America’s Last Emperor: Wharf

Chapter Eleven

May 16th, 1853

Norton stood in the crowd at the foot of Honest Harry Meigg’s new wharf and marveled at it.

It was the sheer size of the thing. Harry was proud of boasting that it went 2000 feet out into the bay. This was certainly believable. He’d taken giant redwood trees that he’d fashioned into piles and driven them into the bay mud up to sixty feet deep. Then he’d poured sand between the piles and built an extension of Powell Street out into the bay. On this foundation, he’d built a pier over sixty feet wide that stretched into the sea and a wharf off the end of that.

“A wharf is parallel to the shore, a pier is perpendicular,” Harry said when correcting people who called it a pier. Norton reflected that this probably wasn’t very often, because everyone in San Francisco called all the piers that jutted from the financial district wharves. Norton forgave them the nuance, because only a couple of years before the piers had actually been wharves.

They’d turned off the steam paddy for the ceremony to open the wharf. There were two steam paddies in town now, one in North Beach and one down south of Market Street by Norton’s Genesee Warehouse. They were giant digging contraptions, named that because one bucket could shovel as much earth as a hundred Irishmen. The steam paddies were put to work digging out and leveling the sand dunes, loading the sand into railroad cars on a temporary railroad that went to dump wherever fill was needed. The displaced Irish laborers were then used to dump the sand and fill in the bay where needed. The financial district and waterfront was filled in, and The Genesee Warehouse was suddenly on dry land, increasing the value of Norton’s holding there substantially. He could no longer offload directly from boats, unfortunately. This was the price of progress.

The entire wharf made a giant L shape jutting out from North Beach, and the crowd of about a thousand people stood at the juncture of the wharf and pier. There was a small stage made of low boxes, and the speakers stood behind the boxes, taking turns with the speaking cone. They had to use the speaking cone because the wind was very brisk today. Between words, Norton noticed that although the land was over two thousand feet away he could hear everything that happened on land when it was quiet enough.

“And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Mr. Meiggs,” said Mayor Brenham.

A person came up behind Norton and startled him. He turned to see J. G. Eastland and Senator Broderick behind him.

“Eastland, Broderick, how good to see you!” exclaimed Norton. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

“We came on a whim,” said Eastland. “The senator here was in town for our meeting and I mentioned they were opening the wharf today after he noticed there were very few people in the square.”

“More meetings?” asked Norton.

“The state wants to illuminate Sacramento, Vallejo and Stockton,” said Eastland. “Expanding our gas street lighting business.”

“Well that’s amazing,” said Norton, as he spotted Mr. Naglee in the crowd headed his way. “Wait, here’s Naglee.”

“Gentlemen,” said Naglee. “How good to see you.”

“You seem rather dour, Naglee,” said Senator Broderick.

“I’m just a bit tired,” said Naglee. “I’ve been working very hard.”

“Banking?” asked Eastland. Norton sensed that Eastland was needling Mr. Naglee.

“Well, if you must know,” said Naglee. “You’re all going to find out anyway. I’ve sold my bank. I was just coming down to talk to Mr. Meiggs about it.”

“Sold it!” exclaimed Norton. “You hold all my accounts, sir! Why was I not told?”

“Yes,” said Eastland. “All the accounts for the steelworks and the gasworks are with you as well, when were you going to tell us?”

“Well I’m telling you now,” said Naglee. “I only finalized the deal on Friday, I was preparing to visit all of my customers this week to tell you all in person. I sold the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel. To Lucas Turner and Co. Bank.”

“You mean Mr. Sherman’s bank,” said Broderick.

“The very same,” said Naglee.

“Ah, well this is good, he and I have already met,” said Norton.

“I’ll be by to talk to you both this week,” said Naglee. “I must speak with Meiggs now.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Norton at Naglee’s back. The man was in such a hurry he had forgotten his manners.

“Well that’s going to shake a lot of people up,” said Broderick.

“The one constant in this town seems to be change, my good fellows,” said Norton. “The question is always how to take advantage of it. It seems that Mr. Sherman is adept at this.”

“Why Senator Broderick!” Norton recognized the voice of his tenant, Mrs. Pleasant, and turned.

