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9 Unique Facts About San Francisco You Might Not Know

9 Unique Facts About San Francisco You Might Not Know

Picture of Ned Cogswell
Updated: 10 October 2016
San Francisco is renowned throughout the United States for its ‘free love’ ethos, steep hills and liberal viewpoints. Despite San Francisco’s relative short history, the city has cemented itself as one of the most unique cities in the entire union.

During the 1860s, two stray dogs in San Francisco, Bummer and Lazarus, became local celebrities and were spared from city dogcatchers because of their infamous rat killing skills.

In the 19th century, most major American cities had a huge stray dog problem, and stray dogs were often beaten, poisoned, or rounded up by city dogcatchers. One local dog in the early 1860s, Bummer, a black and white Newfoundland, became somewhat of a city sweetheart due to his amazing rat killing skills. Later in his life, he rescued another dog from being killed in a dogfight and nursed him back to life. This skinny mutt was eventually named Lazarus, thanks to his seemingly magical ability to come back from the dead. The pair of dogs became instant celebrities and even had a city ordinance passed that they couldn’t be apprehended by local dogcatchers, which was put into place when a new employee accidentally grabbed Lazarus and an angry crowd marched on City Hall. When the duo inevitably passed, they were memorialized in various cartoons, and Mark Twain even wrote a eulogy for Bummer.


San Francisco was the home to the most famous Asian woman in the Old West, Ah Toy, who was purportedly the first and most successful Asian prostitute/madam in the United States.

Although much of Ah Toy’s life has seemingly been lost to history, we do know that she was a Cantonese born woman who left Hong Kong for San Francisco in 1849. On the voyage to America, her husband passed away and she was forced to look for ways to support herself. When she arrived, she noticed that since there were very few Chinese women in the city and that the local men were captivated by her beauty. Capitalizing on this interest, she became a prostitute and became extremely successful, supposedly charging an ounce of gold or sixteen dollars for a ‘simple look.’ Ah Toy was said to be extremely smart and resourceful, as she went on to set up numerous brothels and navigated the legal system to avoid trouble with the authorities. Sadly, as anti-Chinese sentiment became more prevalent, she lost most of her legal rights and couldn’t defend her business anymore.


San Francisco resident and local celebrity, Joshua Abraham Norton, proclaimed himself in 1859, ‘Norton I, Emperor of the United States.’ Eventually he added ‘Protector of Mexico’ to his title.

Norton left his childhood homes in England and South Africa to immigrate to San Francisco in November of 1849. Using $40,000 of his father’s inheritance ($1.1 million dollars today), he tried his hand at becoming a local businessman, but failed when he attempted to invest in Peruvian rice. In 1859, after losing most of his fortune, he proclaimed himself Emperor — even though he had no actual claim or title. San Francisco citizens apparently humored his proclamation and he became a local folk hero. Norton was disgruntled with local and national government and made numerous promises to dissolve Congress, create a bridge connecting the Peninsula to the East Bay, and create money featuring his likeness. Often seen wearing an elaborate blue uniform given to him by local officers at the Presidio, Norton was said to have been the actual owner of Bummer and Lazarus. Although this claim was purportedly untrue, he was often seen giving them scraps while eating at local establishments.


One of the most important and powerful San Francisco political leaders in the late 19th Century was Dennis Kearny. Kearny was an Irish-American leader who pushed for various acts against Chinese immigrants and supposedly ended every speech with ‘…and whatever happens, The Chinese Must Go!’

Born in Oakmount, Ireland between 1846 and 1848, Kearney immigrated to America in 1868 and then settled in San Francisco around 1871. A small time businessman, he became well known for creating a local organization of laborers which eventually grew into the Workingman’s Party of California. Originally, Kearney was seen a powerful spokesperson for the lower class workers of San Francisco. Later in his life, he focused his energies on pitting workers against Chinese laborers, who were perceived as ‘stealing’ lower class American jobs. Known today for popularizing the phrase ‘The Chinese Must Go,’ Kearny led a short lived but powerful movement which heavily limited the rights and powers of Chinese immigrants. Ironically, Kearney faced numerous criticisms in his life for being an Irish immigrant and apparently wasn’t taken seriously by most of the American upper class.


