San Francisco walking tour with the 'Emperor of the United States'

"We'll be taking a journey into San Francisco's past. Learning its history and meeting some of its most notable characters. The foremost of which is me."

It's not every day you draw a royal as a tour guide. And what a splendid personage is this Emperor Norton I (channelled by Joseph Amster). 

Clad in a fine military uniform with gold epaulettes, a scarlet cummerbund and a hat festooned in colourful plumes, Norton stands out even in San Francisco, a city no stranger to strangeness.

Which is fitting, as the real-life Norton was the king of the city's eccentrics in the 19th century. Emigrating to San Francisco from the UK in 1849, he became a successful businessman but then lost his entire fortune in a speculation on the price of rice.

In 1859 he re-emerged from obscurity, proclaiming himself Emperor of the United States (and later on, Protector of Mexico). In the following years he issued various proclamations and roamed the streets in a donated uniform to inspect his realm.

The city's residents decided to play along with his delusion, greeting him as Emperor and seeking his patronage for their businesses. On one memorable occasion the police chief was forced to apologise to the affronted public when an over-zealous officer arrested Norton for vagrancy.

Now his spirit lives on via Emperor Norton's Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine, a tour highlighting historical quirks in the city's Downtown, Financial District and Chinatown.

It's impossible to delve into San Francisco's history without hearing about the huge1906 earthquake and fire that devastated the city; so it's fitting the Emperor first leads us into the Hotel St Francis. 

When disaster struck, the hotel's walls stayed upright while the inside burned. Within are beautifully rebuilt interiors, including the 1913 Oak Room which was one of the city's earliest gay bars. This prompts our guide to relate the annual procession of drag queens to the Emperor's grave, having adopted him as a patron of diversity.

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Then we're out on the street again, heading down Maiden Lane. 

Once a seedy alley of brothels, it's now home to upmarket shops and an early Frank Lloyd Wright building with an impressive brick arch. According to Norton, the great architect tried out design ideas here which were later applied to the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

At the far end of the lane we meet Robert Close, a busker who belts out opera arias to passers-by. Then we reach Lotta's Fountain, donated to the city by actress Lotta Crabtree in 1875, and the earthquake is with us again.

Each year in April the disaster is commemorated here, with the laying of a wreath and the sounding of sirens. Crabtree is remembered by an inscription on the fountain, as is Luisa Tetrazzini, an opera singer who sang for locals after the quake.

Another operatic connection with the catastrophe was Enrico Caruso, says the Emperor. The great Italian singer was staying at the nearby Palace Hotel when the ground shook. 

At first, says Norton, Caruso thought that the quake had damaged his vocal cords. Then survivors were startled to hear the singer's voice echoing through the streets as he sang out of his window.

At Ghirardelli, a popular chocolatier in San Francisco since 1851, the Emperor tells us of the Emperor Norton sundae which once graced its menu, but was withdrawn despite his protests. A shake of his fist at the window in mock outrage, and we move on.

We pass the Wells Fargo Bank on Montgomery Street (with a hidden rooftop garden, we're told), then hear about the vast number of ships abandoned in the nearby harbour during the gold rush years, when the now reclaimed land was open water. 

In this era, Gold Street was at the heart of the Barbary Coast, a rough district of booze, gambling and prostitution. 

From here we stroll to nearby Pacific Avenue, where the Emperor takes us into an art supplies store, then downstairs to a secret tunnel. Or part of one, anyway, once possibly used for smuggling and shanghaiing.

The tour ends, inevitably, where Norton met his end – on the street corner opposite Old St Mary's Cathedral, where he collapsed in 1880. His funeral was attended by thousands, its procession trailing for three kilometres through the city streets.

Nor has the Emperor of the United States been forgotten today. At one point in our walk, a passing pedestrian greets our guide by his title and receives a gracious regal wave. 

Not that everyone is so deferential, he says. "Once someone wound down their car window and yelled 'Norton, how's your rice?' That was cruel. Can't stand the sight of the stuff."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/san-francisco

sanfrancisco.travel

FLY

Qantas flies to San Francisco from Sydney, see www.qantas.com.au

TRAIN

Railbookers Australia can arrange train and accommodation packages between San Francisco and other cities, see www.railbookers.com.au.

STAY

Handlery Union Square Hotel, handlery.com. Family-owned hotel handy to transport, shopping, dining and entertainment. From $US199 per night.

Holiday Inn Express Fisherman's Wharf, see www.hiefishermanswharf.com. Up-to-date mid-range lodgings near the waterfront. From $US180 per night.

TOUR

Emperor Norton's Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine tour departs Thursdays and Saturdays at 11am and 2.30pm. Fee $US20, see www.emperornortontour.com 

Tim Richards was a guest of Railbookers.com.au and San Francisco Travel. The writer paid for his own airfare.

More quirky SF walking tours

Mural Tour. Learn about the murals of the Mission district, covering six blocks from Balmy Alley in the company of an experienced muralist. See www.precitaeyes.org 

Chinatown Alleyway Tour. Walk through the back streets of this vibrant neighbourhood, hearing about the trials and triumphs of the city's Chinese community. See www.chinatownalleywaytours.org 

Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour. Set the controls for the 1960s in this tour of the hippie-era hotspot, epicentre of the Summer of Love. See www.haightashburytour.com 

Gold & Guns in Downtown SF. Take a journey back to the rough-and-tumble gold rush era, when San Francisco's waterfront was dingy and dangerous. Includes cocktails. See www.walksftours.com 

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