A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history … listen in by clicking the audio player above.

October 24, 1861:
The continent gets wired

transcontinental telegraph utah

The transcontinental telegraph line is finished, literally uniting the United States by wire just as the country was disintegrating into Civil War.

Just before the shooting started, Congress had offered a substantial bribe (known as a subsidy) to any company agreeing to take on the seemingly impossible project — a hare-brained plan to hang a thin wire on poles marching hundreds of miles across the Great Plains, up the Rockies, and into the Wild West.

Work began in June of 1861. Just like the transcontinental railroad a few years later, one section started in the east, one in the west, with the goal of linking up in Utah.

pony express telegraph

The two crews worked their ways toward Salt Lake City for six long months, following the route established less than a year and a half earlier by the Pony Express. It was an epic struggle. Thousands of poles were planted in scorching heat and freezing snow, and the workers negotiated not only with the hostile elements, but with Native Americans and Mormons.

James Gamble, the man under whose supervision the western half of the project was completed, gives this report of the very first transcontinental telegram.

“The great work, which had been … agitated so many years, both on this coast, in the East, and in Congress, was completed … It had been proposed to get up a celebration in honor of such an important event, but owing to the uncertainty as to the exact time when the line would be completed, no preparation had been made. The employees of the company who stood around, manifested the greatest anxiety, watching the first click of the instrument across the continent. At last it came and read as follows:

“LINE JUST COMPLETED. CAN YOU COME TO OFFICE?”

A more significant telegram, and the one that actually made history, was sent later that day — assuring president Abraham Lincoln that California was loyal to the Union.

The Pony Express, which had faithfully supplied San Francisco with news of the telegraph’s progress, never ran again.

October 20, 1880:
“A Hoodlum Raid”

Barbary Coast hoodlum

Sometimes it’s best to let the past speak in its own words, and even better, on subjects that aren’t going to show up in history books. Here’s an item from an 1880′s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, written at a time when the lively iniquities of the Barbary Coast were in fullest swing. The gang of “hoodlums” involved are the very kids who gave rise to that homegrown slang — in fact, it appears right in the headline:

A Hoodlum Raid — How they Swindled a Cheap Coffee House

Last night, after the dives had discharged their sweltering and depraved patrons into the streets, a gang of young hoodlums invaded a Market-street coffee-house. The oldest of the gamins might have been 16, but in rascality he was an octogenarian. The crowd occupied six tables, and for fifteen minutes made the establishment ring with the clatter of their cups and saucers. Having grave doubts of the solvency of the gang, the restaurateur kept a watchful eye on the young scamps, and was not reassured by seeing them slip out, one by one, with the remark, “Them fellers at the last table will pay for it.”

Finally, after about $3 worth of coffee and doughnuts had been disposed of, the alleged cashiers of the crowd began to move. Two walked out, and the third, a sturdy young rascal, coolly sauntered up to the counter and, helping himself to a toothpick, started for the door. “Here,” said the coffee man, “who’s going to pay for this?”

The young (hoodlum) affected the most intense surprise. “Ain’t Crusty paid for it?” he asked. On being assured that Crusty had done nothing so uncharacteristic, he had a spasm of virtuous indignation, which was aggravated by catching sight of the absconding financier on the sidewalk. “Here Crusty,” he cried, “come in and settle fur this. You won’t? Why you dirty etc., etc., etc., I’ll knock the fool-(tar) out of you.” and he rushed at the delinquent to punish him summarily. The moment he got over the threshold “Crusty” gave a whoop, and before the poor coffee man had recovered from his astonishment the whole gang was scampering round the nearest corner.

Investigation showed that they had taken all the spoons and knives with them.

San Francisco Chronicle — October 20, 1880

October 22, 1988:
San Francisco’s literary streets

mark twain street sign

In a ceremony held at City Lights Bookstore, the City of San Francisco renames 12 streets for locally renowned artists and authors. I’ll just tear through them here, but let me tell you, you could do worse than to make this your reading list for the upcoming year:

  • Frank Norris, the turn of the century Berkeley undergrad who produced both the brutally naturalist McTeague and the critique of monopoly capitalism The Octopus;
  • And last but most certainly not least, Mr. Samuel Clemens, local newsman, failed gold miner, teller of tall tales and American Original, commemorated in San Francisco under his pen name, Mark Twain.