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San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Today

San Francisco's Barbary Coast
San Francisco’s Barbary Coast in the 19th Century.

Barbary Coast was the name given to a neighborhood of San Francisco, more or less encompassing Pacific Avenue (then known as Pacific Street) between Montgomery and Stockton Streets, from the 1860’s to the 1900’s. Roughly bound by today’s Chinatown, North Beach and the Embarcadero, the area was infamous for the easy availability of almost every vice known to man (and woman) and got its name from the notorious Barbary Coast of North Africa. San Francisco’s version was much smaller, but its reputation, arguably, was even greater than its earlier Mediterranean namesake.

In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of the Barbary Coast (it’s everything you thought it might be and more), and then make some recommendations for you to rediscover it in today’s San Francisco.

Early History of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast

What was so special about the neighborhood? The writer Benjamin Estelle Lloyd colorfully described it thus:

The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whore monger, lewd women, cut-throats, murderers, are all found here. Dance halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous.

Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also. 

Lights and Shades of San Francisco, 1876

Sounds like fun, right? And it could be. But it was also very dangerous. Assault, murder, theft, kidnapping – they were all common activities in the Barbary Coast. There was little, if any, recourse to the law, since there was no law – or certainly very few police to enforce it – in San Francisco during much of this period. In 1871 the city had just a hundred police, which equated to one for about every 1,500 inhabitants (as against a ratio of 1:464 in New York and 1:303 in London).

Unsuspecting sailors (who clearly hadn’t paid enough attention to the warnings of their shipmates) would be lured into bars by scantily clad prostitutes, and then drugged and delivered to merchant ships leaving San Francisco. A common destination was Shanghai, so the verb “to shanghai” was duly adopted in the Barbary Coast.

Criminal Gangs

There were gangs of toughs called “crimps” who were paid for every unsuspecting soul they could get onto an outbound ship, no matter how they did it. The reason for the high price of sailors is that often, when arriving ships dropped anchor, the crews would immediately abandon them to head for the Gold Fields.

In fact, dozens of abandoned ships quickly were left to rot in the shallow waters of Yerba Buena cove, and many were put to new uses as hotels, bars, brothels and jails (San Francisco’s first official prison was on a ship there). Nevertheless, the outbound ships needed manning – willing or unwilling – which is where the crimps came in.

Some of the bars the crimps used were on piers and had trap doors, where the drugged sailors could be dropped right into a waiting row-boat and delivered to a ship in the harbor. One of the most notorious press-gang leaders was ‘Shanghai’ Kelly (the name should have been a give-away, he wasn’t from China). Known as the ‘King of the Crimps’ no less, he ran a bar located on what’s now Sidney Walton Square.

Kelly definitely made quite an impression on his contemporaries, if the following description is anything to go by:

Shanghai Kelly was a dumpy little man. He had a mass of riotous red hair, and a huge red beard. He had fury written all over his ugly face. He was so terrible ugly that San Francisco mothers used to frighten their recalcitrant offspring by saying, ‘You be a good boy or I’ll give you to Shanghai Kelly’.

Tales of San Francisco, Samuel Dickson

Famously, he once threw a party for his own birthday, advertising it extensively around the Barbary Coast. He managed to get a hundred sailors to join him for a bay cruise, with the prospect of free food and liquor. The rum was spiked with opium though, and so he was able to deliver his inebriated guests to several waiting ships and make a small fortune.

He was concerned though, that people might comment on the fact that he’d left on the bay cruise with a boat full of people, but was returning with an empty vessel. However, in a stroke of good fortune (for him) a ship called Yankee Blade struck a rock in the harbor and began to sink. Kelly was able to rescue everyone on board and then continue the revelries, so that when he returned to the Barbary Coast no one was any the wiser.

Oofty Goofty

Another memorable character of the Barbary Coast in the 1880’s was a one-time actor known as Oofty Goofty (real name Leonard Borchardt). Goofty’s great claim to fame was his insensitivity to pain, apparently discovered while being thrown drunk out of a bar on Pacific Street and onto the hard San Francisco cobblestones. Miraculously, he didn’t feel a thing.

For many years he made his living around the bars of Barbary Coast by being the willing victim of physical abuse. For ten cents a man might kick Goofty as hard as he pleased, for a quarter he would let himself be hit with a walking stick and for fifty cents he would take a blow from a baseball bat. It says a lot about the residents of Barbary Coast that there were quite a lot of takers and Goofty could make a good living in this rather unorthodox way.

It ended how you might expect, when Goofty made the mistake of taking on U.S. heavyweight champion John Sullivan. Sullivan broke his back with a pool cue and, according to legend, Oofty Goofty died, literally a broken man, just two years later. Although his Wikipedia page lists him as having died at the age of sixty-one years old, in the 1920’s. Who to believe?

Barbary Coast of San Francisco into a New Century

Like many other aspects of old San Francisco the thing that brought an end to the Barbary Coast was the Great Fire, in 1906. First the neighborhood got a new name, Terrific Street, a rebrand that included the ending of a lot of the illicit activity that had plagued it. Then, in 1917, Mayor James Rolph closed all the brothels in San Francisco and, just like that, the Barbary Coast was no more (Shanghaiing was made a federal crime in 1915 too).

