Fort Point Before the Bridge: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

We have a lot of images of Fort Point in our OpenSFHistory collection from both before and after the Golden Gate Bridge was built over it. Most of these images are from land near the Fort, but there are some views of it from the water, mostly from near the shoreline. In one of our recent image uploads to OpenSFHistory though, there is a rare view of Fort Point from out in the middle of the Golden Gate channel. This led me to take a closer look at Fort Point before there was a bridge over it.

View south to Fort Point from Golden Gate, circa 1920.View south to Fort Point from Golden Gate, circa 1920. (wnp27.6690; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

Fort Point is located at a promontory point where the Golden Gate is the narrowest. It was a strategic spot to guard the San Francisco Bay from enemies. When the area was previously under Spanish rule in 1794, Spain constructed a small structure called Castillo de San Joaquin at the point that could hold up to 13 cannons. When Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and took control of the area, they let Castillo de San Joaquin fall into disrepair. When the U.S. annexed California in 1848, they sought to fortify the coastal defenses, so the Army Corps of Engineers began construction in 1853 of a new fort in the same area as Castillo de San Joaquin.

View west to Fort Point from pier, circa 1865.View west to Fort Point from pier, circa 1865. (wnp26.690; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

Up to 200 men worked on the construction of the fort for eight years. Workers had to blast a 90-foot bluff down to only 15 feet above sea level. The fort was built using the Army’s “Third System” style that was adopted in the 1820s. This brick and mortar design featured vertical walls that were seven feet thick, three casemates tiers, and a barbette tier at top. It included emplacements for 141 guns of various types. Fort Point was also designed with some low artillery spots so that cannonballs could skip off the water and hit invading ships at the waterline. The first cannons were installed in 1861 with the Civil War about to start. Colonel Albert Johnston, the Commander of the Department of the Pacific, brought in the first troops then resigned because his home state of Kentucky had joined the Confederacy.

Fort Point was designed to be one of the best forts in the country and was the only fort west of the Mississippi built in this style. This shows the importance that the U.S. placed in guarding the Golden Gate.  

View northeast to Fort Point from pier, circa 1882.View northeast to Fort Point from pier, circa 1882. (wnp71.0136; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

At the outset of the Civil War, the armaments at Fort Point were increased with the addition of 59 new cannons. This was less about any worry of a Confederate attack, but about fears that the British might as they refortified Vancouver Island at that time. For the duration of the Civil War, Fort Point guarded against the intrusion of British or Confederate war ships that never came with as many as 500 men garrisoned there. The Confederate ship, the CSS Shenandoah, was sent to attack San Francisco, but the war ended before it arrived at the Golden Gate. After the Civil War was over, Fort Point was maintained, but troops were not a continuous presence. A 1500-foot seawall was added in 1869. Some of the cannons were moved to higher bluffs.

East side of Fort Point after seawall completed, circa 1870.East side of Fort Point after seawall completed, circa 1870. (wnp37.00756; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection/Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

In 1882, Fort Point was officially renamed Fort Winifield Scott, after the Commanding General of the United States Army during the Mexican-American war in which the U.S. took over California. However that name never gained real favor and it was still generally referred to as Fort Point.

After an 1886 report by the Board of Fortifications headed by Secretary of War William Endicott, later simply known as the Endicott Board, found that America’s coastal defenses were inadequate. This resulted in a massive fortification of U.S. forts. In 1892, construction of new concrete fortifications at Fort Point began. All 103 of Fort Point’s smooth-bore cannons were removed and sold for scrap to be replaced by steel, breach-loading rifled guns.

During World War I, Fort Point was remodeled to be used as a detention barracks, but never used for that purpose. Detention barracks were built on Alcatraz Island instead. In the 1920s, the Presidio housed unmarried officers and used for military trade schools.

Three-masted ship sailing past Fort Point, 1881.Three-masted ship sailing past Fort Point, 1881. (wnp71.1423; Martin Behrman Negative Collection / Courtesy of the Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives.)

Because of Fort Point’s outstanding military architecture, the American Institute of Architects sought to preserve the fort, but money for the project wasn’t raised and nothing came of this proposal. The initial plans for the Golden Gate Bridge called for Fort Point to be razed, but the chief engineer of the project, Joseph Strauss, recognized the importance of the fort’s history, so he redesigned the bridge so that Fort Point could be saved. Strauss advocated for Fort Point being restored and becoming a monument. Years later that dream would become a reality when the Fort Point Museum Association was formed in 1957. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the bill making Fort Point a National Historic Site.

