strays who apparently recognized a kindred spirit in the peculiar little man, and immediately adopted him. Lazarus and Bummer became Norton's constant companions and followers, and most of the contemporary cartoons of the emperor showed him walking his dogs. Tragedy struck, however, when, in october 1863, Lazarus was run over and killed by a fire-truck. A public funeral was held, and many prominet people turned up to console the Emperor. Bummer continued to beg for scraps at his masters´ feet until the 10th of November 1865 when he, too, shuffled off this mortal coil. Mark Twain wrote the epitaph for the noble canine, saying that he'd died "full of years, and honor, and disease, and fleas."

As for the Emperor, he lived out his remaining years in his little room at 624 Commercial Street, continuing to oversee his domain during his daily walks. On January 8, 1880, tragedy once again struck San Francisco. On that sad day, Norton I, "Dei Gratia" Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, was promoted to glory on California Street, on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences, two blocks away. The cause of death was apoplexy. In his pocket was found some telegrams, a coin purse, a two and half dollar gold piece, three dollars in silver, an 1828 French Franc, and a few of his own bonds. When reporters sacked the Emperors' tiny apartment they discovered that all he left behind in the world was his collection of walking sticks, his tasseled saber, newsclippings, his corrospondesce with Queen Victoria and Lincoln, and 1,098,235 shares of stock in a worthless gold mine.

The Morning Call ran the headline; "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life." On the 10th of January 1880 Emperor Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery. Wealthy citizens of San Fransisco paid for the coffin and burial expenses. The funeral cortege was two miles long and an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 people turned up for the funeral. It is reported by some that his burial was marked by a total eclipse of the sun.

On June 30, 1934, his grave was moved to Woodlawn Cemetery by the citizens of San Francisco. On January 7, 1980, San Fransisco marked the 100th anniversary of the death of its only Emperor with lunch-hour ceremonies at Market and Montgomery streets.

Coming in DECEMBER, San Francisco's infamous BARBARY COAST.

Sources: "Joshua A. Norton", from Wikipedia Encyclopedia, "San Francisco Kaleidoscope" by Samuel Dickson, "The Fantastic City", by Amelia Ransome Neville, and excerpts from The Emperor Norton website.

Old San Francisco Chinatown

The first settlers of San Francisco's Tangrenbu, or "Port of the People of Tang" landed in the city as early as 1847. Since then, the area has gone on to become one of North America's oldest, largest and most historic Chinatowns. Located in downtown San Francisco, Old Chinatown was roughly six blocks long, from California to Broadway, and two blocks wide, from Kearny to Stockton. China at this time was undergoing a period of tremendous upheaval, and during the late 1840s and early 1850s, many Chinese eagerly seized the opportunity to seek their fortunes in California, which was generally referred to as "Gum San, or "Land of the Golden Mountain". By the end of 1851, there were an estimated 4,000 Chinese in San Francisco; by the following year their numbers had increased to 25,000.

Early Chinatown was notable for its lack of women. Between 1848 and 1854, only 16 out of 45,000 Chinese immigrants were women. The main reason for this was that the Chinese were not immigrants in the classic sense: they did not come to San Francisco with the intention of settling permanently, but only to work and save enough money to return to China. Because respectable wives were expected to tend the home fires, and also because few men could afford the additional money to bring their wives with them, the great majority of San Francisco's female population in the nineteenth century were prostitutes. Some came expressly to ply their trade, while others were kidnapped, tricked into signing false marriage contracts, or lured by promises of rich husbands in the new country. Bought for $100 to $300 in China, slave girls (some as young as 6 or 7), were sold for $300 to $600 in the United States.

The structure of this early Chinatown depended upon groupings by kinship, geographical region, and by other self-defining institutions. Such arrangements allowed the Chinese to tend their own house, gave them comfort during the long exile from home, and helped keep the majority of the poor dependent on those "companies" who had early on assumed control. Gradually, the Six Companies became the governing body of Chinatown, with complete authority over all Chinese activities. The infamous "tongs" were originally merely associations of groups with common interests, but soon they were taken over by the formal criminal element in the community. Their sordid history revolved around gangsters, hatchet men and extortionists.

During the seventies when the Chinese made up between 70 and 80 percent of the work force, they were a constant source of controversy. As they established a reputation for industry and hard work, a rural anti-Chinese movement formed and quickly gained strength. In July 1877, crowds of mainly unemployed white laborers gathered in sandlot rallies throughout San Francisco. White Protestant "manifest destiny" arrogance translated into a nativist attack on the Chinese, who not only worked harder and longer hours than many of their white counterparts, they frequently comanded less pay. "The Chinese Must Go!" cried by Dennis Kearney, the fiery orator of the Workingmen's Party, was quoted by local newspapers saying, "Judge Lynch is the only judge we want." Violence against the Chinese mounted throughout the 1870s and 1880s, with bands of angry young men sweeping through Chinatown commiting random murders and setting fires to Chinese businesses and makeshift dwellings.

