San Francisco has a pretty fascinating history. From the Gold Rush Era through the current tech revolution, the city has seen some pretty major events. Throughout that time, though, there were some moments that were slightly more WTF than others. Moments where it’s sort of hard to explain what happened there. These are ten of those greatest “Huh?”-inducing ones.
Special thanks to FoundSF for the majority of this research—you could get lost for hours on their site, which I essentially did. (Feel free to donate to their efforts to document all of San Francisco here, and help them uncover more interesting stuff about our fair city!)
Okay, let’s dig in.
1. That Time We Decided to Honor the Guy Who Fought to Keep Statues Out of Golden Gate Park…By Making a Statue of Him in Golden Gate Park
According to FoundSF, John McLaren was the Golden Gate Park Superintendent who spent over 50 years battling projects that were looking to build inside Golden Gate Park, whether it was paving roads across it or erecting new public transport lines that would cut through it. Until his death in 1943, there was one other thing he fought against bitterly: statues in the park. With a personal view of parks are for nature and nature only, the statues that did get put up against his will he surrounded with plants and trees to try to hide them from view.
Despite his hatred of statues, a friend decided to make one in his honor, anyway. He hated it so much he hid it under a some blankets in the park, hoping no one would ever see it. In the ultimate irony, right after he died, his statue was discovered by the city and set up in Golden Gate Park, no doubt leaving him spinning in his grave for all eternity.
2. That Time San Franciscans Got Into a Literal Battle Over Eggs and Almost Killed Off a Population of Native Birds
In a classic 19th century “let’s not give a sh*t about the environment” moment, FoundSF recounts a practice called “egging” which took off during the Gold Rush era. What was this, you ask? Prospectors who found little luck searching for gold decided instead to go take and resell the eggs of the California murre, a bird which nested on the Farallones Islands 27 miles off the coast of San Francisco. Dubbed “Eggers,” they were willing to climb cliffs and risk their lives for eggs, and even started a company that laid claim to all the eggs on the island. But there were still “freelance Eggers” that operated independently, and on top of this, the government built a lighthouse to help guide ships into SF at the same time, which led to the company, the freelance Eggers, and even the Navy battling it out across the islands over who had right to the area and—way more importantly—the eggs. Eventually, the constant fighting led to the U.S. Marshall stepping in to get the company out of there.
Not ones to practice restraint in the face of all the money they could make, all told the Eggers took about a million eggs a year, nearly killing off the entire population of birds that produced them. Luckily, Leverett M. Lewis, a scientist at the California Academy of the Sciences, caught wind of the practice and put a complete ban on it. In spite of attempts to recover the birds, the population of California murres is still, to this day, about one fifth of what they were before the Eggers stormed in.
3. When an SF Bum Turned Into a Millionaire, Funded Multiple San Francisco Institutions, Then Still Insisted on Being Homeless Anyway
Before the Gold Rush, FoundSF recounts how resident James Lick used all the money he had to buy a bunch of sand dunes in the city, which turned him so poor he became homeless. At the time it seemed like a bad investment, but you know what they say about SF real estate: it pretty much always goes up. All he had to do was wait a few years for the fortune-seeking prospectors to come in, and Lick’s wasted land turned into—wait for it—Montgomery Street.
He became rich after that, obviously, but decided for whatever reason that he preferred to be a hobo, as he didn’t wash his clothes, buy himself enough food to not look like he was perpetually starving, and was generally considered a bum by everyone in town. Luckily, in spite of his odd choices, before passing away he called the President of the California of Academy of the Sciences to give away his entire fortune to the city of San Francisco, which he totally did. Today, he funded the Academy of the Sciences, Lick Observatory (ah, that makes sense) and gave millions for schools, asylums, and even to the SPCA. So despite his quirks, he ended up being a pretty generous guy. Thanks for this place, James.
4. That Time When San Franciscans Set Their Own Houses on Fire
Here’s a weird one—after the 1906 earthquake, many locals found that their houses were completely destroyed. (That’s not the weird part). What was strange, and sucked, was that the majority of properties throughout the city were not insured for earthquake damage, but were for fire. So, you guessed it—SF Info notes that they frantically set the rubble of their homes on fire to claim the money for their insured properties. Most the city’s destruction ended up being blamed on fires, actually, which after an earthquake might have inspired quite a bit of suspicion from insurance companies. The fraud didn’t end up getting investigated, however, as the wealthiest folks in the city ended up shouldering about eighty percent of the rebuilding costs, anyway.
5. When a Group of SF Locals Used to Strip, Cover Themselves in Mud, and Crawl Through the Financial District While Making Weird Noises for Still Unknown Reasons
Back in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, FoundSF recounts a strange trend that took off in San Francisco—that of the Mud People. Once a year at noon in the Financial District, around fifty to one hundred people would strip, cover themselves in mud, and for an hour or so would crawl around and make an array of sounds that were anything but human language.
Uh, why? Good question. There were many theories at the time, which spanned from thinking it was a post-modern performance, or an act of primal self-expression, or a demonstration of the stark contrast between primitive modes of life next to the suits in the FiDi. I think we can agree that whatever it was, it was weird, and for some reason stopped around the beginning of the Millennium.