“And Mr. Norton too, imagine that,” said Mrs. Pleasant. She had a very nice day dress with another impressive petticoat on underneath, and so far everyone in the wharf crowd was more impressed with the petticoat than the speech that Meiggs was giving. Mrs. Pleasant was not the only woman on the wharf, but she was one of the few that drew attention to herself. It was a good thing that her husband stood as tall as he did. They were obviously together, and he wore what looked like a military uniform that was very neatly pressed and taken care of.

“Mrs. Pleasant, I didn’t know your husband was a military man,” said the Senator.

“He was, sir, enough to earn wearing the uniform while out,” said Mrs. Pleasant. Mr. Pleasant nodded and bowed.

“I don been a cook in the Navy, dat me,” he said.

Norton noticed that despite attracting attention, everyone treated Mrs. and Mr. Pleasant with respect. Mrs. Pleasant was obviously the brains of the pair, and was so completely in charge that he was reminded of Queen Victoria. He realized that the uniform was part of the whole dynamic somehow.

“Mr. Norton, Mr. Broderick,” began Mrs. Pleasant, “Could you stop by my laundry on your way back into town? I would like to ask your advice.”

“Certainly,” said Broderick. “I don’t think Norton or I have any plans past dinner at Norman’s restaurant, do we?”

“Do we, sir?” asked Norton. “Well I guess we don’t.”

“See you soon,” said Mrs. Pleasant. “Come on, J. J.. We got people to talk to.”

Almost as soon as Mrs. Pleasant walked away, Harry Meiggs and the mayor walked up to the small clique. Senator Broderick’s face brightened considerably.

“Honest Harry, how are you?” he asked. “Mayor Brenham, good to see you.”

Hands were shaken.

“Did Naglee see you, Meiggs?” asked Norton.

“Yes, he did,” said Meiggs. “Did he tell you?”

“Yes, he did,” said Norton. “I was disturbed at first.”

“Well, hold onto that feeling,” said Meiggs. “It appears to be a possibility that the new bank won’t honor the old one’s paper currency.”

“What?” said Norton and Eastland in unison.

“Oh dear,” said Broderick.

“The situation is evolving,” said Meiggs. “I always said that printing your own money was an arbitrary business.”

“If this were a monarchy this type of anarchy would not be allowed,” steamed Norton. “By God, the currency would be standard.”

“It is standard,” said Broderick. “Naglee’s bank was peculiar to the speed of which San Francisco sprang up, and Naglee was gambling that nothing would change. The growth from the gold was unsustainable. You should be glad if you aren’t holding a lot of his paper money. Naglee is probably losing his shirt, selling for much lower than his business is worth.”

“You’re right,” said Norton. “I only use it for petty cash, and only with certain merchants. But I wonder what other changes Sherman’s Bank will wrought on our financial landscape.”

“Time will tell,” said Broderick.

At that moment Sam Brannan walked by with another man, whom Broderick recognized and called out to.

“Judge Terry, fancy seeing you here,” said Broderick.

“Senator, how are you?” said the man, his face lighting up. Brannan scowled at the trio.

“Brannan, hello there. Are you the king of Hawaii yet?” said Broderick.

Brannan scowled more and stomped off.

“Now David, you know better than to poke at a caged animal,” said Judge Terry.

“Sorry,” said Broderick. “The man wants to be a king, I feel the need to mock him. And he’s not caged, he’s got fingers in every pie from here to Hangtown.”

“What’s wrong with monarchy?” asked Norton.

“Nothing, if you are sanctioned by God,” said Broderick. “That man got the word of God from a huckster talking into a hat.”

Norton had no idea what this meant, but then he knew next to nothing about Brannan’s religion and he’d heard it was fairly odd.


Mrs. Pleasant had added a few workers to her laundry since Norton had last visited, and this resulted in more of the finishing work on the building getting done. She ushered them into the same room he’d been in before, but this time it was far more finished than last time. The walls were plastered, and a slate board was installed on one wall, with chalk markings on it for several different endeavors. Norton could not make heads or tails of the markings.

Senator Broderick, Mr. Eastland, and Mr. Norton took in the chalk board as Mr. Pleasant dragged chairs in for the three.

“Senator Broderick, I need some help,” she said to them.

“Anything we can do to help,” said Norton.

