Searching for San Francisco’s History, Part Two

Posted on: August 17th, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom 7 Comments

After a second day visiting with friends and working out our quads on San Francisco’s notoriously hilly streets and our credit cards in its charming neighborhood boutiques, day three of my recent visit to the City by the Bay was filled with more heritage tourist must-sees. We hopped a cable car (okay, hopped may be a generous description, we waited in an hour-long line to squeeze onto a cable car), an enduring symbol of the city and one of the only moving National Historic Landmarks in the country, and made our way to the popular Fisherman’s Wharf. There, we filled our cameras’ memory cards with shots of the adorable pack of lounging sea lions that has made Pier 39 its home before boarding a boat to tour the bay.

Captain Jim led us under the breathtaking 4,200 foot span of the Golden Gate Bridge, constructed over four years between 1933 and 1937. The icon, glowing in International Orange paint even on our foggy day, was the longest span in the world for many years. With the bridge at our backs, the boat brought us close enough to Alcatraz Island to read the faded sign warning of severe penalties for aiding prisoners at the once-infamous prison. “The Rock” has inspired imaginations and movie scripts for its years as a federal penitentiary, but as historian Erwin N. Thompson reported in his Historic Resource Study of Alcatraz Island in the early 1970s after the land was transferred to Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz also served as a Civil War fortress, the first lighthouse on the West Coast, and the site of pivotal Native American occupation and protest in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A hearty helping of soup from a signature sourdough bread bowl at the wharf’s storied Boudin Bakery is a satisfying way to wrap up an afternoon of history as the French shop has been serving up fresh-baked loaves of sourdough since it fed gold seekers when it opened in another section of the territory in 1849. On our way back to the hotel, we can’t resist a stroll through the crowded Ghirardelli Square, considered one of the earliest successful adaptive use projects in the country. When the original chocolate factory established by Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli shuttered in the 1960s, shops and restaurants popped up within the old factory walls, officially opening in 1964. Sea salted milk chocolate Ghirardelli square in hand, I took in the beautiful city around me. Gabby Douglas and Michael Phelps can hold onto their medals, after a trip like this, I was the one feeling victorious.

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Gwendolyn Purdom

Gwendolyn Purdom

Gwendolyn Purdom is a former Preservation magazine editor and currently a writer, producer, and host at TouchVision TV in Chicago.

Preservation Magazine, Travel

7 Responses

  1. Tom Baker

    August 24, 2012

    Well, you certainly hit all the popular touristy places! The next time you come to San Francisco, email me and I will show you the real San Francisco that will make a Preservationist’s heart happy! I just took some friends of mine from Milwaukee around and they marveled at the wonderful sights of this beautiful city that there were not aware of, even though they had been here several times previously.

  2. Barb McDonough

    August 25, 2012

    Tom, I wish you would tell me some of these off beat places that you know. I’d love to visit them myself when I’m there in October. Have been many times to all the touristy places and always seek out the unusual. Last time there we went DOWN the 10-story steps that end at the Presidio, and that was way cool. We’d love to see some of the earthquake cottages made from old cable cars, but have yet to find them. Any hints?

  3. Diana Bik

    August 27, 2012

    Yes, I must concur with Tom that you definitely hit up the most touristy, least interesting parts of SF. As a native San Franciscan, I too would love to share with you the truly beautiful parts of SF. And I don’t know any local folks who would ever recommend
    Boudin Bakery for good sourdough. It’s a total tourist trap and is just not very good. Conde Naste seemed to come closer in their recommendations. See:–For-the-best-sourdough-bread,-don't-go-to-Boudin-Bakery–_3#slide=3

  4. David Gallagher

    August 31, 2012

    There are a number of 1906 earthquake refugee cottages sprinkled around the City, 3 have been restored to what they looked like while they were in use. check out for more information on them and a map of current locations.

    Houses made of old cable cars (which were never used as refugee cottages) are fewer, only 2 are known to still exist, near the ocean in the Sunset District just south of Golden Gate Park. There is a great book on the Subject, Carville-by-the-Sea

  5. Barb McDonough

    September 4, 2012

    David, thanks for this info. I hope to see some of the cottages in October when I’m there.

  6. bjorn olson

    September 6, 2012

    Unfortunately I used to ride the street cars from North Beach to get to Geary Street for my job. It was fast reliable transportation for us. Now it is a Disney Land Ride and one cannot hop on the car except by waiting in a long long line at either end and to further the suffering you must pay a fortune for what was once a dollar or less. If preservation is to sanitize, isolate and remove a public amenity for the sole use of non-inhabitants then why bother. Now it is a nuisance and attracts all weirdos, pickpockets, and other undesirables at either end who spend their time collecting what they can from uninformed tourists.

  7. bjorn olson

    September 6, 2012

    For heavens sake the street cars should take folks to the hilltops and given a map of local architectural wonders, views, gardens and history. The Disney ride should immerse tourists in our culture rather than pass it by. I mean really Fisherman’s Wharf has the most dismal food in San Francisco. Why not suggest Farallone or Kuleto’s. Its on the tracks and they are superb. Or the Top Of The Mark? Come on….show them the end of Green Street overlooking North Beach–Maybeck’s bollards, Julia Morgan, Willis Polk homes–its one of the best views in SF and you walk down through the park to Columbus.