The Emperor's Bridge Campaign




Current Plan

On 10 May 2016, The Emperor's Bridge Campaign's newsletter included a version of the following President's Letter from Campaign founder John Lumea.

The letter set a target year of 2018, the bicentennial of Emperor Norton's birth in 1818, for California state legislation simply adding "Emperor Norton Bridge" as an honorary name for the bridge system known as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge — leaving in place all existing names for the bridge and its constituent parts ("spans," tunnel, pedestrian/bike path, etc.).

UPDATE — August 2019

Everything in the September 2018 update, below, still applies.

Too much of it, in fact: In 2019 — as in 2018 — state and local lawmakers failed to take up adding “Emperor Norton Bridge” as an honorary name for the Bay Bridge.

The new focus of The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign’s bridge-naming effort is on 2022 — the 150th anniversary of Emperor Norton’s three “bridge Proclamations” of 1872.

UPDATE — September 2018

The political stars didn't align for an "Emperor Norton Bridge" naming in 2018 — but, the Campaign is continuing to push.

Happily, this year, 2019, presents the state legislature with another historically resonant opportunity to get this done: 2019 is the 160th anniversary of Joshua Norton's proclamation declaring himself Emperor on 17 September 1859.

Both of the procedural options for creating legislation to name the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton — (a) a joint resolution of the state Senate and Assembly or (b) a state ballot initiative — come with significant political hurdles attached. The original May 2016 letter adopted a more bullish stance on the possibility of running this effort as a ballot prop than the Campaign now advocates.

Our advocacy currently is focused on sponsoring a joint legislative resolution.

Legislative directors and aides for members of the "San Francisco delegation" to the state legislature — Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymembers David Chiu and Phil Ting, all of whose support would be key to advancing an "Emperor Norton Bridge" resolution in Sacramento — have indicated to the Campaign that these lawmakers may be open to doing just that.

But, what these legislative staffers also have said is that Messrs. Wiener, Chiu and Ting would like to see signs of public support for an "Emperor Norton Bridge" naming from San Francisco's local elected officials before moving forward on the issue themselves. So...


For guidance on what to say — and what not to say — in enlisting the support of Supervisors and others for this proposal, please see the model letter and additional information here.  


The Emperor's Bridge a.k.a. the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Photo © 2016 by Jon Rendell.

The Emperor's Bridge a.k.a. the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Photo © 2016 by Jon Rendell.



Help Us Make Good on the Original Promise of The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

Hi, everybody!

At our 2016 May Day picnic, someone asked me, as they occasionally do: "So, what's with the name 'The Emperor's Bridge Campaign'?"

Those of you who have been following the Campaign from the beginning will know that we launched in September 2013 to carry forward the call of my petition, that summer, for the State of California to name the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton.

It was the Emperor who set out the original vision for the bridge in 1872.

The petition attracted some 3,800 signatures in its first six weeks and another 600 or so in the six weeks following the state legislature's September 2013 passage of a joint resolution to name the western crossing of the Bay Bridge for former state Assembly speaker and former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. It now stands at 6,100 [count updated 10/2019].

Much as the Campaign continued to believe in the importance of getting Emperor Norton's name on his bridge, we quickly saw that the larger need was for an organization that would work on a variety of fronts — research, education, advocacy — to honor the life and advance the full legacy of the Emperor. We also understood that making the case for the “Emperor Norton Bridge” would entail a significant amount of educational outreach.

In building out our broader cultural-historical mission, we positioned the bridge-naming project as more of a "campaign within the Campaign."

We kept the name — in part, to keep the flame of the idea that brought the Campaign together.


Perhaps it is unavoidable that many who have signed the petition have done so, in part, to register their disapproval of the person the state legislature chose to honor in naming the Bay Bridge's western crossing.

The Campaign has not taken a position on this. Indeed, we always have maintained that the case for naming the Bay Bridge system as a whole for Emperor Norton stands on its own — and must be seen to stand on its own, if any Emperor Norton name for the bridge is to have staying power.

Given this, here's what we knew: To have pushed forward with the Emperor Norton bridge-naming project in the wake of the state's naming of the western crossing would have risked branding the Norton effort as a reactive, spiteful and politically motivated game of "tit for tat." It also would have invited supporters of the Norton project to become involved for the wrong reasons.