Whereas San Francisco's Tamgrembi was originally a refueling station for Chinese scattered about the region, it became more and more a segregated ghetto that kept the Chinese in one area, and whites out. Despite this segregation, by the turn of the century Chinese made up practically the entire labor force working the canneries amd constituted a large part of the manpower in the laundries, the garment industry, cigar, match, boot, and broom factories, as well as the fishing and fish-packing industries.

Although many San Franciscans continued their harassment, they observed the Orientals' qualities of loyalty, obedience, and tireless endeavor, as well as their capacity to persevere in the face of the most overwhelimg obstacles. Also, the Chinese love of gambling and games proved equally appealing to their Caucasian neighbors. Chinatown gambling dens became a major nineteenth-century tourist attractions. As the Westerm community gradually responded to Chinese ways, the Chinese slowly began to settle in, to view their stay no longer entirely as sojourners, but with the possibility of permanence.

Early on the morning of April 17, 1906, one of the most devastating earthquakes in American history rattled and shook the City by the Bay. What little remained of San Francisco's Old Chinatown was inevitably claimed by a fire which raged through the city for four days and nights. Before midnight of that terror-filled first day 10,000 Chinese had fled the Quarter. On the second day, anything that had escaped the earlier flames was destroyed as the fire fanned back over the skeleton of Chinatown yet again. Two white Americans, Aitken and Hilton, wrote: "By the fourth day the Quarter was a blackened ruin. The bright lanterns, the little grated windows, the balconies that whispered of romance, the flaring dragons, were gone. Gone, too, the ill-smelling fish markets and cellar shops, the bazaars, the gambling dens, the places where opium was smoked in guarded secrecy. Everything that had made the little foreign section a tradition throught the world had disappeared."

Slowly, however, the Chinese drifted back to Dupont Gai and its smoking rubble. They stubbornly shrugged off the demands that they move to the periphery of the city. Fine, handsome buildings of Oriental design, many with pagodalike roofs, were designed and built along what was coming to be called Grant Avenue. Apartments and hotels sprang up as the Chinese crowded back into the Quarter, and the population began to curve upward again until it would reach over 36,000 in 1960.

For all its dark alleys, there is nothing very sinister about modern Chinatown. Only on foggy nights when veils of sea mist obscure Spofford Alley and Wavery Place does the Chinese Quarter assume something of an air of its former mystery and an evocation of its turbulent past.

Coming in NOVEMBER: San Francisco's Emperor Norton, one of the city's most colorful and beloved figures.

Sources: "The Hatchet Men" by Richard H. Dillon, "The Chinese in San Francisco" by Laverne Mau Dicker, "San Francisco's Old Chinatown" text by John Kuo Wei Tchen, and “Old San Francisco, the Biography of a City, by Doris Muscatine.

The Cable Car

In 1872, Andrew S. Hallidie, a Scots-descended immigrant, managed the California Wire Rope and Cable Company on Market Street in San Francisco. For a long time he pondered the difficulties of conquering the many steep grades of this “City of Hills”. He was also concerned about the ill-treatment horses sometimes received from drivers using whips to urge them up the city’s steeper hills. He realized that if he could come up with a transportation system by using a cable traction system, he could move people, heavy goods and other prohibitably large loads up even the steepest of San Francisco’s hills.

Hallidie’s basic invention, adapted from engineer Benjamin H. Brook’s cable plan, combined a grip that would function efficiently without damaging the traveling cable, with a slotted run adapted to the irregularities of the San Francisco terrain.

Undeterred by ridicule and skepticism, on August 2, 1873 at 4:00 a.m., the first trial run of Hallidie’s “dummy” was down the Clay Street hill between Jones and Kearny Streets, a distance of 2,880 feet. Later the same day, the dummy with a car attached, made another round trip, this time with a large crowd in attendance.

This new public transportation cost five cents a ride, and eventually it was able to reach any part of the city, opening whole new areas to development. In their heyday, as many as eight different cable car lines, extending 112 miles, sent cars up Telegraph, Russian and Nob hills, out to the Presidio, to Golden Gate Park, and even to the Cliff House at Lands End.

In 1947, the cable car almost was phased out by authorities in the name of “progress”. The outcry from San Franciscans was such that after a long political struggle, ending in 1955, with only a few miles of track left, they were saved from oblivion. The cable cars received their official seal of approval in 1964 when they were declared a National Historic Landmark.

Sources: “Historic San Francisco” by Rand Richards, Heritage House; “Old San Francisco, the Biography of a City, by Doris Muscatine, Putnam; “San Francisco Almanac,” by Gladys Hansen, Chronicle Books.