The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



PERSPECTIVES Series :: Perspective No. 4

The Bay Bridge: Play a Fair Game and Give It a Fair Name (An Eastbay Gentleman's Posture)

By Paul F. Wiggins

“Oh, that bridge."

No, not that one, the other one — over there! Yes, that one, the bridge without a name. Well, for all intents and purposes, it has no name. It could be considered the “red-headed stepchild” of the Bay, as bridges go, yet somehow that nickname would lend it almost too colorful a reference.

Visitors might wonder: “But that one over there, it's kind of reddish-orange. They call it 'Golden' but it's more orange, or even red, than gold in certain lights, isn’t it? Oh, these San Franciscans!” they chortle.

Their laudable guess as to the origin of the name “Golden Gate” is a common slip-up among non-natives. In truth, the name describes the mile-wide Golden Gate Strait between San Francisco’s Fort Point to the south and the golden grass-covered Marin Headlands to the north, where the Pacific Ocean meets the San Francisco Bay.

To a Bay Area neophyte or newcomer, that no-name Bridge, actually called the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge — "the Bay Bridge," for short — is inauspicious and nearly camouflaged against a coolly dull, steel-grey and fog-burdened sky, the same foggy pall that the Golden Gate Bridge just moments ago had posed beautifully with, then, as if it were a chilling blanket, let it go, tossing it downwind. As the mist rounds Alcatraz, it changes and casts its gloomy dimness across the chilled Bay waters that slip eerily toward the Bay Bridge's supporting pilings. Almost angrily, the dense, wet vapor manages to lose its character as it lies low and shrouds the steel and grey span that lacks the name and the fame. Now this bridge, that bay and the misty grey veil become obscure together.

The new East Bay Crossing of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge | Photograph by Paul F. Wiggins

I frequently have crossed the Bay Bridge for a wide variety of reasons over the past four decades. I've had to endure increasing monetary tolls and all too often have toiled for excessive amounts of time in getting from one end to the other. Nevertheless, I have developed a vested personal interest, a fondness for the structural crossing.

A little more than a year ago, I became involved in a just and righteous campaign seeking to rename the Bridge for the 19th-century figure Emperor Norton, an idea that has been bandied about a number of times in recent years. The Emperor, born Joshua Abraham Norton, was so far ahead of the thought processes and logic of his time — and some of those closed minds still linger today­­­­. But the Norton aura bridges these numerous decades by virtue of the Emperor's undying faith and loyalty towards the idea of establishing unity in the Bay Area. He sought to have one Bay Area that included the oft-forgotten or displaced city of Oakland and its many neighbor cities, towns and citizens that lay just across the bay from San Francisco. He was an ambassador for, and of, the Bay Area, and earned due respect from many other dignitaries and respected people of the area.

Emperor Norton championed a wide variety of causes — some reasonable, others perhaps not — but he wished to represent the best the Bay Area could put forward. Above all, he was a fair-minded man, calling for equitable treatment of the Chinese, African Americans, Native Americans and women at a time when the accepted wisdom was fully to the contrary. Certainly, his convictions reached well beyond that of the typical gentleman’s beliefs of his era. They more closely mirrored the contemporary San Franciscan ideals of today. He was a true San Franciscan, in popular estimation then and now.

The Emperor's ideas come into sharpest focus through the many proclamations that he published in local newspapers. Some years ago, Federal Highway Administration historian Richard Weingroff penned an article in which he quoted an item in the June 1957 issue of The Highway magazine, to the effect that Emperor Norton's "most outstanding proclamation" was the one — in fact, there were three — calling for the survey, design and construction of a great bridge linking Oakland and San Francisco via Goat Island, now known as Yerba Buena Island.

"Alas!," Weingroff wrote, "[t]he Emperor" — who died of a stroke in 1880 — "did not live to see his best proclamation come true."

Fortunately, his legacy and his vision lived on for the benefit of the future residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, including those of us here and now and for the generations yet to come.

So, why raise all this hullabaloo over the Bay Bridge’s name? For me, the imperative to name the entire bridge for Emperor Norton starts with the fact that, some 60 years before the Bridge was commissioned, designed and built, the good Emperor foresaw the need for Oakland and San Francisco to be connected by way of a suspension bridge from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island and then on to San Francisco. Before any plans were drawn up, beams of steel were riveted or cables wound and strung, it was the Emperor’s vision.

Another view of the new East Bay Crossing | Photograph by Paul F. Wiggins

Another view of the new East Bay Crossing | Photograph by Paul F. Wiggins

Second: Emperor Norton is deceased and therefore — according to California State legislative “mumbo-jumbo” — qualifies to be memorialized and honored in such a manner.

Finally: This needs to happen in order to preserve that uniqueness that we in the Bay Area possess and have put to use so adroitly. Over time, our train of thought — which I prefer to regard as progressive — has raised the ire of many and has had the greater part of that ilk judging us to be quirky, quixotic, quietly rebellious quacks. Of their considered opinion, I would proudly say: So let us move forward! I much prefer to lead with an eyebrow-raising difference rather than fall into line and do as I am told. Sounds a bit like an old Emperor friend of mine would have it!

Richard Weingroff closed his remarks on the Bay Bridge by noting that

[o]n the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, one newspaper called it "the ugly stepsister to the famed arches of the Golden Gate Bridge." Words can hurt! Fortunately, bridges can't feel. As far as we know.

Hear, hear! to Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Though he was a gentleman whose feelings were likely never hurt, he should be remembered with the honor of this bridge bearing his name.

After all, fair is fair. So, in the event that bridges do have feelings, let us play fair by honoring the Bay Bridge with a decent and historic name as well.

Paul F. Wiggins is new to writing but not to food. Paul is an Executive Chef whose culinary career spanned 40 years on two continents — including cooking on dude ranches in Wyoming, his life’s dream. In the early 1980's, he settled in San Francisco to a career in hotels and restaurants. He wed Lillian on Groundhog Day 1986. Paul and Lillian have two daughters, born in 1987 and 1988; and the two live in Suisun City, Solano County, California, midway between San Francisco and Sacramento — in the same home the family moved to in the summer of 1988.

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