This would have been counterproductive.

So, for our first couple of years, we were relatively quiet on the bridge-naming front.

Now is the right time to re-engage.

2018 was the bicentennial of the Emperor's birth in 1818.

2019 is the 160th anniversary of Joshua Norton’s original Proclamation declaring himself Emperor on 17 September 1859.

2022 will be the 150th anniversary — the sesquicentennial — of the Emperor's original Proclamations, in 1872, calling for a great bridge linking Oakland and San Francisco via Yerba Buena Island. 

Despite our best persuasive efforts, state and local lawmakers failed to capitalize on 2018 and 2019. But, like those two anniversaries, the 2022 sesquicentennial of Emperor Norton’s “bridge Proclamations” of 1872 provides a wonderful opportunity to frame, in its own positive terms, the call to name the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton — and to imbue this call with what every successful project of this kind needs: a concrete goal with a deadline.

The Emperor's Bridge Campaign proposes that, by 2022, state legislation be enacted to give the Bay Bridge as a whole an added name: the Emperor Norton Bridge.

We invite you to join us in helping to make this so!

Indeed, we need your help to make it so.


We think so.

Many assume that, in naming the Bay Bridge's western crossing, the state has nullified the name "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge" — leaving the eastern crossing as the only other "naming opportunity."

In fact: Even as the State of California recognizes "Willie L. Brown, Jr., Bridge" as the name of the western crossing, the state continues to recognize "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge" as the name of the entire bridge system from Oakland to San Francisco.

For naming purposes, in other words: The state places these two things — (1) the bridge system as a whole and (2) the system's constituent parts ("spans" and tunnel) — on separate and independent planes.

In continuing to recognize the name "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge," the state's message is this:

The name of any "span" is a "subtitle" of the bridge.

But the bridge's "main title" remains.

::   ::   ::

NOTE: The next two sections get "down in the weeds" to address two of the main concerns that we've heard about the idea of naming the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton. By all means, if these are not your concerns and you wish to avoid the weeds — i.e., if you just want to get to "the action" — fast forward by scrolling down to the section that begins "Getting It Done."



Today, the state of California has at least 30 bridges with multiple main titles. (See here.)

Following this precedent, it should be possible to simply add the name "Emperor Norton Bridge" to stand alongside the existing "Bay Bridge" name. The Emperor Norton name could be memorialized with a single prominent overhead sign on either end of the bridge and perhaps other such signs at a handful of key bridge approaches around the Bay Area.

As illustrated below, such a naming would leave in place all current namings for the bridge, including the longtime unofficial name "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge" for the entire bridge system and the name "Willie L. Brown, Jr., Bridge" for the western crossing. (The schematic hazards a guess that, at some point, there will be an effort to separately name the eastern "span.")

It simply would "add a layer" — as one does when walking along the Bay.

A possible framework for the namings of the system and "spans" of "the bridge across the Bay." Even with the addition of the name "Emperor Norton Bridge," the existing names would remain in place.

A possible framework for the namings of the system and "spans" of "the bridge across the Bay." Even with the addition of the name "Emperor Norton Bridge," the existing names would remain in place.


Of course, the Campaign understands that people will continue to call the Emperor's bridge "the Bay Bridge" for many years to come. The bridge's original designation has been — and will continue to be — a powerful shaper and forger of the identity and the communal memory of the Bay Area.

We believe that this history should be valued and preserved — which is one reason we are not calling for a wholesale renaming of the bridge.


Some believe strongly that the Bay Bridge's new eastern crossing is such a witch's brew of political ego, poor design, flawed construction and fiscal waste as to disqualify it from bearing the Emperor's name.

The Campaign understands and respects many of the critiques of the new eastern "span" — but we also believe that focusing on these problems is not the most productive way to view the naming opportunity before us.

Emperor Norton called for a bridge connecting the heart of Oakland to the heart of San Francisco via Yerba Buena Island. This vision — his vision — for a bay-spanning bridge is timeless — even if human efforts to express and preserve the vision are not.

