A Plaque in 1939
Perhaps the first tangible expression of the understanding and conviction that Emperor Norton deserves to be remembered and thanked for helping to launch the vision for the Bay Bridge came in the form of a plaque dedicated in February 1939 by the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus (ECV) — or, as they call themselves, “the Clampers” — a group that seeks to be a guardian of the Gold Rush history of the American West and that holds the Emperor as a patron saint.
The plaque reads:
And Be Grateful to
Emperor of the United States
Protector of Mexico, 1859-80,
Whose Prophetic Wisdom
Conceived and Decreed the
Bridging of San Francisco Bay
August 18 1869
Alas, there was a problem with “August 18 1869,” which in fact was the date of a fake Proclamation — there were many of these, jokes at the Emperor’s expense; this was one published in the Oakland Daily News — that had the Emperor calling for a bridge “spanning” an absurdly malingering route from Oakland to Goat Island (now Yerba Buena Island) to Sausalito to the Farralon Islands, an uninhabited outcropping of rocks 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco. The original bridge to nowhere.
Emperor Norton’s biographer, William Drury, explains the response to the Clampers’ plaque:
A fitting memorial, the editorialists said, let it be put on the bridge. But the Bridge Authority denied permission, arguing that the Emperor had nothing to do with the bridge. There was an awful fuss; everybody wanted the plaque on the bridge and only the bridge directors opposed it. But the Bridge Authority had all the power and the fake decree to uphold their claim that His Majesty had merely commanded that a span be built from Goat Island to Sausalito and the godforsaken Farallones. Even E Clampus Vitus could not argue with that evidence, because they had put on the plaque that he ordered the bay to be bridged on August 18, 1869, the date on the only proclamation then known to exist and nobody knew it was a fraud.
So the history buffs gave up and installed the plaque in the lobby of the Cliff House at Seal Rocks, a restaurant that boasts of a tenuous connection with Mark Twain….That’s where the plaque is today, on the wall of a resort that never saw His Majesty’s face.
That was 1986, the year Drury’s book was published.
In fact, if there ever was a plan to put the plaque on the bridge itself, it appears that, by the time ECV members dedicated the plaque on 25 February 1939, they had adjusted their sights. By then, the Clampers hoped that their plaque could be placed at the Transbay Terminal, the new bus and rail depot in downtown San Francisco that was to serve the bridge and that had just opened the month before, on January 14th .
The day after the dedication, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “Noble Grand Humbug Charles L. Camp yesterday forenoon unveiled at the San Francisco bridge terminal building [the] plaque” and that “[w]hen ceremonies were over [Camp] lamented that the plaque could not be at once imbedded [sic] in some part of the terminal building: ‘The spirit of San Francisco today is not quite as tolerant as it was 70 years ago,’ he said, ‘so we shall have to await a meeting of the Toll Bridge Authority to decide whether and where this plaque is to be placed.’”
A footnote: The Chronicle observed that Allen Stanley Lane was on hand at the dedication to read from his brand-new biography, Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America, which remained the best source on Norton for the next 47 years, until Drury.
According to E Clampus Vitus records (see descriptions 9 and 15 on the second page of the document excerpt here), the escalation and subsequent U.S. involvement in World War I took much of the steam out of the initial effort to find a different location for the ECV plaque. It was 16 years before the plaque was installed at the Cliff House on 25 February 1955.
The plaque remained there for more than 30 years before being relocated to the Transbay Terminal — a 1939 bus and rail depot in downtown San Francisco — in November 1986, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bay Bridge. The terminal closed in 2010, to make way for the construction of the new Transbay Transit Center, scheduled to open in late 2018.
There have been reports that the 1939 plaque, now in storage, will be part of a permanent interpretive exhibit in the new transit center.
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