The Unofficial Historian of SF’s Quirky Side

By Joe Castrovinci

When she moved to San Francisco in 1982, Lakeside resident Monika Trobits immediately fell in love with all the usual things – the weather, the views, the people, you name it. But in time she developed a deep fascination with the stranger and more unusual aspects of life in the city. She decided to launch an informal second career studying, touring, and teaching about some of the odder aspects of life in the city by the bay. 

Her work has made her an expert on subjects many of us wonder about. Why, for example, is our Main Street only five blocks long, and anything but a main street? Why is there a San Francisco and a South San Francisco? Why are some of our more prominent squares named after people who hardly ever lived here?

Trobits answers those questions, and many others, in a series of classes she is teaching at San Francisco State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), which provides classes and activities for people over 50. Here’s a look at her answers to some questions you may have wondered about.

The story of Main Street

In most cities, Main Street is, well, the main street. But not in San Francisco. Our Main Street runs for a mere five blocks off our actual main street, which we call Market Street. 

Why? The answer lies in the life of Charles Main (1817-1906), who arrived in San Francisco in 1849 aboard a ship loaded with goods from Boston. He and his partners immediately sold those goods for a handsome profit, and then began using the side-wheel steamer they brought with them to carry goods to the mining camps up the Sacramento River. That venture made Charles Main rich. But when his third venture, mining, didn’t go so well, he decided to return to San Francisco not to be a miner, but to open a business provisioning the ’49ers.

In 1850, he and partner Ezra Winchester opened a new company, the Main and Winchester Saddlery and Harness Company, on California and Sansome streets. The two men sold goods to miners and locals and business boomed, especially after 1860, when the company won the contract to provide equipment to the pony express. Growth forced the company to move to a larger building on Battery Street. In 1905, that company was acquired by Keyston Brothers, and the Main and Winchester company disappeared – but Main Street remains, to honor this early pioneer and business magnate.

Main is long gone, but his legacy lives on to this day. Keyston Brothers, the company that bought Main and Winchester, is still in business, selling upholstry on Custer Avenue in the Bayview District. And the Main family mausoleum, where Charles is buried, is in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

Why is there a South San Francisco?

In the 1860s, San Francisco was growing fast, particularly in a southerly direction along the bay. In part this was due to the construction in 1867 of the Long Bridge, a causeway built out over the bay that gave people a fast, direct connection between downtown and residential areas in Potrero and Bayview-Hunter’s Point. 

The Long Bridge was a busy place. Tracks built into the roadway allowed workers to commute via horse cart on a railway built by barons Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford. On weekends, the Long Bridge was a recreational hotspot where people fished, rented boats to explore the bay, and watched boat races. San Francisco’s first Yacht Club was located near the bridge. 

The original South San Francisco was the neighborhood at south end of the Long Bridge, and was known for its many attractions, including a racetrack, a park and a fancy hotel, the Bay View, all built by mining millionaire George Hearst. 

But then as now, San Franciscans were enraptured by their views, and in time, people began referring to this neighborhood not as South San Francisco but as the Bay View because, well, it had such a great bay view. In 1908, the residents of Baden, a small town at the northern tip of San Mateo County, noticed that the name South San Francisco was up for grabs and decided to drop Baden and give their town the name it enjoys today – South San Francisco.

Pershing Family Tragedy

Across the street from the Presidio Officers’ Club in San Francisco is a piece of land known as Pershing Square, in the middle of which visitors find a large flagpole. That flagpole marks the spot of a tragedy that afflicted the life of one of the military’s greatest heroes and only its second six-star general. The first six-star general was George Washington. The second was John J. Pershing. There is no third.

In 1914, Pershing was reassigned from the Philippines to the Presidio’s Eighth Infantry Brigade. He and his family moved into a house on Sheridan Avenue facing San Francisco Bay and right off the main parade ground. In 1915, Pershing’s wife and children stayed there while Pershing and his unit transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas. 

While Pershing worked to move his family to Fort Bliss, tragedy struck. Early in the morning of Aug. 27, 1915, coals left unattended in a fireplace spilled onto a wooden floor and sparked a blaze that spread quickly throughout the house. The flames and smoke were so intense that soldiers on the base and San Francisco’s fire department were unable to save the residents. Pershing’s son Francis Warren survived, but his wife and their three young daughters, Mary, Ann, and Helen died and were later found in the ruins of what had once been their home.

The tragedy led to the creation of a permanent fire company to service the Presidio. Pershing would go on to lead the U.S. Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I. Today the square named in his honor commemorates his illustrious career and the tragedy that scarred his life. The flagpole in the center of the square marks the location of the Pershing home. 

Pershing House. Courtesy photo.

If you would like to learn more about some of the lesser-known aspects of San Francisco’s history, check out the classes offered by Trobits and others at http://olli.sfsu.edu/sfnews. Trobits has also written two books about life in the City and northern California: Bay Area Coffee and Antebellum and Civil War San Francisco.

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