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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The Barbary Coast

San Francisco’s infamous Barbary Coast began as Sydney-Town as early as mid-1849, so named for the glut of escaped or released men from the British penal settlements at Sydney, and other Australian frontier towns, who poured into California after hearing about the gold discovery.

These men gravitated toward the colony of Chilean prostitutes and thieves which clustered along the waterfront at Pacific and Broadway, and on the slopes of Telegraph Hill. The newcomers, nearly all criminals, were popularly called Sydney Ducks, and the more ambitious of them opened dances halls, groggeries, and taverns. Their public houses had fanciful names such as the Tam O’Shanter and the Noggin of Ale, but all were places where drunkenness, robbery, and lewdness were common.

Unsuccessful efforts by official law enforcement to curb an escalating series of robberies and murders—as well as respectable citizens’ suspicions that the Ducks had set several of San Francisco’s devastating 1850s fires—led to the formation, in 1851, of the first Vigilance Committee. This organization, composed of prominent men, took the law into its own hands and effectively “cleansed” Sydney-Town, but not for long. A second, stronger Vigilance Committee rose in 1856 to deal once more with Sydney-Towns’ resurrected criminal element, and the ongoing corruption among city councilmen and politicians that aided and abetted it.

Peace and propriety prevailed for a while, but by 1862 old Sydney-Town was once more a region of dives, dance halls and depravity, now referred to as the Barbary Coast. Legend has it that the name was first conferred by sailors, who were acquainted with the very dangerous Barbary Coast of northern Africa, where vicious thugs controlled the slave traffic on a stretch of waterfront, and no man’s life was safe.

In San Francisco, Pacific Street, extending westward from the boat landing on the Bay, was a mass of dance halls, cheap groggeries, concert saloons (which offered both dancing and entertainment), and melodeons, so called because each was originally equipped with a musical instrument of that name; but eventually known as facilities that offered entertainment for men only. Other streets in the area were just as disreputable. It was a place where murders and robberies were every night occurrences, where saloon waitresses—all called “pretty waiter girls” without regard to their youth or lack thereof—spiked customer’s drinks with opiates, so the customers could be clubbed and fleeced in the alleys later. It was a place where prostitution flourished in back-room dance hall cubicles, a place controlled by the underworld, a place the police never ventured into alone.

In later times San Francisco’s Barbary Coast meant only the single, dangerous block on Pacific Street between Kearny and Montgomery, and its limits varied over the years, but originally the term applied to an entire area of vice and debauchery that flourished in the section commencing on Pacific Street near Montgomery, through to Stockton with various channels leading to Kearny Street, DuPont Avenue (now Grant Avenue) and other thoroughfares.

Despite its shifting boundaries over time, the Barbary Coast maintained a continuous existence until the earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed the district. To the surprise of many, though, certain purveyors of sin who had become rich from owning dives and bordellos opened their purses—and the Barbary Coast rose again from its ashes. By the beginning of 1907 it was once more in full operation, beginning with the opening of the first important post-holocaust resort, the Seattle Saloon and Dance Hall on Pacific Street, in late 1906.

Genuine vice and debauchery reined once more in out-of-sight places. But within a short time hype and bright lights deliberately attracted society’s previously unwelcome upper strata, with an imitation iniquity calculated to startle and impress tourists, who paid exorbitant charges for admission and liquor, in the belief they were seeing the “real underworld” in action at various venues.

In its last ten years of existence, the Barbary Coast was a popular place. Meantime, however, the downfall of a corrupt political machine, tighter control by a new Police Commission, anti-vice newspaper campaigns, and the legislature’s 1914 Red-light Abatement Act, all contributed to its demise. The Barbary Coast finally closed in 1917.

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