For more information about Fort Point, you can visit the Fort Point National Historic Site website

The Emperor in San Francisco: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

160 years ago, on September 17, 1859, the first emperor of the United States was declared. Later, the title of Protector of Mexico was added to his royal designation. For a little over 20 years he reigned, issuing proclamations, ‘minting” his own money, and even “knighting” some individuals, as he walked among his public in the streets of San Francisco. Who was this Emperor Norton?

Joshua Abraham Norton seated, 1864.Joshua Abraham Norton seated, 1864. (wnp71.0120; Martin Behrman Negative Collection / Courtesy of the Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives.)

He was born Joshua Abraham Norton, likely on February 4, 1818, in England. In 1820, Norton’s parents took him and his two brothers to South Africa in 1820 as part of a colonization plan backed by the government. Sometime after his father’s death in 1848, Norton apparently left South Africa and went to Rio de Janeiro and, from there, may have sailed on a German freighter called the Franzeska, arriving in San Francisco in November 1849. There is some controversy as to when Norton did arrive in the City, but city directories listed him in 1850 and a Joshua Norton & Co. was running business advertisements in local papers that year.1

Given the timing, it is a logical conclusion that, like thousands of others, Norton came to San Francisco as part of the Gold Rush. Although there were reports that Norton arrived with $40,000, it is unclear if, in fact, that was the case, but he did manage to start a successful real estate and importing business.2

Then came a financial disaster. When a famine in China caused a rice shortage, Norton tried to corner the rice market in late 1852 by buying a shipment of rice from Peru at 12½ cents per pound. Unfortunately, several other ships laden with Peruvian rice also arrived and drove the price down to 3 cents per pound. Although Norton sued to void the deal, the California Supreme Court ruled against him in 1855 and he was financially ruined. He filed for bankruptcy in 1856 and faded out of the public eye for several years.

Emperor Norton, circa 1960.Emperor Norton, circa 1860. (wnp71.0123; Martin Behrman Negative Collection / Courtesy of the Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives.)

After a few years of silence, Norton dropped a bombshell when he distributed a letter to San Francisco newspapers on September 17, 1859 that declared as follows:

“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

NORTON 1, Emperor of the United States”

Now Emperor Norton immediately set about to rule, issuing a proclamation on October 12, 1859 abolishing Congress. In 1860, he proclaimed the dissolution of the Republic. Following these themes, he abolished the Democrat and Republican parties in 1869. The Emperor kept himself informed by reading newspapers, attending state legislature sessions in Sacramento, and patronizing public lectures or debates. Though open to debate as to its authenticity, Emperor Norton reportedly declared that anyone using the term “Frisco” to refer to the City was guilty of a high misdemeanor punishable by a $75 fine.3

Bay Bridge Construction, circa 1935.Bay Bridge Construction, circa 1935. (wnp14.4505; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

A few of Emperor Norton’s proclamations proved incredibly prescient. He called for the formation of a League of Nations approximately 50 years before it happened and ordered the construction of a bridge and tunnel between San Francisco and Oakland over 60 years before the Bay Bridge began to take shape. He advocated for women’s right to vote over 40 years before they received it. He frequently called for the fair treatment of minorities, including Chinese, African-Americans, and Native Americans.

Emperor Norton spent his days “inspecting” his realm in San Francisco. He spent many afternoons at The Mechanic’s Institute Library, reading newspapers and writing his proclamations. Officers at the Presidio gave him a uniform that he wore and to which he added a tall hat with a peacock feather and a cane or umbrella. He would speak about how things should be to anyone who would listen. He would “knight” those who helped him or children or those having a bad day by declaring them king or queen for a day.

Emperor Norton, Unknown date. (Source – Calisphere,

An “auxillary” policeman, in reality a private security guard, arrested the Emperor in 1867, intending to have him committed to a mental institution. No less than the Chief of the San Francisco Police Department ordered Norton released and issued an apology on behalf of the entire department. Police officers were sure to salute Norton thereafter. The Emperor later pardoned the security guard for arresting him.

For much of his reign, Emperor Norton lived at the Eureka Lodgings at 624 Commercial Street, paying 50 cents per day, often paid by others, for a small room. Nearby was the headquarters of the San Francisco Call where Mark Twain worked in 1863-64. Twain would later base the character of “The King” in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on Emperor Norton. The 1870 United States census listed Norton as a San Francisco resident and his occupation as Emperor. He created his own scrips of money that were accepted in many San Francisco restaurants. When his uniform began looking ragged, the Board of Supervisors got him a new one.