6. That Time a Traffic Cone in Golden Gate Park Accidentally Became a Hindu Shrine That People from India Still Travel to See Today
Near the Rose Garden at Golden Gate Park, there is random concrete thing that FoundSF notes used to be a traffic barrier when it was implemented back in 1991. But a little after it was put in, some religious Hindus saw the object as a representation of their god Shiva, and began worshipping it by leaving flowers next to it, creating chalk hieroglyphs, and even forming a sacred rock garden near it. Since 1993, Hindus in the city and even from India have been visiting the former traffic cone to celebrate what they interpret as a “Stone Phallus of Shiva” to pray, meditate, and burn incense around it.
7. When the Hottest, Most Desirable Women in San Francisco Used to Be Redheads
Before the great earthquake of 1906, it’s no secret that SF was a bit of a vice-ridden town. We had gambling, and we had prostitution—the latter especially during the Gold Rush era, when men outnumbered women by an extremely high percentage.
But what the numerous brothels around SF during this time does reveal about beauty standards in San Francisco is interesting. Apparently in the late nineteenth century, redheads were on fire. Considered far and away the hottest women, according to FoundSF, prostitutes with hair this shade could actually negotiate a rate for their services, and could charge whatever they wanted compared to the set prices for women of every other hair color. One madam actually capitalized on this trend by making sure that every bordello she ran had at least one red headed woman, if not more. (We’re thinking that SF Ginger Pride Festival is starting to make a lot more sense now.)
8. When Locals Used to Meet at the Top of Bernal Heights and Race in Tiny, Out-of-Control Cars Downhill While Slapping at Each Other
Back in the early ‘90s, every third Sunday from May through November there used to be a group that would meet at the top of Bernal Heights’ steep road. What they were doing was conducting an “illegal” Soapbox Derby, where locals would race tiny, unstable cars downhill, occasionally eating shi*t and slapping at one another to get down first. While the act may or may not actually be illegal, SF Gate noted the fact that the event isn’t recognized by the official organization for soapbox derbies probably plays into it. Regardless, they dubbed themselves the “Illegal Soapbox Society,” anyway.
Apparently it was a pretty big deal for a while, drawing large crowds of spectators to watch the racers dangerously careen down the slope. In spite of the recklessness of it, it was also apparently super fun. Whether they still meet today is a question for debate, as I can’t find anything about them later than 2008 (let me know in the comments if they still meet and I’ll correct this).
9. That Time the Military Secretly Tested Biological Warfare on SF Citizens Back in the ‘50s
Yep, this happened. UpOut already did a big story on the details of this, but they are basically as follows: they used the San Francisco fog (yes, Karl) to test the theory as to whether fog could be a medium for biological warfare. To see if an airborne bacteria could be planted in the fog, they launched “Operation Sea Spray,” where San Franciscans were exposed to an airborne form of the bacteria Serratia marcescens. It was believed to be harmless, until it wasn’t: those with compromised immune systems coming out of hospitals were infected with this potentially fatal and silent killer, completely unaware. It took many years for this outrage to be exposed, and was finally shut down in 1969 by President Nixon.
10. That Time Justin Bieber Pissed Off the Entire City of San Francisco By Grafitting All Over It
Fast forward to more recent WTF news that’ll definitely go in the annals of history, just this past year Justin Bieber and his record label spray-painted details about his new album dropping across the streets of SF. The graffiti was considered obnoxious by so many that City Attorney Dennis Herrera threatened to sue on behalf of the city for doing this, as it costs money, time, and energy to get rid of it. Vanity Fair noted that in Herrera’s letter to Universal, Bieber’s record company, he vowed the city would “aggressively pursue all available penalties and costs from those responsible for lawless marketing tactics that intend to financially benefit Mr. Bieber and your respective companies,” meaning in lawyer-speak that SF was about to take them to the cleaners. The city has done this to other companies in the past, sometimes for up to $100,000, but Bieber was apparently the last straw, provoking an ire that caused them to raise the fines.
Looks like that whole “Sorry” thing might not work this time, Bieber.
Bonus: This Guy
Because what would this list be without mentioning Emperor Norton I? UpOut has covered this one pretty extensively, but it would be a crime not to put him on the WTF San Francisco history list. For starters, he came out to San Francisco during the Gold Rush Era, his aspirations failed, and he lost his mind. For some reason, he then declared himself the Emporer of the United States and Protector of Mexico. That should theoretically have been the end of it, but he shot to popularity after he went nuts and became a San Francisco icon.
The city legitimately ate it up. FoundSF recounts that he ate for free, got clothes for free, went to tons of events throughout the city for free and introduced acts on stage. He came up with funny laws and was constantly in the paper as a local attraction, and even made saying “Frisco” to refer to San Francisco punishable by a twenty five dollar fine. (Maybe he wasn’t so crazy.) He would make ends meet by taxing the wealthy directly—AKA by just literally walking up to them in bars and clubs and asking them for fifty cents on behalf of his position as the Emperor. Charmed by him, they handed it over. Essentially, if San Francisco has a reputation for being a little eccentric, this could be one place it all started.
[Featured Image: Eric Fischer via Flickr]