The Creation of the Barbary Coast Trail in San Francisco

The Creation of the Barbary Coast Trail in San FranciscoAsk anyone with a budding interest in the Barbary Coast why there’s suddenly more attention being paid to the legendary neighborhood in recent years and they’ll point to one person. Meet Daniel Bacon. He’s a writer and historian who’s responsible for the creation of the Barbary Coast Trail San Francisco, a 3.8-mile zigzagging trail that takes trekkers through the heart and the periphery of the Barbary Coast. He also wrote the informative and entertaining “Walking San Francisco and the Barbary Coast Trail” as well as a pocket map and guide to the trail. I chatted with him recently about the neighborhood and the trail he created.

David Farley: How did you get interested in the Barbary Coast?
Daniel Bacon: I had an interest in San Francisco history in general. Especially from the Gold Rush to the 1906 earthquake and fire, and you can’t study that period and avoid the Barbary Coast waterfront. I found it all very intriguing. The reason I named the walking route the Barbary Coast Trail is that most of the trail relates to that period-a time when the heart of San Francisco’s port was referred to the Barbary Coast. It got that name because the original Barbary Coast was the coast of North Africa where there was an ethnic tribe called the Berbers. Like Somalia today, some of them were pirates and they would kidnap people and hold them for ransom. So during and after the Gold Rush sailors would abandon their ships in San Francisco to go searching for gold in the hills. Which meant ships needed crews badly. So captains would go to bordering houses to recruit. And the bordering houses boss, who would get a stake in recruiting crews, would often do it against people’s wills by knocking them out and giving them to the captain. By the time this unsuspecting person would come to, he’d find himself on a boat out in the sea and was shanghaied. So that’s why it became known as the Barbary Coast.
DF: It seems there’s been a resurgence in interest in the Barbary Coast over the last few years, right?

DB: There has been. And much of it has to do with the creation of the Barbary Coast Trail. The creation was sponsored by the San Francisco Historical Society. Then I ended up publishing the first guidebook to the Barbary Coast Trail. A number of years later, I created the audio guide. It has period music and sound effects and historical reenactments. It’s been a fun project. I continue working on it. We’re placing more medallions in the ground along the trail. There are 180 in the ground but we want to have 300 eventually.

DF: Each Barbary Coast Trail medallion is sponsored by someone. I recognized some names on a few of the medallions.

There family of Cliff Burton, the deceased Metallica bassist, sponsored one. So did Carlos Santana and his wife–for her father, an old musician. The San Francisco Giants have one and so does Senator Diane Fienstein.

DF: Where can one find the spirit of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco today?

DB: The spirit of the Barbary Coast has embedded itself into the DNA of the city. That’s why it attracted the beets in the ’50s and gays of ’60s and ’70s and so on. In the 19th century you could come here and be yourself and be who you want to be. And that still continues. Back in the day, the Barbary Coast was filled with brothels and there was a lot of sex and debauchery. But even up until World War II, Pacific Street, one of the main streets of the Barbary Coast, was so crazy that the military made it off limits. It was too wild. But what happened is that a lot of the businesses moved up to Broadway. Which is why today Broadway has a bunch of strip clubs. So that’s a remnant, for sure. And just the fact that San Francisco has attracted all these different groups who were outsiders in other parts of the country but here they found a home.