Born in England in 1818, Joshua Abraham Norton was raised in South Africa, where he lived until his late 20s. Like so many other optimistic fortune seekers during the Gold Rush of the mid 19th century, the young Norton eventually made his way to California, settling in San Francisco. Within a few years, he was a wealthy, influential and respected citizen of his adopted city. Unfortunately for Norton, his business venture of buying Peruvian rice to sell to the Chinese during a shortage went belly-up. By the late 1850s, he was bankrupt and undone.
But, in September 1859, Joshua Norton charted a new path, declaring himself “Emperor of the United States.” Emperor Norton had a flair for the dramatic, wearing an increasingly elaborate uniform with large gold-plated epaulettes and a feather-bedecked beaver hat. And, he had a knack for making farsighted proclamations that many of his contemporaries regarded as outrageous.
Besides selling his own currency, which was accepted as legal tender at places he frequented, Emperor Norton made the prescient claim, with three newspaper proclamations in 1872, that San Francisco and Oakland should be connected by a bridge via Yerba Buena Island. It took another 64 years for this fevered notion to become a reality with the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on November 12, 1936.
The entire city mourned the Emperor’s death in 1880. Many years later, the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, a fraternity known as “the Clampers,” commissioned a plaque to be dedicated in his honor. This tribute was designed by William Gordon Huff and was unveiled at San Francisco’s new Transbay Terminal on February 25, 1939. Fittingly, this was the “terminus” for the buses and, originally, trains crossing the Bay Bridge from the East Bay.
The plaque was not formally installed anywhere for another 16 years, when the Clampers placed it across the city at the Cliff House in 1955. The group eventually moved the plaque to the Transbay Terminal in November 1986, in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Bay Bridge. When the terminal was being prepared for demolition in 2010, the plaque was placed in storage. In late 2018, as the Salesforce Transit Center, the terminal’s replacement, was nearing completion, the plaque was refurbished at the de Young Museum. The Clampers rededicated the plaque on September 7, 2019 at a location inside the transit center.
Alas, the plaque was vandalized a year later and had to be removed.
In June 2021, the plaque was installed at its current home inside the historic Molloy’s Tavern, in the city of South San Francisco, Calif. — which borders the city of Colma, Calif., where Emperor Norton is buried in Woodlawn cemetery, just up the road from Molloy’s.
Some decades after the plaque’s original dedication in 1939, the date commemorated on the plaque — August 18, 1869 — was revealed to have been the date of a fake proclamation published as a joke by the Oakland Daily News. That “proclamation” had the Emperor calling for a bridge from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island to Sausalito to the Farallon Islands—the original bridge to nowhere.