What do ducks from Sydney, Australia have to do with San Francisco’s infamous Barbary Coast? To answer this question we will first need to learn a bit about the history of this unique San Francisco neighborhood.
One author in 1886 described the Barbary Coast this way:
“The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whore monger, lewd women, cut-throats, murderers, are all found here.”
From Lights and Shades of San Francisco by Benjamin Estelle Lloyd, 1876
Encompassing parts of Chinatown, Jackson Square and North Beach, the old Barbary Coast stretched from Montgomery to Stockton along Pacific Street with branches on Kearny and Grant Avenue. One of the most dangerous blocks was on Pacific between Kearny and Montgomery labeled “Terrific Street.” It was the child of the 1849 California Gold Rush which brought thousands of opportunists into the Bay Area.
The area got its name in 1860 due to its similarity to the notorious Barbary Coast in Africa.
The Barbary Coast was a haven for carousers. They could choose from a variety of unsavory establishments—bars, dives, gambling halls, and houses of prostitution. Some of the worst cribs (as houses of prostitution were called) were located on what is now called Maiden Lane.
Serious drinkers could choose from a multitude of bars on every street including one of the toughest ones in San Francisco history, The Whale. The bars were frequented by criminals as well as locals. Black Bart, the famous highway bandit hung out at Martin and Horton’s where cheap liquor flowed like water.
After the great earthquake and fire, the Barbary Coast became somewhat touristy with variety shows designed to attract stars like actress Sarah Bernhardt , ballerina Anna Pavlova and poet John Masefield. New dance-floors gave birth to fashionable dance crazes such as the turkey trot, chicken glide and bunny hug.
Now to the Sydney Ducks, a name given to a gang of criminal Aussie immigrants. They favored looting and were known to use arson as a means to ply their trade. They would light fires and loot the warehouses and stores while everyone else was off fighting the fires. Another of their pastimes was collecting payments from shopkeepers to ensure that their stores wouldn’t burn.
A citizen vigilante group formed to rid the area of the Ducks. If they spotted a Duck stealing they caught him, tried him in their vigilante court and hanged him a few hours later. After only three lynchings the Ducks got the message and waddled out of town.
The San Francisco Examiner under the leadership of William Randolph Hearst launched the crusade to clean up the old Barbary Coast. By 1957 most of the sex clubs were gone.
You can take a walking tour through the historic sites of the Old Barbary Coast. Bronze medallions and arrows set in the sidewalk guide you along the trail drawing you into a world of gold seekers, shanghiers and sinners.
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