The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

to honor the life + advance the legacy of Emperor Norton

PERSPECTIVES Series :: Perspective No. 2

If Norton Met Minerva: A Berkeleyan Perspective

By Rachel Hope Crossman

The next time you you’re at the DMV or a state courthouse, take a close look at the tableau on the Great Seal of the State of California. The Roman goddess, Minerva, whose purview includes war, wisdom and the liberal arts, looks southward holding a spear in her right hand, a shield in her left. At the great lady’s feet is a miniature grizzly bear, growling at a miner who is digging for gold. Behind them sparkles the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gateway to the Pacific Ocean.

Now look closely at Minerva’s vantage point, centered between the hills of San Francisco and those of Marin County: She could be standing on Grizzly Peak, the highest point of the hills along Berkeley’s eastern edge. Emperor Norton I, visionary, ladies’ man, and self-proclaimed ruler of the U.S. and Mexico, would have found the location a perfect spot for the viewing the bridge he ordered built in 1872. Berkeley is my home town, and I think naming the Bay Bridge for Norton makes a lot of sense.


Grizzly Peak was used as a lookout by the Ohlone Indians for thousands of years, and if you stood there on October 12, 1849, the date the seal was officially recognized, you would understand why. Wild orange poppies might have bloomed at your feet, giant Redwood and Sequoia trees stood tall at your back. San Francisco Bay, shown stretching below Minerva, would have glinted teal blue in the sun, just as it does today.

U.S. Army Major Robert Garnett designed the seal, which also bears the state motto, Eureka! That is probably supposed to mean, Eureka! We found gold here!, because that is what Archimedes shouted when he perfected his gold-purity test, a-way back when in ancient Greece. Gold brought international mining fever to California and led directly to the founding of the city of San Francisco, so maybe the motto means Eureka! What a great place for a shipping port! But it is also possible that it means something altogether different.

I think Major Garnett must have gone hiking in what is now Tilden Regional Park, and climbed Grizzly Peak to admire the view. I think maybe he looked down over the gentle hills that led to the beach, and watched the fog roll in, and thought, Eureka! I have found the sweet spot in the state. Maybe Norton climbed that peak and saw the fog wash over the water turning the sky into layers of cerulescence. Watching indigo bleed to smoky gray, then meld with the bleached denim sky beyond the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is an only-in-Berkeley postcard view. Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton I may have been San Francisco’s resident eccentric, but he must have taken the ferry over to hang out in Berkeley sometimes too. He was, after all, a very Berkeley kind of guy.

Here are three spectacular places for viewing Emperor Norton’s San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Why not go to one and contemplate the wisdom of naming the bridge after him?

  • The deck of the Lawrence Hall of Science, at 1 Centennial Drive. This is UC Berkeley’s public science center and hands-on science museum for kids and adults. Changing exhibitions have included animatronic, life-sized dinosaurs and “extreme bugs” using gigantic insect models to share information about these important creatures. Outdoor patio with view, indoor cafeteria, planetarium, theater, and much more. (For more information, click here.)
  • The Berkeley Rose Garden, located at 1200 Euclid Ave. This beautiful 1933 Works Progress Administration park features a tube for pedestrians under the road, which Emperor Norton would have loved, and it’s also a great wedding spot! Considered one of the finest rose gardens in Northern California, it features a Bernard Maybeck-designed pergola and tiered beds leading down to a creek and tiny footbridge. The Craftsman-style benches also make this a wonderful choice for a picnic. Tennis courts and bathrooms adjoin the garden, and passing through the well-lit pedestrian tunnel under the street brings you into Codornices Playground. Here is a fenced tot-lot, sand, grassy hills and picnic tables for families and little kids, as well as basketball courts, a baseball field and a spectacular twisting cement slide for the big kids. (For more information, click here.)
  • The Berkeley City Club, at 2315 Durant Ave. is a sumptuous Julia Morgan building that contains hotel rooms and dining hall, meeting rooms and publicly available restaurant. A premier event venue, the club features an exquisite tiled swimming pool, reading rooms and rooftop deck with panoramic views. Located one block from the UC Campus and a short walk from BART, this 1930 edifice is Berkeley’s own little castle. (For more information, click here.)

Rachel Hope Crossman is a Montessori teacher and freelance writer; she is a graduate of Berkeley High School and Mills College, Oakland. Rachel's first book, Saving Cinderella: Fairy Tales and Children in the 21st Century, was published in May 2014 by the Apocryphile Press. Her memoir, Fly on the Wall: Notes from a Substitute Teacher, chronicling her time in Berkeley’s public schools, is forthcoming.

For more in the Perspectives series, click here.

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