PERSPECTIVES Series :: Perspective No. 6
Birth of a Bridge: A Next-Generation Perspective
By Francesca Testen
I know that very few people in the world, or this country for that matter, are familiar with Joshua Abraham Norton, the first and only Emperor of the United States. Until recently, I was one such person. My only experience of Emperor Norton, unbeknownst to me at the time, was seeing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge from the top of Coit Tower on a visit to San Francisco. The ascent was excruciating, the heat unbearable, but the view was incredible. I create a web comic and discovered more about this remarkable man while doing research for a series of comics I created about him. When I began my research, Emperor Norton seemed more like a fictional character than an actual person. His exploits and life were both colorful and reflected greatly on not just San Francisco but perhaps the country as well.
Though considered eccentric, Emperor Norton had many forward thinking ideas and lofty ideals. What was more remarkable to me was that, in a time when intolerance was commonplace, Norton believed in equal rights and equal treatment for people of all races and religions. In that sense, he represented then what San Francisco is today, a multicultural blend of unique individuals. Many people thought of Norton as insane because he had proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. While many of his proclamations were far-fetched, his respect for and appreciation of all people were not. A man of his caliber and thinking is the antithesis of insane. Joshua Norton’s detractors called him crazy for his open-minded ideas of tolerance and equality and the tenets by which he lived his life. If Emperor Norton were not esteemed, why would an estimated 30,000 people attend his funeral? It is quite simple, because he was a man who, in some small way, wanted to change the city for the better and leave his mark upon its citizens.
In 1872 Emperor Norton proposed the idea of constructing a suspension bridge to connect San Francisco to Oakland, an idea considered radical at the time. Unfortunately, his idea would not come to fruition during his lifetime. Not only did Norton propose building a physical structure that would connect people, he lived his life in a manner that actually did build a bridge of understanding, acceptance, and equality that would span and connect the diverse people of San Francisco. Is it not fitting that the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a structure that he proposed be built, be named in his honor?
In August 2014, Francesca Testen began her high school career. She lives in Maryland and enjoys history, writing and traveling, and currently is at work on her first novel, a story of 1952 Brooklyn entitled My Last Year with the Dodgers. Francesca also publishes a weekly webcomic called The History Twins.
For more in the Perspectives series, click here.