SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Inside the bar called Emperor Norton’s Boozeland in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District Sunday night, celebrants were raising their glasses to salute the 200th birthday of a man who was both a visionary and an eccentric street character.
The man went by the name of Emperor Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico. And he became a common site on the streets of San Francisco during the Gold Rush era.
He would walk the city streets in a uniform, proclaiming his title to anyone who would listen to him. He also was credited by some to be a visionary.
“The Bay Bridge should be known as the Norton Bridge,” said Rick Saber, who was wearing an Emperor Norton costume. “He conceived over 60 years before it was built.”
Writer and historian John Lumea credits Norton with coming up with the idea of a bridge path through Yerba Buena Island.
“The idea is that there should be a bridge from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island to Telegraph Hill,” said Lumea. “That was his original idea.”
Lumea said the idea of a bridge across the bay had already been publicized in newspapers, but it was Norton who popularized and advanced it.
“[Norton] pushed it and is seen as the great heralder of the idea,” said Lumea.
On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) streets. He died a short time later. Nearly 30,000 people packed the streets of San Francisco for his funeral.
To honor his 200th birthday, both the San Francisco City Hall and the Coit Tower were lit Sunday night by gold lights.