For those raised in the Emperor Norton tradition, the Bay Bridge did not cease to be "the Emperor Norton" after its original eastern "span" failed and collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.

The point: Any bridge — however imperfect — that expresses the Emperor Norton vision is the Emperor Norton Bridge.

That is the truth that underlies this naming project.

::   ::   ::


Another, slightly provocative way of asking this is: Shall we name the bridge through the politicians, or directly through the people?

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is owned by the state of California. Typically, namings of state-owned bridges in California have been done via non-binding joint resolution of the two houses of the California state legislature.

In this scenario, one or more elected officials in either the Assembly or the Senate introduces a naming resolution, which then is shepherded through a series of committee and floor votes of both houses. If the motion advances and the resolution passes on the final floor vote, the new name is put into effect. The original citizen sponsors of the resolution are obligated to raise any and all funds needed to fabricate and install highway signs.

The challenges of achieving an “Emperor Norton Bridge” naming via legislative resolution are not inconsiderable. They involve getting committee and floor majorities of elected elected officials in Sacramento:

(1) who are willing to "go to the mat" to make such a high-profile symbolic gesture for which there is no obvious political gain;


(2) who — if not already kindly disposed to an Emperor Norton naming — would give an honest, open hearing as to why the Emperor deserves to be honored in this way.

There also is the reality that — as these things so often go — the success of the Emperor Norton naming proposal likely would hang in the balance of a hundred partisan political deals that are made outside the public view and that trade on political favors that have nothing to do with the Emperor.

But, the other path to an “Emperor Norton Bridge” naming — state ballot proposition — is even more daunting.

For one: Getting the requisite number of petition signatures to get the proposition on the ballot — at least 5% of the total votes cast for Governor in the last gubernatorial election (currently 623, 212 signatures) — would be a very heavy, and possibly very expensive, lift. Indeed, getting nearly 625,000 verified signatures probably would mean collecting closer to 800,000 — 90% of the population of the City and County of San Francisco. That’s a lot of Nortonians.

Perhaps more significant: Trying to effect a bridge naming via ballot proposition may be out of step with the current political mood in California, which has the electorate increasingly impatient with being asked to vote on propositions that are not seen as addressing the basic needs of the people. 

Bearing all of this in mind…

The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign campaign currently is focused on building support for A JOINT RESOLUTION IN THE CALIFORNIA STATE LEGISLATURE to add "Emperor Norton Bridge" as an honorary name for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Alas, The Emperor's Bridge Campaign can't claim credit for this excellent sign that went up next to the Bay Bridge's Fifth Street, San Francisco, onramp in February 2014. But we absolutely endorse the sentiment. Photo © 2014 by Aaron Muszalski.

Alas, The Emperor's Bridge Campaign can't claim credit for this excellent sign that went up next to the Bay Bridge's Fifth Street, San Francisco, onramp in February 2014. But we absolutely endorse the sentiment. Photo © 2014 by Aaron Muszalski.


2022: The Sesquicentennial of the Bay Bridge Vision And the Last Symbolic Opportunity for a While

Getting the state legislature to pass a resolution for the Emperor Norton Bridge will require that we teach many people that Emperor Norton is not the cartoon character they were taught about; that he is not a harrumphing and kooky mascot in a funny suit and hat — but that he was an early champion of the values of fairness, tolerance, self-determination and the common good that came to symbolize San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Through its many research and education efforts, The Emperor's Bridge Campaign is doing everything it can to lodge this truer picture of the Emperor into the public imagination.

Our upcoming book of selected Proclamations of Emperor Norton will be be a key tool in this enterprise.

But, even with a goal of 2022, it will take every day of the next 3 years to build the support necessary for this bridge-naming proposal to succeed.

And this effort needs early adopters now.

  • We will need political support at all levels.

  • We also will need the help of others in every sector: business, legal, artistic, academic, nonprofit, philanthropic and more.

  • We will need people with access, connections and, yes, money.

Can you help? Do you know those who can?

I'm looking for a full email box at

For links to much more information and background, see our page for this project here.

This will be a fun ride — and it will bring more people into the benevolent light of the Emperor.

Let's name a bridge, shall we?

Thanks and onward!

The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

To return to the Overview of our bridge-naming project, click here.

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