Some facts are fairly well known about San Francisco, like the fact that Alcatraz Island used to be a prison and the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the world. But did you know that the entire city of San Francisco comprises all of San Francisco County or that the grizzly bear whose likeness is on the California flag once lived in San Francisco? While many facts about the City by the Bay may be obvious, there are many other facts that aren’t as obvious. Here are 10 things you might not know about San Francisco.
Buried Ships In San Francisco
According to evidence collected by local historians, scores of ships remain buried in what is the present day Financial District and along the Embarcadero. Shortly after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, San Francisco became the largest city on the West Coast. With the news of untold riches in the gold country, thousands of people arrived at one of the many wharves built along the San Francisco waterfront. But historians say hundreds of ships were abandoned by the crews and passengers in search of gold and were left to rot in the harbor or used for construction in the growing city. Eventually, the remaining ships were buried as the city prospered and today, dozens are still hidden underground. The San Francisco Genealogy website chronicles the history of buried ships, in addition to some that have been discovered.
Cemeteries Banned in San Francisco
Fear of the spread of disease and rapid growth in San Francisco during the 19th century and early 20th century prompted city officials to move cemeteries beyond the limits of the city into Lawndale, later renamed Colma in the 1940s. San Francisco now has just two cemeteries remaining – San Francisco National Cemetery at the Presidio and Mission Cemetery, in addition to a handful of columbariums, including the famous Neptune Society Columbarium. One notable exception to San Francisco’s ban on burials can be found at 575 Castro Street, where a monument covers ashes of the much-loved gay rights activist Harvey Milk, outside the former Castro Camera.
Chinese Fortune Cookies
When visiting a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco or practically anywhere in America, guests have come to expect a fortune cookie after their meal. While it’s reasonable to assume these crispy treats originated in China, multiple sources say it was created in San Francisco more than 100 years ago. According to the sources, Makoto Hagiwara, caretaker of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’ s Golden Gate Park, is credited for introducing the fortune cookie in the late 1890s to early 1900s. As further proof of a San Francisco origin, the fortune cookie was on display at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which also featured the city’s Palace of Fine Arts, the only building remaining from that historic world’s fair.
Crookedest Street in the World
Contrary to popular belief, Lombard Street isn’t the crookedest street in the world. In fact, it’s not even the crookedest street in San Francisco. That distinction goes to Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd Street off Highway 101 in Potrero Hill. Although Lombard Street has one extra hairpin turn, Vermont Street has a steeper grade and has even been proven as more crooked than its more famous counterpart. Recently, increased traffic and the continual legion of tourists walking down Lombard Street was so overwhelming that city officials were prompted to close the world famous street to vehicular traffic for four consecutive weekends, with access only to residents.
First Lighthouse on the West Coast
Alcatraz Island is better known as a former federal penitentiary, but the major tourist attraction also is the site of the first lighthouse built on the West Coast. The original lighthouse was completed in 1854 during the rapid growth of San Francisco due to the discovery of gold just a few years before. Over the years, Alcatraz served as the location of a military garrison and military prison before it became a federal penitentiary in 1934. Many of American’s most notorious criminals were held at Alcatraz, including Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” During his time in prison at Alcatraz, Al Capone was a member of the “Rock Islanders,” the prison band who performed on weekends to other inmates.
Invented in San Francisco
The Chinese Fortune Cookie is just one of many things invented in San Francisco. Blue jeans were invented by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss, using duck cloth and copper rivets in 1873. In 1887, Charles Fey invented the first true slot machine and 40 years later, Philo Taylor Farnsworth created the first electronic television system at his laboratory at 202 Green Street near the Embarcadero. In the 1960s, owners of La Cumbre taqueria in the Mission District created the Mission-style burrito that’s become a very popular dish in America. Lastly, it’s not an invention, but the charter that created the United Nations was signed in San Francisco in 1945.
Countless numbers of people pass by this iron structure daily not knowing its historical significance to the city. Located at the intersection of Market, Geary and Kearny streets, the 24-foot-tall, bronze-colored Lotta’s Fountain is the oldest surviving monument in San Francisco. Presented to the city as a gift from vaudeville performer Lotta Crabtree, the fountain served as a meeting point for people in search of loved ones after the disastrous 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Ever since, the city has held an annual ceremony on April 18 at 5:12 a.m. at Lotta’s Fountain, in observance of one of the greatest tragedies in the city’s history. Another important relic from the Great Earthquake is the Golden Fire Hydrant in the Mission District. Located near Dolores Park, the hydrant was credited for saving the historic neighborhood that also includes Mission Dolores, the oldest building in San Francisco.
Moving National Historic Monument
The historic cable cars are one of the most famous attractions in San Francisco. But not everyone knows that it is the world’s last manually operated cable car system and also one of just two moving national historic monuments, the other being the Saint Charles street railway. Of the three existing cable car lines, the California Street line is the oldest still in operation. Perhaps San Francisco’s most famous cable car conductor was Maya Angelou, the acclaimed author and poet who at the age of 14, became the city’s first African American and first female conductor.
The Beatles Last Concert
Although the Beatles continued to record music until 1970, their last scheduled concert occurred on August 29, 1966 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Surprisingly, the show was not a sellout and after four opening acts, the Beatles came on stage just before 9:30 p.m. to perform just 11 songs over 35 minutes. Due to frenzied crowds wherever they visited, some sources say the Beatles knew Candlestick would be their last live show. The band did make one last public appearance together, in an impromptu rooftop concert on January 30, 1969 above the legendary Apple recording studios. More recently, Sir Paul McCartney returned to Candlestick Park to perform the last ever event at the former home of the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.
West Coast Ellis Island
Many Americans are quite familiar with New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Station. But Angel Island, the largest island in the San Francisco Bay, served as a West Coast immigration processing station from 1910 to 1940. During this time, an estimated 300,000 immigrants from nearly 90 countries including China, Japan, Australia, England, France, Germany and Russia were processed through the “Ellis Island of the West.” Today the former U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a museum. Visitors can take a ferryboat from either Tiburon or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco to reach Angel Island.
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.