Emperor Norton in the 1870s. (Source – Collection of the California Historical Society)

On January 8, 1880, the Emperor collapsed near Old St. Mary’s Cathedral while on his way to the monthly Hastings Society debate. He died before help could get him to a hospital. On January 11, 1880, the San Francisco Chronicle headline about Emperor Norton’s funeral stated: “Le Roi Est Mort” (The King Is Dead).4

Norton had just a few dollars to his name at death, but Joseph Eastland and R.E. Brewster took up a collection at the Pacific Club to fund a proper burial for the Emperor. His remains laid in state in the rear room at the morgue and thousands came to pay their respects. He was buried at the Masonic Cemetery. When his remains were later moved to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma in 1934, there was a ceremony attended by thousands.

Emperor Norton “lives” on today through the phenomenal Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine walking tour. There is also a campaign to rename a portion of the Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton, since it was his idea in the first place. San Francisco has had its share of great characters over the years, but few compare to Emperor Norton.


1.How and When Did Joshua Norton Get to San Francisco?, The Emperor Norton Trust.

2.Did Joshua Norton Really Arrive in San Francisco With a $40,000 Inheritance That He Built Into a Quarter-Million-Dollar Fortune in 3 Years?, The Emperor Norton Trust.

2.Emperor Norton: Life, The Emperor Norton Trust.

4. “Le Roi Est Mort,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 11, 1880, p. 8.

The 49ers at Kezar: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

The NFL enters its 100th season this week. The San Francisco 49ers are about to begin their 70th season as part of the NFL tomorrow. These days, the 49ers play their home games at a cushy, still new stadium in Santa Clara. For the first 24 years of their existence, however, the 49ers battled their opponents in the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park in Kezar Stadium.

49er Fullback Norm Standlee (#72) running the ball against the Los Angeles Dons at Kezar Stadium, December 8, 1946.49er Fullback Norm Standlee (#72) running the ball against the Los Angeles Dons at Kezar Stadium, December 8, 1946. (wnp14.2867; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

The 49ers began existence in 1946 as one of eight teams in the inaugural season of the upstart All-America Football Conference. As Kezar Stadium had a capacity of nearly 60,000 people, it was the natural choice for their games. The 49ers were pretty successful, finishing with winning records each year of the AAFC’s existence. Unfortunately, they played in the AAFC’s Western Conference in which the Cleveland Browns and their all-time great quarterback, Otto Graham, were also located. Consequently, the 49ers finished second in the Western Conference each year and missed the championship game featuring the best team in each conference, despite finishing with the third best record in the league in 1946 and 1947, and the second best record in 1948. In fact, the 49ers entered November 1948 as an undefeated team, but two close losses to Cleveland in November dropped them behind the undefeated Browns in the standings.

Due to mounting financial problems, the AAFC lost a team before the 1949 season, and played as a seven-team, one division league. On October 9th, the 49ers ended the Browns undefeated streak that had carried over from the prior season with a convincing 56-28 win at Kezar. They finished the season in second place behind the Browns yet again, but because the league was only one division, the top 4 teams all made the playoffs. The 49ers hosted the third place New York Yankees at Kezar on Sunday, December 4th in their first ever playoff game and beat them 17-7. They travelled to Cleveland the following Sunday for the AAFC Championship game, but, as they had in each prior AAFC season, the Browns prevailed 21-7.

Future Hall-of-Fame RB Joe Perry running the ball against the Washington Redskins in preseason game at Kezar Stadium, August 20, 1950.Future Hall-of-Fame RB Joe Perry running the ball against the Washington Redskins in preseason game at Kezar Stadium, August 20, 1950. (wnp14.2379; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

Just prior to the 1949 AAFC Championship Game, the AAFC and the NFL agreed to merge their leagues. The San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Colts joined the NFL, while the Los Angeles Dons merged with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams franchise. The other three AAFC teams were disbanded. The 49ers first season in the NFL in 1950 did not go well, as they finished with a 3-9 record in the Western Conference. However, with the exception of a poor year in 1955, they finished either second or third in the west in five of the next six seasons.

In 1954, the 49ers signed running back John Henry Johnson to join a backfield that already featured quarterback Y.A. Tittle, and running backs Joe “The Jet” Perry and Hugh McElhenny. Johnson, a college star at Arizona State, had initially spurned the Pittsburgh Steelers who had drafted him, to play football in Canada, where his performance earned him MVP honors.

