A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 18, 1850:
San Francisco celebrates California’s admission to the Union

san francisco 1851

On this date, after endless politicking and interminable delay, the mail ship Oregon steamed into San Francisco harbor with the news that California had been admitted to the Union.

The reaction of San Francisco’s 25,000 citizens is something I’ll allow the Daily Alta California to report:

“Business of almost every description was instantly suspended, the courts adjourned in the midst of their work, and men rushed from every house into the streets and towards the wharves, to hail the harbinger of the welcome news. When the steamer rounded Clark’s Point and came in front of the city, her masts literally covered with flags and signals, a universal shout arose from ten thousand voices on the wharves, in the streets, upon the hills, house-tops, and the world of shipping in the bay.

“Again and again were huzzas repeated, adding more and more every moment to the intense excitement and unprecedented enthusiasm. Every public place was soon crowded with eager seekers after the particulars of the news, and the first papers issued an hour after the appearance of the Oregon were sold by the newsboys (for as much as) five dollars each.

The enthusiasm increased as the day advanced. Flags of every nation were run up on a thousand masts … , and a couple of large guns placed upon the plaza were constantly discharged. At night every public thoroughfare was crowded with the rejoicing populace. Almost every large building, all the public saloons and places of amusement were brilliantly illuminated — music from a hundred bands assisted the excitement — numerous balls and parties were hastily got up — bonfires blazed upon the hills, and rockets were incessantly thrown into the air, until the dawn of the following day.

Many difficulties had occurred to delay this happy event, and the people had become sick at heart with the “hope deferred” of calling themselves, and of being in reality citizens of the great American Union.”

October 15, 1863:
Cliff House opens — first of many!

first san francisco cliffhouse 1863

The first Cliff House opened its doors on this date 145 years ago. The brainchild of a real estate speculator and a State Senator, this first of umpteen incarnations was a simple white clapboard affair. Despite its external modesty, it was a high-class joint, and quickly became the most fashionable destination in town. Presidents Ulysses Grant and Rutherford B Hayes would number among its many distinguished guests over the years, but I choose to look to Sam Clemens for an on-the-spot review, reported for the San Francisco Call just weeks after the place opened:

“Then there’s the Cliff House, perched on the very brink of the ocean, like a castle by the Rhine, with countless sea-lions rolling their unwieldy bulks on the rocks … Steamers and sailing craft are passing, wild fowl scream … (and) the waves roll into breakers, foam and spray, for five miles along the beach, beautiful and grand … the appetite is whetted by the drive and the breeze, the ocean’s presence wins you into a happy frame, and you can eat one of the best dinners with the hungry relish of an ostrich.

“Go to the Cliff House. Go ere the winds get too fresh, and if you like, you may come back by Mountain Lake and the Presidio, overlook the Fort, and bow to the Stars and Stripes as you pass.”

The Cliff House was exclusive because it was hard to reach — an expensive toll road and access to a horse and carriage were the only way out to Land’s End. When public transportation eventually improved in the 1880s, the toney crowd sought other playgrounds. The restaurant and its reputation fell into a steep decline, and after a 30-year run, this first San Francisco Cliff House burned right to the ground.

October 18, 1970:
Dedication of the Chinatown gate

san francisco chinatown gate

The famous gateway to Chinatown — you know the one at Bush and Grant, guarded by fou lions, and surmounted by a couple of dragons — was installed and officially dedicated.

The gate is a paifang. These are markers historically denoting the entrance to a building complex or town, and those evil-spirit-thwarting fou lions are a typical part of the program. Thanks largely to gifts given by the Republic of China (that’s Taiwan to you), these gates have become symbols of Chinatowns all over the world. Los Angeles, Portland, Vancouver, and countless others acquired their own neighborhood markers this way.

san francisco chinatown gate fou lion

In San Francisco’s case, Taiwan provided materials for the gate, but the design was dreamed up by Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee, whose design apparently won a contest in the late 1960s.

The two-tiered, pagoda-style structure was built according to principles of feng shui, which dictate (among other things) that a city’s grandest gate must face south, and — though somewhat dwarfed by the larger buildings around it — that it does.

A wooden plaque hangs from the central archway, on which stand gilded characters rendering a quote from the “Father of Modern China”, the revered revolutionary leader (and one-time Chinatown resident) Dr. Sun Yat-sen: