By Carl Nolte
Excerpt from the Sea Letter, 2004, No. 66
Jack London was born in San Francisco, grew up in Oakland, found adventure in the Klondike and elsewhere, lived like a lord in the Valley of the Moon, bur both he and his writing were shaped by the Oakland Estuary, the humble arm of the bay that separates Oakland and Alameda .
It’s true name was San Antonio Creek, but it was most often called Oakland Creek. It was more of a slough than an estuary, but big enough and wide enough to sail. The estuary gave London his first taste of saltwater, made him a sailor, and changed his life.
London worked like a dog in a cannery and a jute mill on the shores of the estuary, learned to drink and listen to the talk in its waterfront saloons, learned to read books in the Oakland Public Library, and learned to write with a rented typewriter in his family’s Oakland home not far away from the saltwater. He delivered newspapers, worked in a bowling alley, and as a stevedore. He saved his money: nickels and dimes in the days when small change meant something. Years later, in 1913, London wrote about it in his semi-autobiographical novel, John Barleycorn:
“When I was 14, my head filled with tales of old voyagers, my vision with tropic isles and far sea-rims, I was sailing a small centerboard skiff around San Francisco Bay and the Oakland Estuary. I wanted to go to sea. I wanted to get away from the monotony and the commonplace.”
Imagine Jack London on the Alameda side of the Oakland Estuary long ago, on a Sunday afternoon in 1891, at the dawn of his remarkable career. He was 15 years old and had just cut the deal to buy his first boat, the gaff-rigged sloop the Razzle Dazzle. According to John Barleycorn, London and French Frank struck the bargain for the Razzle Dazzle aboard the Idler on the Alameda side of the estuary, and the next morning sealed the deal on the Oakland side with a drink at Johnny Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. London’s enthusiasm was evident:
“And the afternoon sea breeze blew its tang into my lungs and curled the waves in mid channel. Before it came the scow schooners wing and wing, blowing their horns for the draw bridges co open. Red-stacked tugs tore by, rocking the Razzle Dazzle in the waves of their wake. A sugar bark towed from the “boneyard” to the sea. The sun wash was on the crisping water, and life was big….”
“Tomorrow I would be an oyster pirate, as free a freebooter as the century and the waters of San Francisco Bay would permit …. We would outfit our grub and water and in the morning hoist the big mainsail (which was a bigger piece of canvas than any I had ever sailed under) and beat our way out of the estuary on the first of the sea breeze and the last of the ebb. Then we would slack sheets, and on the first of the flood run down the bay to the Asparagus Islands, where we would anchor miles off shore. And at last my dream would be realized: I would sleep upon the water. And ¬the next morning I would wake upon the water, and thereafter all my days and nights would be on the water…”
More than 20 years later, in 1912, London wrote a piece for Yachting Monthly about sailing small boats:
“A sailor is born, not made…by the time I was 12 I listened to the lure of the sea. When I was 15 I was captain and owner of an oyster sloop. By the time I was 16 I was sailing in scow schooners, fishing salmon with the Greeks up the Sacramento, and serving as a sailor on the Fish Patrol. And I was a good sailor, too, though all my cruising had been on San Francisco Bay and the rivers tributary to it. I had never been on the ocean in my life.”
The Oakland Estuary was a much different place at the close of the 19th century. Charles G. Yale described a winter’s day on the estuary in the Overland Monthly in 1883: “I look out on the Oakland harbor and the broad marshes, and can trace the many little creeks and sloughs that make off from the main estuary– themselves creating in turn small basins, ponds, and streamlets innumerable, all glistening in the bright sunlight….” Oakland, Yale thought, was “the prettiest town of California, half hidden by trees.”
However, some people, said Yale, thought the estuary “a creek with muddy banks and unpromising surroundings, with some dim possibilities of future greatness….” But Yale saw it with the same eyes London did: the whaling ships la id up for the winter, a government survey ship from Alaska tied up, the sails of half a dozen small yachts, bay steamers, schooners laid up in Alameda or the Brooklyn Basin, a lumber wharf, a railroad train making its way along the Oakland shore, the ferry steamer Bay City, bound from Alameda to San Francisco, and beyond that the Golden Gate leading to the open ocean.