Mark Twain never actually said ‘The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent Was A Summer In San Francisco,’

Twain, born Samuel Clemens, moved to San Francisco as a journalist in 1864 before achieving major fame as an American author. Although this somewhat infamous phrase has long been attributed to him, there are no official records of him ever saying it. Many historians have searched for years to understand how the phrase became synonymous with him, but no real evidence has ever been found. Although it is a well-crafted phrase and is one that has cemented itself in San Francisco popular culture, we may never know who actually came up with it.


An eccentric SF resident named Frederick Coombs believed himself to be George Washington and became known in the city as George Washington II.

Much is debated about Coombs’ existence, but it is believed that he was a New York born phrenologist (phrenology is the study of skull shapes) who came to the West Coast in the 1850s. Somehow, Coombs came upon the idea that he was literally George Washington and started addressing himself as such. Wearing a Continental army uniform of tanned buckskin, Coombs was often seen roaming around San Francisco issuing proclamations as if he was living in the 18th century. Like Norton, he became a local celebrity who was the subject of numerous newspaper articles and cartoons. Coombs apparently left San Francisco when he got in a feud with Norton over who was more attractive to the ‘fairer sex.’


The phrase ‘Golden Gate by ‘48’ was commonly used by American soldiers in the Pacific Campaign of World War II to indicate that they would be coming home to see the Golden Gate Bridge in 1948 after invading and defeating the mainland forces of Japan. This phrase was proved wrong when Atomic bombs were dropped and the invasion of mainland Japan was scrapped.

Because the American Manhattan Project was so incredibly secretive, only a few people in the American military knew that At0mic bombs even existed. Almost all of the soldiers fighting in the Pacific campaign believed that the only way to end the war was the invasion of mainland Japan through a jumping off point in Okinawa. The official operation was labeled Operation Downfall, and it was commonly believed that it would take at least three years to eventually defeat the Japanese army. Although Operation Downfall was cut short when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, many soldiers believed the War in The Pacific would last for quite some time and that they wouldn’t be home for many years. In anticipation of casualties during Operation Downfall, nearly 500,000 Purple Heart medals (which are awarded for combat casualties) were manufactured. This number exceeded that of all American military casualties of the 65 years following the end of World War II, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars.


Much of San Francisco’s downtown area is literally built upon the remains of 19th century ships.

Most modern cities are built upon either the remnants of former settlements or older parts of the city. Although the city of San Francisco is not that old, much of the city’s downtown area is built upon old ships and former buildings. As the city quickly expanded the downtown area, numerous old ships and small buildings were paved over to create new space. Today, numerous ships still exist and cause countless problems for city workers, who must navigate a complex maze to put down new pipes, sewers and supports. Due to San Francisco’s strong currents, rocky reefs, and heavy fog, over a hundred major ships have been shipwrecked in and around the harbor.


From November 20th 1969 to June 11th 1971, Alcatraz Island was forcibly occupied by 89 American Indians who called themselves the ‘Indians Of All Tribes,’ or IOAT.

A group of Native American activists noticed a clause in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie between the United States government and the Lakota people that stated that all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land was technically Indian land. From this belief, a group of activists staged an occupation of Alcatraz Island since its retirement as a prison in 1963. This particular occupation was in fact the second one, but lasted for much longer and gained much more media presence than the first occupation in 1964. The protestors, which included families with children, stayed peacefully on the island until they were forced out by having their water and electricity cut. Richard Oakes, a Mohawk student and protestor, sent a message at the time to the San Francisco Department of the Interior that read: ‘We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim. The choice now lies with the leaders of the American government – to use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit’s land, or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian. We do not fear your threat to charge us with crimes on our land. We and all other oppressed peoples would welcome spectacle of proof before the world of your title by genocide. Nevertheless, we seek peace.’