“Well, I need to come clean to all of you,” said Mrs. Pleasant. “I’m raising money to send back east.”

“For the abolitionist cause,” said Broderick.

“That’s right,” said Mrs. Pleasant. “I need to start sending money back on regular timetables, but I ran into a problem.”

“What happened?” asked Broderick.

“The man at the Wells Fargo Stagecoach office,” said Mrs. Pleasant. “Not only did he refuse my package, he recognized that I am mulatto. He also would not let J.J. send the package, because he could not understand him.”

“Goldarn cocksucking stagecoach coo-yon,” said J.J. Pleasant. Norton once again only caught part of this, as if this confirmed that nobody could really understand the man.

“So you need someone else to send the package,” said Broderick. “I’m afraid I can’t help you myself. Sending cash backing to abolitionists may be in my nature, but it would be a scandal if a state senator were found to be doing this.”

“Oh, I agree,” said Mrs. Pleasant. “This is why I wanted to ask Mr. Norton.”

This got all of Norton’s attention.

“I do have to ask,” said Norton, “Where is all this money coming from? I saw you had a lot before.”

“Most of it’s in the bank here,” said Mrs. Pleasant. “But I expanded my businesses since you sold me this lot, Mr. Norton. One of my jobs is cooking for rich people’s fancy dinners. I hear a lot, and I’ve found some other folks who can use my investment tips. I’ve also bought a lot more property. I have three boarding houses and another laundry.”

“You aren’t running any cathouses, are you?” asked Broderick.

“What kind of woman do you think I am, Senator?” she replied, sounding hurt.

“I’m glad you are living true to yourself,” said Broderick, “I was asking because I wanted to know how high of a profile you were making here.”

“I don’t want that high of a profile,” she said.

“Agreed,” said Broderick. “I personally don’t mind the cathouses, but the authorities and the churchmen would forever be in your business and taking cuts.”

“Where are you finding all these workers?” asked Norton.

“You probably can guess, Mr. Norton,” said Mrs. Pleasant. “These men and women is all escaped slaves.”

“They fled across the country?” said Broderick in astonishment.

“They flee however they can,” said Mrs. Pleasant. “Before I moved here, J.J. and I ran the Underground Railroad out of New Orleans.”

“What, pray tell, is an ‘underground railroad’?” asked Norton. “It runs underground?”

J.J. laughed, and Mrs. Pleasant chuckled.

“Naw,” she said. “It’s a secret way to get escaped slaves from slave states to free ones. Let’s just hope they don’t make California a slave state.

“Not if I can help it,” said Broderick. “I’ve been fighting that tooth and nail. It’s hard when you are in the minority, as we are. I get into the most violent arguments with friends, like Judge Terry whom you met today, Norton. But I believe the tide is turning.”

“Which is why what I am doing is important,” said Mrs. Pleasant. “The money I send back goes to those… what do you call them, Senator?”

“The lobbyists,” said Broderick.”They hang out in the lobby of the chambers waiting to bend my ear.”

“Yup. So the money is important,” said Mrs. Pleasant.

“What do you need me to do?” asked Norton.


Norton walked into the Wells Fargo office with a small wrapped package that was far heavier than it should have been. He’d watched as Mrs. Pleasant and J.J. measured out gold in coins and nuggets into a small box, put a lock on the box, and then wrapped it in butcher’s paper. He placed it on the counter as the stagecoach clerk put down his paper and walked over to the counter.

“How may I help you sir?” asked the man.

“I need to send this package to Virginia,” said Norton.

“Name and address?” asked the man.

“John Brown, Lake Elba, New York.” said Norton.

The stagecoach man dutifully stamped the package and gave Norton a receipt. Norton walked out, feeling conspiratorial. He was helping correct an injustice as an ordinary citizen, and it felt great to him.

“How much more could I do as a monarch?” he asked himself.


Norton had moved several months ago to the Rassette House, a fine hotel two blocks from the Jones Hotel. The Rassette House was not yet a year old and had the finest things to offer. It was a great starting point for his constitutionals.

Since the Vigilance Committee disbanded last year, Norton had felt part of his life empty. After a short time he realized that the emptiness he felt was due to the loss of his walking beat — walking around the town making sure nobody was up to any trouble had a calming effect on his mind. He got some of his best thinking done while walking, and a great deal of his socialization was tied up in seeing people every day on his beat. So he decided to carry on with his beat, two times a day now. Once in the morning, and once at night.

