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All hail Emperor Norton!: 80-year-old plaque honoring S.F. folk hero finds new home

By September 13, 2019 September 22nd, 2019 No Comments
Rick Saber, a member of the fraternal group E Clampus Vitus, dressed as Emperor Norton during the plaque ceremony Sept. 7 at the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco. (Photos by Chris Treadway)

Emperor Norton departed the earth almost 140 years ago, but the memory of the beloved San Francisco figure has never faded, in part because of the members of the fraternal group E Clampus Vitus, which commemorates historical moments, places and figures of the American West.

A 1939 plaque celebrating Emperor Norton I was refurbished and rededicated by the Clampers at a ceremony Sept. 7 at the newly reopened Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco.

Plaque installations are one of the main objectives of the group, and Joshua Abraham Norton, the legendary San Francisco folk figure who in 1869 declared himself  to be “Norton I, Emperor of the United States”and “Protector of Mexico,” is one of the Clampers’ favorite subjects.

“No other historical organization in the state of California has mounted more plaques than E Clampus Vitus, not even the state itself,” said James Jarvis, who holds the rank of Graybeard in the group. “We have placed 10 to 15 plaques in San Francisco.”

Like Emperor Norton himself, members of the jovial group like to wear outfits topped with ceremonial hats, often topped with an ostrich feather or other large plume. And like Norton, they relish the flowery language of an early, more dignified and maybe a more pompous time.

Joshua Norton was born in England around 1818, came to San Francisco in 1850, and made and lost a fortune before taking on his role as emperor, as proclaimed to the San Francisco Evening Bulletin in 1859. 

He was a popular figure and sight around town. A portrait from the time shows Norton dressed in a military uniform with epaulets, with a top hat adorned with a large feather and a sword in a scabbard at his waist, as befits an emperor. 

The 1939 plaque was extensively cleaned to remove decades of grime and the effects of tarnish.

“Over the course of a 20-plus-year ‘reign’ that ended with his death in January 1880, Emperor Norton continued to urge those political reforms that he felt were necessary to secure the general welfare and, as he put it, to ‘save the nation from utter ruin,’” the nonprofit Emperor’s Bridge Campaign notes on its website about Norton (http://www.emperorsbridge.org/emperor/life). 

ECV member Rick Saber, appearing at the ceremony as the benevolent  monarch himself, recounted the history of the man who, in 1869 and twice more later, first envisioned and proclaimed that a bridge be built from San Francisco to Goat Island (Yerba Buena) and on to Oakland.

In his remarks to celebrants, Saber made the case, as the Clampers so often have in recent years, for renaming the Bay Bridge in Norton’s honor rather than former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

“Now, of all the more recent abominations, the most blatant political blunder ever of late was the Board of Supervisors’ decision to bestow honors on the former mayor by naming it the Willie Brown Bridge, which to date has failed to gain traction,” he said to the booing audience. “We may ask you, have you ever heard this in the context of our beautiful city — ‘What, we ask you, did Willie ever do to inspire or build this fine bridge?’

“Therefore let this noble rededication renew the many calls made in the past 50 years by countless citizens to honor he who conceptualized this bridge by simply referring to it as its normal name should be, the Emperor Norton Bridge.”

The plaque, like the man it honors, has a somewhat mysterious and winding history. The name of the man who designed it for the group is lost to time.

The plaque was first dedicated on Feb. 25, 1939 — just days after the opening of the World’s Fair on Treasure Island and the start of streetcar service on the bridge to the original Transbay Terminal — but a decision by bureaucrats at the California Toll Bridge Authority had left it without a home.

ECV member James Jarvis watches as the plaque is officially christened at its new location at the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco.

“It was originally designed to be put on the Bay Bridge, but that was never allowed,” said the modern-day Norton.

The start of World War II put plans for the plaque aside and it wasn’t until 1955 that it was finally installed far from the bridge at the Cliff House. It remained there until it was dedicated again at the Transbay Terminal in time for the 50th anniversary of the bridge.

It came down and went back into storage when the Transbay Terminal closed in 2010, and hadn’t been seen publicly until last week.

Now it is back and looking better than it has in decades, following a thorough cleaning by Lars Nylander, who also happens to be a conservator at the de Young Museum.

Emperor Norton, circa 1871-72

“Pause, traveler, and be grateful to Norton 1st, 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.”

The plaque also depicts Lazarus and Bummer, two celebrity canines of the era often erroneously described as belonging to Norton.

“Those were not his dogs and Emperor Norton was very irked when people would say they were,” Jarvis said. “They were San Francisco’s dogs. They were good ratters.”

Alongside the 1939 plaque is a second plaque from the 1986 rededication.

The two plaques can be seen at bus bay No. 10 on the third level of the just-reopened Salesforce Transit Center and despite the well-publicized construction issues the center has had, with any luck that’s “Where it will remain, from what I hear, for the next 150 years,” as Emperor Norton’s stand-in said.

With their work done, the members of Yerba Buena No. 1 of El Clampus Vitus repaired to another historic site, the 109-year-old saloon at Hotel Utah, once known as the Transbay Tavern, to toast their achievement.