In London’s day this waterfront was rough: yachts mixed with working boats, and Broadway, Oakland’s main street, was lined with saloons. London’s favorite was right on the docks at the foot of Webster Street, Johnny Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. Oakland’s saloons, London wrote, were “poor man’s clubs,” and Heinold’s was the best, “a saloon for the transactions of men,” he called it in John Barleycorn. London had no money, of course; he’d borrowed the $300 to buy the Razzle Dazzle from Virginia “Jenny” Prentiss, a former slave, who believed in Jack and his future and always referred to him as her “white child.” Three hundred dollars! In those days you could buy a round of drinks for the house for 80 cents. Three hundred dollars was a fortune to a kid like Jack Loudon, who had been earning ten cents an hour working in a cannery. Yet the oyster pirate business was so good– in John Barleycorn, he claimed he made $25 a night stealing oysters-that he soon paid Mrs. Prentiss back with interest.
Virginia Prentiss wasn’t the only person who believed in Jack. Another was Johnny Heinold, the saloonkeeper of the Last Chance, who was also impressed by London. In an interview with Westways ( 1933) magazine shortly before he died, Heinold said that Jack came in to the saloon when he was a kid to read a big dictionary Heinold had. “[He] just fell into that old book and read like to learn everything was in it…that was his way–everything with all his force.”
The oyster pirate business was rough, and half the men in it ended up either dead or in San Quentin. So London quit, got rid of the Razzle Dazzle, and got a job with the Fish Patrol running down the men he used to work with. “But he got tired of this,” Heinold recalled, “and one day, just before his 17th birthday, he comes in and says he’s tired of Oakland and ‘Frisco and the bay and that he’s going to ship before the mast.”
Heinold claimed he got Jack London a berth on the Sophia Sutherland, a three-masted sealing schooner about to sail from San Francisco for the far Pacific seal hunting grounds. Heinold knew the captain, who regularly dropped in to the Last Chance for a drink or two. “So I speaks to the skipper,” Heinold told the interviewer for Westways magazine, “and tells him there’s a kid here I been watching and he’s got good stuff and wants to go to sea, and will he take him on the Sophie Sutherland and keep an eye on him?” The captain was apparently reluctant. Jack was only 17 and had never been outside the Golden Gate. “Hell, no, I won’t take him,” Heinold reported the skipper said, “He’s too young.” But Heinold claimed he talked the sea captain into it, and London signed on as an able seaman and sailed off on a long voyage to Japan and the north Pacific. The Sophia Sutherland hunted fur seals and London was both a sailor and a hunter. Years later, writing in the Cruise of the Snark, he said his proudest moment was when the mate gave him his first trick at the wheel. The captain watched for a while, then saw that Jack knew his business, and went below, leaving London on deck, steering the ship alone. London later used this voyage as the basis for The Sea- Wolf.
After returning from the sea, London hoboed around the country with an army of unemployed men, came back, worked in a jute mill in Oakland running machines that made burlap sacks, and then decided to make something of himself. He enrolled at Oakland High School and eventually attended the University of California in Berkeley for a semester in the fall of 1896. “More than once, in the brief days of my struggle for an education, I went to Johnny Heinold to borrow money,” he wrote in John Barleycorn. “When I entered the university, I borrowed $40 from him, without interest, without security, without buying a drink.”
London dropped out of Berkeley in February 1897 and went to the Klondike on July 25th that same year. He ran for mayor of Oakland in 1901, his writing attracted the attention of important magazines and editors, and in 1902 he published The Cruise of the Dazzler, a fanciful account of his Bay adventures starring such characters as the ‘Frisco Kid, and a nasty oyster pirate he called French Pete. His masterpiece, The Call of the Wild, was published in 1903, and the first edition of 10,000 copies sold out in a single day. The Sea-Wolf was published in 1904 and was a huge hit, translated into nearly every language there is, and has never gone out of print. Jack London had arrived.
The years went by, and Jack London became famous — a celebrity who wrote 54 books, and 198 short stories. In an average year, he received 10,000 letters. He died when he was 40, burned out, some said, like a meteor.
London always remembered where he came from. “Jack never forgot a friend,” Johnny Heinold told the Westways magazine interviewer. “He always found time to come around here for his little two-finger drink and bring me his latest book with his name in the front.”