In the period after Word War Two there was another rebrand of the neighborhood as International Settlement (probably connected to the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco, in 1945), with a large promotional arched overhead sign on Pacific Avenue (you can still see the brick bases of the sign). This period is featured in the Frank Sinatra 1957 movie Pal Joey and, in fact, when Sinatra’s character searches for a job as a club singer at the beginning of the movie the street itself was used as a location.

However, by then most of the action, such as it was, had moved a few blocks over to Broadway and Columbus, where a patina of the Barbary Coast can still be glimpsed today in the strip-clubs (several involving a male revue) and historic bars there.

Our Recommendations

So, bearing in mind that most people don’t want to end up on a slow ship to the East, what are the best, and safest, ways to experience San Francisco’s Barbary Coast today?

Nowadays the area that it covered is encompassed by North Beach, Chinatown and Jackson Square – three of the most interesting and fun neighborhoods to explore in San Francisco as it happens, so you’re off to a good start.

1. NOTORIOUS SF: GHOST & CRIME TOUR

Our Notorious SF: Ghost & Crime Tour is a great introduction to the Barbary Coast. We visit many of the locations featured here and we can even stop in one or two of bars that actually date back to the era (if guests are in need refreshment). It’s an authentic modern-day experience of the Barbary Coast – just without the opium, shanghaiing, brothels or murder.

Tour runs every Saturday night at 6 pm from Union Square and tickets are $50pp. More information here.

Our daily SF in a Day tour also ends with a walk through North Beach and the guide can suggest plenty of spots to visit afterwards.

Notorious SF; Ghost & Crime Tour video

2. THE HIPPODROME BUILDING

Start your journey back in time to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast at this historic building, which has one of the few original facades dating back to the era, although it’s vacant at the time of writing unfortunately.

Dance Halls, of which the Hippodrome was one, were all the rage then. Women were employed as dance partners for the male clientele and would get commission on the drinks the men bought (and sometimes a cut of the money they were able to pick-pocket).

The Barbary Coast was a loud bit of hell. No one knows who coined the name. The place was simply three blocks of solid dance halls, there for the delight of the sailors of the world. On a fine busy night every door blared loud dance music from orchestras, steam pianos, and gramophones, and the cumulative effect of the sound which reached the streets was chaos and pandemonium. Almost anything might be happening behind the swinging doors.

Will Irwin

3. COMSTOCK SALOON

Believe it or not, but this bar is a genuine throwback to the Barbary Coast, first opening in 1907, although it’s changed name several times. Many features are original, including the beautiful mahogany bar and tin, embossed ceiling.

What better way to experience San Francisco’s Barbary Coast today than by stopping here for lunch, dinner or just a cocktail (they’re good!)?

4. HOTALING PLACE

The wavy design feature on the ground in Hotaling Place marks the original shoreline. North Beach was actually at the beach back then and everything from the current waterfront to here was built on top of abandoned ships, trash, debris and whatever else was dumped in the water. 

The old, ornate, buildings here are some of the only ones to survive the Great Fire. Built by Anson Parsons Hotaling in the 1860’s these warehouses held something very valuable to the city – whiskey. Enormous efforts were made to save the city’s precious supply, which led to a hose being stretched an incredible eleven blocks, up from Fisherman’s Wharf and over Telegraph Hill, so salt water could be pumped in to beat back the flames.

When, eventually, the fires were put out and people saw these buildings still standing – amongst the wreckage of the rest of the city – the poet Charles K Field was moved to write a verse:

If, as they say, God spanked the town

For being over frisky,

Why did He burn the churches down

And save Hotaling’s whiskey?

Hotaling himself was dead by then (he died in 1900), but if he had been able to respond I imagine he would probably have said something along the lines of “God helps those that help themselves”.

5. BARBARY COAST DISPENSARY

You may well be aware that marijuana has been legalized in California (since 2016) so, if you’re so inclined, why not recreate the Opium Den vibe of the old Barbary Coast at this modern dispensary/club. It’s legal, it’s safe, it’s comfortable and you won’t wake up on a ship bound for China the next day. So, all round an improvement really.

6. THE OLD SHIP SALOON

This bar is the oldest in SF, although it doesn’t look it, dating all the way back to 1851. Made from the timber of a ship that had been abandoned in the harbor a couple of years earlier (one of many that had been left to rot in this way), it was known as the Old Ship Ale House back then.

It’s a perfect spot to include on your exploration of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, since they have a great cocktail menu (try the fog cutter) and the kitchen is open until 1 am.

7. COLUMBUS AND BROADWAY

An element of the old, unruly Barbary Coast lives on at this intersection of North Beach, visible in the Garden of Eden strip-club and bars like the Devil’s Acre.

Being a port city, SF has always been more open-minded about sexual preferences than many other places and even in the nineteenth century there were gay clubs here. Male revue clubs like Diva’s Night-Out follow this long San Francisco tradition.

Specs Bar is also a great place to have a drink and breathe in the history, although it’s more associated with the later Beat period of San Francisco, as is Vesuvio Cafe and Caffe Trieste.

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

If you have any feedback on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Today please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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