Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Emperor Norton envisioned BART and the Bay Bridge, time to rename the bridge after him

His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, aka Joshua A Norton

The idea for an underwater transbay tube along the bottom of San Francisco Bay was originally proposed in the 19th century by an eccentric—some say, a mad hatter character—Emperor Norton, the self-proclaimed "Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico." Joshua Norton, who once abolished congress, was literature's muse for many writers from Mark Twain, and Robert Louis Stevenson, to Neil Gaiman.

The first real transbay proposal was submitted by the builder of the Panama Canal in 1920—essentially the same plan that BART used to build the world's longest and deepest sunken tunnel (in 1965-69, it opened in 1973). The tunnel, technically a tube, as it lies along the bottom of the bay like a snake, withstood the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which destroyed sections of the Bay Bridge. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, to tunnel under the bay, but Norton thought of it first. As well as a bridge. I guess he didn’t like ferries.

But I digress. Definitely canals were invoked. Perhaps not the famous palindrome: a man, a plan, a canal—Panama! In my case, it was ear canals. Stuffed ones. I don’t recommend taking BART under the bay with a headcold. Thinking of Norton, I practiced snorkel snorts both descending to the bottom of the bay floor and ascending to the SF Embarcadero stop. The pain was excruciating. The trick is to know when to blow—too much pressure and you'll damage your eardrum. And maybe find your brain splatted against the far wall. In my case, that might have been a mixed blessing.

What lies below, and so, above. There have been several unsuccessful attempts to name all, or parts of the Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton—another one of his brainchildren. It didn’t take. But one can hope. No one can agree as to when when Norton was actually born, which made it rather tricky to celebrate his centennial birthday. Norton was born in England circa 1814 to 1818, wait, 1819? (maybe it was a long, protracted birth), but we do know that he spent his childhood in South Africa. After his parents died, he sailed to San Francisco in 1849—right in time for the gold rush. 

Norton amassed a fortune trading commodities, but lost it all on a speculatory deal in Peruvian rice to sell to famine-ravaged China. The bottom fell out of the rice bowl, as it were. He lost a lawsuit trying to void his contract. Flat broke, he disappeared to lick his wounds—only to reemerge in 1857, proclaiming himself as Emperor of the United States. Eccentric doesn’t even begin to cover it. But San Francisco, having opened up its golden gates to him, loved him anyway. Disgusted with the legal and political structures of the United States, he took matters into his own hands:

“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 I., Emperor of the United States

Understand that Norton had no formal political power, nor a single drop of royal blood to support his claim. Well OK, maybe a dream after Napoleon III invaded Mexico, he figured, Why not?

Norton was San Francisco’s darling, and Norton banknotes issued in his name (think monopoly money) were honored as legal tender in the establishments he frequented. Sure, some folks insisted that he was insane, but the denizens of San Francisco “celebrated his imperial presence and his proclamations, such as his order that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for the construction of a bridge and tunnel crossing San Francisco Bay to connect San Francisco with Oakland.” That’s where I came in. The tunnel.

Norton was San Francisco’s darling: he was good for business. Any trinket with his name printed on it sold like hotcakes. Souvenirs. Norton bucks. But all good things must come to an end. 

“On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) streets and died. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, upwards of 10,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay homage at his funeral.... Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery at the expense of the City of San Francisco. In 1934, Emperor Norton's remains were transferred to a grave site at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California.” —Wiki

The self-proclaimed Emperor of San Francisco died penniless, with $5 in his pocket, and some change. Some fake Norton bonds and a gold soverign were his legacy. And some rather flourishy hats. And of course, the audacious stories. The details of Norton's life story may be murky, and shrouded in fantasy, but he was forever immortalized in literature. 

Mark Twain “modeled the character of the King in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on him. Robert Louis Stevenson made Norton a character in The Wrecker. Stevenson's stepdaughter wrote that he "was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being 'let him be emperor if he wants to.' San Francisco played the game with him." 

Some say Norton’s final resting place, Colma, South San Francisco, is the fastest growing underground city in the west. Since 1974, the Imperial Council of San Francisco has hosted an annual pilgrimage to Norton's gravesite. But he’s in good company. The city of Colma is bursting with landed celebrities: Ishi, the last Yacqui Indian; Lefty O'Doul, whose headstone is engraved with his lifetime batting average (.349); Wyatt Erp, and John Doe. Long Live Emperor Joshua Norton, "Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

After California politicians tried to name the bridge after former Mayor Willie Brown, a 2013 online petition caught fire, and  demanded that entire Bay Bridge be named after Norton. It was a landslide. The Emperor's Bridge Campaign, aka The Emperor Norton Trust “plans to sponsor a legislative resolution that will take effect in 2022, the 150th anniversary of Emperor Norton's proclamations of 1872, setting out the original vision for the bridge.” Make it so.


Note bene: I didn’t mean to write this, it just happened. Spontaneous combustion. Please add your Norton stories.

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