An Interactive Map of San Francisco… in 1859

Few people know this but the United States once had an emperor. Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico reigned from his seat of power in San Francisco between 1859 and 1880. In reality he was an English businessman who moved to California seeking fortune only to lose all of his money and kind of went crazy as a result. After declaring himself Emperor and publicly demanding the American government submit to his rule he became a local celebrity in San Francisco and was treated like royalty by most of the city though no one with any real power would actually listen to him. His lasting legacy was his repeated decrees that a bridge be built across San Francisco Bay. About 50 years after he died completely penniless the Golden Gate Bridge was built and today there is even a political effort to rename the bridge after Norton.

The Smithsonian has a great interactive map of San Francisco in 1859 when Norton began his reign compared to a satellite image of the city today. Back then it was the largest city in California but only about 56,000 people lived there which was tiny compared to the bigger cities back east. Most of what is now urban San Francisco was either wilderness or farmland back then. The other really shocking thing I found about that map was just how much people built over bodies of water. There was a creek that emptied out into a cove in the Bay back then but today that creek is underground and that cove is filled in completely. Looking back at these maps makes me marvel about just how quickly our cities got built up.

san fran
Norton’s imperial capital then and now.

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