Hugh McElhenny (#39), Joe Perry (#34), John Henry Johnson (#35), and Frankie Albert (#14), circa 1954.Hugh McElhenny (#39), Joe Perry (#34), John Henry Johnson (#35), and Frankie Albert (#14), circa 1954. (wnp14.2524; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

Tittle, Perry, McElhenney, and Johnson would become known as the “Million Dollar Backfield.” The moniker was the brainchild of a 49ers PR man, Dan McGuire. Though they only played together for three seasons, all four would eventually be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is the only “full house” backfield (a formation where three running backs line up behind the quarterback) where each member ended up in the Hall of Fame. In the 1954 season, Perry and Johnson finished first and second in the league in rushing. Injuries limited Johnson the next two seasons though and he was traded to Detroit following the 1956 season.

Coach Frankie Albert and quarterback Y.A. Tittle during final regular season game of 1957 season at Kezar Stadium, December 15, 1957.Coach Frankie Albert and quarterback Y.A. Tittle during final regular season game of 1957 season at Kezar Stadium, December 15, 1957. (wnp14.2516; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

Going into the final game of the 1957 season, the 49ers and Lions were tied atop the Western Division standings. Detroit beat Chicago, so the 49ers needed a win over Green Bay to remain tied for first place. The 49ers started rookie John Brodie at quarterback and he looked good early on, leading the team to two early scores and a 10-0 lead. The second quarter was all Packers though as Bart Starr passed and ran for touchdowns and the Pack added two field goals for a 20-10 half-time lead. At half-time, 49ers head coach Frankie Albert called upon the “Old Man” as the newspaper reports described then 31-year-old quarterback Y.A. Tittle. Tittle lead the team to 17 unanswered 2nd half points for the 27-20 victory. Joe Perry rushed for 130 yards on 27 carries and scored both 2nd half touchdowns for the Niners. The Kezar crowd was jubilant as the result meant the 49ers would play in their first NFL playoff game the following Sunday right there at Kezar.

49er fans brave rain at Kezar Stadium to buy playoff tickets, December 21, 1957.49er fans brave rain at Kezar Stadium to buy playoff tickets, December 21, 1957. (wnp28.1610; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

On Saturday, December 21, 1957, the 49er faithful lined up in the rain at Kezar Stadium to buy up the remaining tickets for the playoff game against the Lions. The 2400 tickets sold out in a few hours. Unfortunately, the game the next day was almost the exact opposite of the win over the Packers the week before. The 49ers built a commanding 24-7 half-time lead behind three touchdown passes by Tittle. They then increased the lead to 27-7 with an early third quarter field goal. But the Lions came roaring back. Taking advantage of fumbles by Tittle and Perry, the Lions scored 24 straight points to win the game 31-27.

49er players, including Hall-of-Fame tackle Bob St. Clair (#79) sit on sideline during muddy game at Kezar Stadium, December 10, 1960.49er players, including Hall-of-Fame tackle Bob St. Clair (#79) sit on sideline during muddy game at Kezar Stadium, December 10, 1960. (wnp14.2558; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

For the next 12 years, the 49ers would remain shut out of the playoffs. The closest they would come was a Western Division second place finish in 1960, in which a late season 13-0 loss to the Packers at Kezar would result in Green Bay finishing one game ahead of San Francisco. The 49ers finished in last place in the seven-team Western division in the 1963 and 1964 seasons, and, after expansion and realignment into four-team divisions, again finish last in the 1969 season as part of what was then called the Coastal Division.

49ers vs. Lions at Kezar Stadium, December 5, 1965.49ers vs. Lions at Kezar Stadium, December 5, 1965. (wnp25.5854; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

Under coach Dick Nolan, the Niners finally returned to the playoffs at the end of the 1970 season. One year after a last place finish, they completed a 10-3-1 season in what was called the NFC West Division, following the NFL-AFL merger. In the first round of the playoffs, the 49ers went into Minnesota to face the Vikings, who had finished with a league best 12-2 record. Despite being the underdogs, the 49ers prevailed 17-14. The following week, San Francisco hosted Dallas at Kezar Stadium in the NFC Championship game. It was the first of three straight years that the 49ers and Cowboys would vie in the playoffs, each one with the same result. On Sunday, January 3, 1971, the Cowboys came to Kezar and squeaked by the 49ers 17-14. It would be the last game the 49ers would play at Kezar Stadium as they moved into the more conveniently located Candlestick Park the following season. Kezar’s place as the home to a National Football League team came to a close after 24 seasons.