A century since the ‘fall’ of the Barbary Coast

One hundred years ago this month, the lights went out at midnight and thousands of revelers mourned the passing of the “Paris of America” as the spirit of the Barbary Coast was proclaimed dead.

At least that’s what the San Francisco Call — The City’s newspaper of record — proclaimed as politicians and law enforcement officials swept women from the dance halls and bars of the city’s red light district, which encompassed nine blocks bordered by Montgomery, Washington, Stockton streets and Broadway.

The notoriously seedy area quickly grew out of people pouring into the city following the Gold Rush of 1848. Many of the frequenters to the neighborhood were criminals newly arrived from the penal colonies of Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania, as well as prospectors, sailors, land sharks, con artists and prostitutes.

Dance halls, drinking establishments, brothels and opium dens lined the streets for many years, with such striking names as the Cobweb Palace, the Hippodrome, the Thalia and Spider Kelly’s.

Crime flourished inside and outside of these venues, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the police commissioner, temperance groups and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst,.

Historian Daniel Bacon, who established the Barbary Coast Trail walking tour with the aid of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, told SFBay:

“But you also have to remember that the Barbary Coast also served as the center of the maritime district in its early years because San Francisco was such an important port city. After the 1906 Earthquake, the area shrank in size and there were fewer sailors coming into town because ships were converting from sail to steam.”

It may seem quaint by today’s standards, but by the end of February 1913, police cracked down on the red light district and an edict proclaimed:

“No dancing shall be permitted in any café, restaurant, or saloon where liquor is sold within the district . . . [and] that no women patrons or women employees shall be permitted in any saloon in the said district.”

Proclamation or not, it took years to clean up the district. The City tried to tidy up any remnants in time for the 1915 World’s Fair, and by 1917, the Barbary Coast was becoming a shadow of its former self.

Virtually none of the dance halls and drinking establishments from that era exists today, with the possible exception of the Comstock Saloon (on Columbus Ave.) and the Old Ship Saloon (on Pacific Ave.), said Bacon.

He also pointed out that the bars, clubs and dance halls along the streets of the Barbary Coast were the first venues that jazz music was introduced to the West Coast after 1906.

Bacon noted that in the years before 1913, there was a different sensibility taking place, and that The City was no longer the wild and wooly Gold Rush town it had been. The citizenry felt that San Francisco was now a modern cosmopolitan city and that there was no place for wanton pursuits.

As for the rough-and-tumble spirit of the Barbary Coast, flashes of it can still be glimpsed in North Beach, on lower Broadway, the present-day site of bars, clubs and adult entertainment. The area largely emerged as an entertainment district during World War II, when thousands of sailors starting coming into town for shore leave.

The brothels and opium dens may be gone, but today, Bacon says, people are attracted to the neighborhood for another reason:

“The Barbary Coast has certainly had a lot of different facets and evolved over the decades. Now, instead of gold and vice drawing people to the area as it did in the 1800s and at the turn of the century, it’s technology that’s bringing people here from all over the world.”