The Barbary Coast was a red-light district in old San Francisco, which rose from the massive infusion of treasure-seeking argonauts during the Gold Rush. Miners, sailors, and sojourners hungry for female companionship and bawdy entertainment streamed into San Francisco in the 1850s and 1860s, becoming the Barbary Coast’s primary clientele.

The neighborhood acquired its name from the coast of North Africa where Berber pirates attacked Mediterranean ships. As San Francisco exploded with new arrivals, a wide variety of land sharks, con artists, pimps, and prostitutes staked out an area designed to pluck the gold and silver from the pockets of men through liquor, lust, laudanum-laced libations, or just a hard knock on the head.

Sailors in particular had cause to dread the area, as the art of shanghaiing was perfected here. Many a sailor woke up after a night’s leave to find himself unexpectedly on another ship bound for some faraway port.

Today, the Barbary Coast Trail, a project of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, is 3.8-mile, mostly-flat walking tour of 20 historic sites, including Telegraph Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Maritime Museum, and Ghirardelli Square.

Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast TrailNote: If you have $2600 to spare, you can sponsor a handsome Barbary Coast Trail medallion. If not, contribute to remembering history by purchasing Barbary Coast Trail founder Daniel Bacon’s Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail (about $20). Or watch the free Open Road video about the Barbary Coast Trail.

Did you know:
Benjamin Lloyd’s 1876 account, Lights and Shades of San Francisco, describes the Barbary Coast this way: “[It] is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens … are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell … is there also.”

The Barbary Coast by Herbert AsburyWant to learn more? Check out The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld. The Barbary Coast is Herbert Asbury’s classic chronicle of the birth of San Francisco—a violent explosion from which the infant city emerged full-grown and raging wild, with a unique criminal district that for almost seventy years was the scene of more viciousness and depravity—but which at the same time possessed more glamour—than any other area of vice and iniquity on the American continent.

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