Clampers In The News.
The Emperor Norton Bridge.
Second in a series of articles.
Emperor Norton's name may yet span the bay.
S.F. supervisors endorse plan to rechristen Bay Bridge after 19th century eccentric.
- Suzanne Herel, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Page A - 1.
More than a century after a quirky San Francisco character who called himself Emperor Norton I ordered
a bridge be built spanning the bay, a move is under way to name the later-day Bay Bridge in his honor.
The drive was publicized by Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank in his strip "Farley" -- perhaps a fitting
forum for a man who walked the streets of San Francisco in the late 1800s with a plume in his hat and a
sword in his hand, issued his own currency and declared that calling the city "Frisco" was a High Misdemeanor.
Norton, who occupied a 10-by-6-foot front room of a Sacramento Street lodging house, would have been a
present-day constituent of Supervisor Aaron Peskin. And so it was Peskin who picked up Frank's idea,
molded it into a resolution and brought it to the Board of Supervisors, where it was approved Tuesday 8-2,
with Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier absent. Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Fiona Ma cast the dissenting votes.
The resolution, if approved by Mayor Gavin Newsom, next will travel to the Oakland City Council and on to
the California Legislature.
Frank, who also is a historian, said he came up with the bridge-naming idea while working on cartoons
illustrating how students these days know little about California history.
"Several readers had told me that (the ice cream parlor at) Ghirardelli Square had dropped its Emperor Norton sundae.
Since the bridge has been in the news almost every day, I remembered there was an effort several years ago to have
the bridge named for him," Frank said. "It just seemed that naming it for a character as interesting as Emperor Norton
would be very fitting. We're probably the only place in the country that would consider doing such a thing."
According to the Emperor Norton Bridge Committee -- whose membership counts a number of historians -- the naming of
the bridge is unrelated to the controversy surrounding the cost and design of the seismic retrofit of the bridge's
Joshua Abraham Norton -- who, according to his Chronicle obituary, hailed from Scotland -- was a businessman who came
to San Francisco by way of South Africa in 1849 to try his luck in the Gold Rush. It is said that he lost his fortune
-- and his mental stability -- after making a bum investment in the rice market a few years later.
In 1859, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and, shortly thereafter, the Protector of Mexico.
For the next 20 years, he issued proclamations defending minorities and championing civil rights, which were reproduced
in local newspapers. He roamed the city accompanied by his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, and some eateries honored Norton's
own specially printed paper money.
In 1872, Norton ordered "a bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat (Yerba Buena) Island and thence to Telegraph Hill."
Though his proclamation received little notice at the time, such a bridge would open in 1936, described by President
Herbert Hoover as "the greatest bridge ever erected by the human race."
Another of Norton's noted proclamations decreed that "Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to
utter the abominable word 'Frisco,' which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a
High Misdemeanor." The penalty: $25.
Peskin pointed out that people visit San Francisco because of its natural beauty and colorful social history.
"Emperor Norton was a model San Franciscan, extolling the virtues of tolerance, compassion and embracing diversity
in our community," he said. "Emperor Norton is an important figure worthy of this distinction."
According to the obituary, Norton dropped dead at California and Dupont (now Grant Avenue) streets while taking
a stroll around 8:15 p.m. on Jan. 7, 1880, at the estimated age of 65.
Back in the tiny room he had occupied for 17 years -- while the Masons paid his rent -- were found a variety of hats,
including a stovepipe, a derby, a red-laced Army cap and another cap suited to a martial band-master.
In Norton's pockets were found a smattering of gold and silver pieces -- among cablegrams from the crowned heads of
Europe and Asia, including the czar of Russia.
WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey
of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project;
and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our
authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of
City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees.
Given under our royal hand and seal at San Francisco, this 17th day of September, 1872.
Joshua Abraham Norton
A man, a vision
Who: Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (previously Joshua Abraham Norton),
1811-1880. An off-beat San Francisco figure who dressed in military uniform, issued proclamations,
printed his own currency and dined gratis in the city's restaurants.
Why name a bridge after him? In 1872, Norton ordered San Francisco and Oakland citizens to build a
suspension bridge across the bay.