London never forgot Oakland, either. In Burning Daylight one of his later novels (first serial- ized in the New York Herald , 1910), he has his fictional hero describe his vision for a new kind of Oakland:
“ ‘ I’m going to get my hands on some of the waterfront and tide-lands,” said his hero, agent named Elan Harnish who called himself Burning Daylight.” I can fill and dredge and put in a system of docks that will handle hundreds of ships. San Francisco’s waterfront is congested. No more room for ships. With hundreds of ships loading and unloading right into freight cars of the three big railroads, factories will start up here instead of crossing to San Francisco….” “Do you know,” Burning Daylight continues, “I’ve been looking it up-the Firth of Clyde [Scotland] where all the steel ships are built isn’t half as wide as Oakland Creek down there…Why ain’t it the Firth of Clyde? Because the Oakland City Council spends all its time debating about prunes and raisins. What is needed is somebody to see things, and after that, organization. That’s me…all I got to do is start it going. ‘Gentlemen,’ I say, ‘Here’s all the natural advantages of a great metropolis.’”
Today, a hundred years later, the Oakland that Jack London grew up in has changed beyond belief. However, some of Burning and Daylight’s vision has come true. While San Francisco’s port has declined, Oakland’s has prospered. The estuary where Jack learned to sail is lined with container cranes. Oakland is the fourth largest port in the United States. The ferry from San Francisco still sails up the estuary, still ties up near the foot of Broadway at what is today Jack London Square. Just off the ferry, there is a statue of London as a young man, leaning into the wind or as if making a speech in the City Hall park, just up Broadway. “The Boy Socialist,” the papers of the day called him. Jack London’s credo is carved at the base of the statue. “I would rather be ashes than dust….” For over 50 years, this part of Oakland has been Jack London Square. Though his name is everywhere around the Square — the Jack London Inn, the Jack London Cinema, Jack’s Bistro, the Jack London Square railroad station-much of the square is pretty much a hunk of 21st century American business. Burning Daylight would have felt right at home, but Jack London might feel lost.
Besides the statue, there are three other establishments to remind people of Jack London. One is the Overland House, at Broadway and the Embarcadero Jack London used to drink there, and it figures in an incident in John Barleycorn. The Overland House is now Barclay’s, a bar and restaurant with white tablecloths and an assortment of draft beers. In London’s time, a small beer was five cents. Now it’s $4, and the bartender is usually looking for a dollar tip. Barclay’s is right on the railroad tracks, and the rumble of passing freight trains sometimes still drowns conversation out.
Not far away is what some believe to be part of what was London’s old Klondike cabin. The truncated cabin — a few steps away from the ferry landing, docks for sleek white yachts, and a parking lot — is as out of place as a sailor on horseback. Next to the cabin is a life-sized statue of a wolf, Jack’s name for himself.
At the foot of Broadway still stands Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. The old Webster Street Bridge to Alameda, with its big horse-drawn drays, is long gone, but Heinold’s survives. In one corner is the desk where Jack sat, studying or making notes for his books. The bar London describes in John Barleycorn where he drank to seal the sale of the Razzle Dazzle is still there. The ceiling is black with smoke from a million cigarettes. If Oakland were a tourist town, Heinold’s would be packed with visitors. In London’s time, it was headquarters for crews of sailing ships, teamsters, and neighborhood tough guys. The tough guys go somewhere else now, and most days Heinold’s is not crowded and patrons can look around to their heart’s content. “It’s a museum where you are lucky enough to get a drink,” says Carol Brookman, the owner.
Outside is the real treasure: the estuary itself. Big ships steam up and down it, and tugs, work boats, sailing yachts, and small boats come and go, some smaller than the skiffs Jack London sailed a hundred and more years ago. The estuary is gentler than the open Bay and kids still learn to sail there, still tack into the eye of the wind as the two kids did aboard the imaginary sloop the Dazzler.
The pleasure sailors on the estuary today may not think of Jack London much, but they would probably agree with the ending of his 1912 piece in Yachting Monthly:
“…Once a sailor, always a sailor. The savour of salt never stales. The sailor never grows so old that he does not go back for one more wrestling bout with wind and wave.”