He walked up to Macao and Woosung for dinner that night. Normally he had a dining companion in Mr. Eastland, but Norton was alone tonight. He considered Commercial Street for a second. Most people avoided the stretch beyond Macao and Woosung. This was where all the cathouses were. Norton knew that Norman Asing was pretty unhappy about this.

Unfortunately for Norman, the sentiment against Chinese was growing. Norton did not agree with it — he found Norman and his workers to be excellent members of society, and they worked far harder than almost any white men except for the Irish as far as he could see. Due to the anti-Chinese sentiment of the new state governor, Norman had written an eloquent letter that all the local newspapers had published. This had the unwanted effect of making his restaurant a target for all manner of defacement.

The food was still good though.

Norton heard Sawyer’s booming voice before he walked through the door, and almost fell over himself rushing through the door. Sawyer was there, and it was no dream — sitting there with a group of six men, Sawyer was obviously a bit inebriated and obviously very happy.

“Sawyer!” he cried when he saw him. “When did you get back? Tell me why you are back? Why did you not contact me?”

“That’s a long story,” said Sawyer. “Norman, get another chair!”

“Who are all these people?” asked Norton.

“We just got in tonight,” said Sawyer. “We had some adventures.”

The entire crowd laughed.

“This man here saved us all!” said a man sitting next to Sawyer’s right.

Norton was not surprised to hear this.

“Let him tell it,” said another man. “Sawyer tells the whole story, and he’s more humble than you.”

“Do tell, Sawyer,” said Norton.

“Well, you remember when I left,” said Sawyer as Norton nodded. “I got myself a job on the steamer Independence. I was a fire engineer.”

“Coal shovelers of the world, unite!” said another man.

“Billy there was one too. We were keeping the boilers lit, steaming back here from Panama. The captain was too close to shore and struck a reef. The entire side had a huge gash tore open in the boat’s side.”

“Good heavens!” said Norton.

“Yeah well Captain Samson had his head firmly up his arse. He decided that the best course of action was to beach the ship. There were a bunch of men in the boiler room though, and they had water pourin’ in from that gash in the side of the boat. I was on deck when it happened, and I ran below decks posthaste.”

“There were two feet of water already when I got there, less than a minute after we hit the reef. The captain pointed the boat at the shore, but with all the water pouring into the boilers we couldn’t keep a good head of steam up. We started throwing anything we could into the boilers — wood, wet coal, anything — when the blowers died.”

“This blew the fire back out of the doors of the boilers bins, and then the engine room caught fire. It was awful, and we had to retreat as the entire ship caught fire. Men, women and children on deck screeching. It was awful. I got these two up on deck but the ship lurched as I propped them up on a rail. The loss of power meant the boat went broadside in the surf, and it was grounding. The boat heeled over and they both fell in the water, overcome by the smoke.”

“Well, I looked around me and decided the best thing to do would be to save them.”

Everyone at the table laughed, shocking Norton with their cavalier attitude towards nearly dying.

“This man grabbed me by my hair and pulled me to safety,” said the man next to him. “He grabbed me and Collins there, put us on his back, and swam the entire way to shore.”

“It wasn’t that far,” said Sawyer. “Only about a hundred yards.”

“He did that twelve times,” said the other man.

“He’s a modest son of a bitch, that’s for sure,” said another person at the table.

“This man saved practically the entire ship,” said another man. “Ninety souls would have died if not for him.”

“Actually I only saved about twenty six people,” said Sawyer.

“He swam back and forth carrying people to shore!” said another man.

“The third person he saved was me,” piped up another man. “I am a doctor, and if he had not saved me first I would not have saved as many half drowned wretches as I did.”

Sawyer tossed back some more whiskey from a flask, and sighed.

“Well, I just couldn’t stand by and watch everyone drown,” he said.

“What the hell is this stuff,” said someone else, looking at his plate of food. “This is amazing, how do you know about this place, Sawyer?”

“That there is chop suey, and I know about this place from Norton here, of course!” was his reply.


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Founder at KinkBNB. Writer of fiction and nonfiction.

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