Veni, vidi, vici: firsthand accounts from the land of gold

There’s nothing like first impressions Here are three I’ve read recently. California: Its Gold and its Inhabitants by Sir Henry Vere Huntley. Out of print but available online, courtesy of the Internet Archive. Sir Henry Vere Huntley (1795-1864) was a British naval officer who served in many exotic locales during his extensive service career. Described by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography as an “impetuous man, prone to direct and dramatic actions” Huntley led a life of energy, intrigue, and some profound screw ups.  During the thick of the California gold rush, he found himself in San Francisco as the gentleman representative of the Anglo California Gold Mining Company. Huntley’s stint in the far West was troubled from the start –...

Early Libraries on the Barbary Coast

Have you heard that Mel Gibson is preparing to write a television series set in San Francisco? In a recent article on Hoodline, the series “Barbary Coast” will be set in the Financial District, Chinatown and North Beach and based upon the book by Herbert Asbury with the same name. This book is indeed a page turner – filled with the brothels, gambling dens, saloons, hoodlums and prostitutes that will make up a good show à la Deadwood. There’s nothing about libraries in Asbury’s book however, which is irritating to this librarian/historian, because their role in San Francisco’s early days was fraught with politics, intrigue, and sometimes a bit of danger! Reading rooms, stocked with newspapers and books brought from the east, started cropping up in the City...

Before the P.P.I.E.: the Mechanics’ Institute and the development of San Francisco’s Fair Culture (1857-1899)

2015 was an incredible year for me and for the San Francisco Bay Area! The Mechanics’ Institute and myself participated in the Centennial Celebrations for the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. I developed this talk as one of the events hosted by Mechanics’ Institute and it was so well received that I was invited to give it also to the Bancroft Library as a Roundtable Discussion, and for the Corral of Westerners. As always, my dear filmmaker is Mike Duckworth of Mike D Video. The following is the transcript or you can watch the videos! The Mechanics’ Institute hosted 31 exhibitions between the years of 1857 and 1899. These fairs were hugely important to the development of industry in California and supported local ingenuity. Each fair has its own...

Passion, pride and principle: the Mechanics’ Institute at 160

On December 4 at the bi-annual Members’ Meeting, I gave a talk on the founding of our Mechanics’ Institute and the strange but wonderful times that provided the impetus for its birth. The decision to found our Institute was formerly made on December 11, 1854 when two scores of men in the building trades met in the tax collector’s office to thrash out a plan to create a Mechanics’ Institute similar to ones that existed in the Eastern United States, Australia, and Great Britain. From the beginning, the directors knew what sort of Institution they wanted: A library with open stacks so all the books were accessible to the members A game room where members could spread out their chess and checker boards Classes that would stretch the mind and teach new skills To be an...

Charge of the “Tight Brigade”

I spent Friday – about five hours – sitting in front of a microfilm reader sifting through issues of a rare newspaper, the Placer Herald. Most of what I found was not helpful save this delightful poem: Charge of the “Tight Brigade”  There has been a most alarming quantity of poetic agonizing over the piece of sublime stupidity perpetrated at the Balaklava called the Charge of the Light Brigade. The versus which Tennyson, an English poet, wrote upon the rash act, are happily imitated by “Vennison Stalk, Esq.,”  of the Ohio Statesman, who being charged with having no genius for writing on the fiercer themes of war, penned the following “spirit-stirring lyric” in brilliant refutation of the slander:   At the bar, at the bar, At the bar thundered;...

I Smell of Cut Grass, Sunshine, and Lighter Fluid

My writers’ group spent a spirited morning last month discussing “place” and how one’s home and environment affect one’s life story. We gave ourselves the assignment of writing a short essay on where we are from – below is my contribution. I Smell of Cut Grass, Sunshine, and Lighter Fluid I haven’t always spent my days in the whistling corridors of the Financial District, Nights and weekends are spent across the Bay in San Leandro – a blue collar burg known for its cherries in the 19th century and now as a place with parking but no where, other than fast food and Chinese to eat. ………. I was born in Oakland, California in the sterile halls of the Naval Hospital on the hill above Highway 580 and the Oakland Zoo....