San Francisco History

Giving the Glad Grip to General Grant

by Walter J. Thompson

When General U. S. Grant arrived in San Francisco on that memorable Saturday afternoon in September, 1879, he found a city on the tip-toe of expectancy. In fact, it had been so long in that strained attitude that it was getting dizzy. Aerograms were not on intimate terms with air currents in those days and all that had been known here was that the famous General and ex-President, on the last stretch of his spectacular tour of the world, was somewhere on the broad Pacific ocean on the steamer City of Tokio and headed for this port. For a week the city had been likened by those of a poetical cast of expression to a fair bride in her gladdest robes awaiting the coming of the bridegroom, so bedecked were the streets and buildings with gay bunting and all the emblems of joy. During that time the newspapers had been running graduated headlines that were of the auctioneer pattern, “Getting Ready,” “Almost Ready,” “All Ready,” “Waiting,” “Yet Waiting,” and the outlook began to look grave for the headline man when the booming of the bay cannon announced that coming of the bridegroom and the headline man dashed off “Home Again” with a chuckle of relief.

Everyone knocked off work and prepared to be a unit in the welcome programme that had been prepared. If you participated in the scenes of that day you must recall the outburst of enthusiasm like a sudden and imperative call to rally round the flag, boys. Soon was the bay mottled with craft headed for the Golden Gate. Soon were the steamers China, Ancon, St. Paul and many another aflame with bunting and bulging with welcomes, together with yachts, tugs and small boats galore out on the ocean. Soon did they see the black hull of the City of Tokio looming up in the afternoon haze, and soon they were near enough to decry the distinguished cause of the celebration standing beside Captain Jeff Maury on the bridge. Amid salvos of cheers the escort craft threw themselves, like a protecting phalanx around the Tokio and the marine march through the Golden Gate and up the bay followed, with the guns of Fort Point, Black Point and Alcatraz pouring out their thunder.

And it was a gallant parade which Grand Marshal W. L. Elliott assembled around the triumphal arch at Montgomery and Market streets and which absorbed the barouche containing General Grant and Mayor Bryant and then swept along Montgomery street and back on Kearny beneath a canopy of pyrotechnical spangles that filled the firmament from start to finish with scintillations. No lines were drawn in that gorgeous pageant. The Democratic McClellan Legion was as demonstrative as the Republican Grant invincible or the Nellie Grant Blues and the shrill battle yell at intervals by veterans who had once worn the rebel gray stirred within the hero of the hour recollections of hearing that game air-splitting sound under more unpromising auspices and in a far less kindlier atmosphere. The entire city was downtown and either in that gay procession or an admiring witness to its glories, with the exception of a band of enthusiastic citizens that had gone out on the steamer China and had triumphantly led the van in the bay cakewalk. Time and tide had gripped the China and held the vessel off the Mail dock all the evening and there aboard could only gaze gloomily at the fireworks in the distance and hearken to the din of hilarity that was borne on the zephyrs while—but never mind what they said. It was a long time ago and they have softened by now and are really sorry.

It was perhaps well that the General arrived on Saturday. He had Sunday for rest, and he needed it. The following week the town played with the distinguished guest as a child with a new bauble. There was a ride to the Cliff House, including barks of welcome from Ben Butler, the boss of Seal Rock; there was a formal presentation by the municipal authorities to the citizens at the City Hall; also, a big all around affair at the Mechanics’ pavilion and numerous other functions at military and club headquarters which kept the General as busy as he had been in those closing days of conflict around Petersburg and Richmond. Next he was whisked off to Oakland and San Jose, and the grip of welcome in the bay region seemed about complete.

A grave error of judgment however had been made by the busy reception committee and ambitious board of programmers. The responsible party never was detected. We all know the General was not at fault, although mayhap he wondered why through all the round of entertainment he had not been formally introduced to young San Francisco. If he hadn’t wondered that dynamic element in the city’s population had wondered on its own hook. It had already enshrined the General in their hearts along with George Washington, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and others redoubtable of dauntless deeds and immortal fame. It had rallied on that eventful Saturday and unrestrainedly had given its best endeavors to enlarge the enthusiasm of the occasion. It had climbed the hilltops and greeted the passing panorama of vessels with demonstrative cheers. It had joined issues with the paraders with more cheers and had gathered the crop of skyrocket sticks and burned out Roman candle shells that strewed the line of march and preserved them as mementos of their hero and the occasion. It had heard of those other festivities and of the grip being passed to all the big folk at the City Hall and now the great man had departed apparently all oblivious of the presence of the army of youthful admirers who looked upon him as a mighty captain of battles, as the thought and sight of whom they scented the fumes of Fourth of July bombardments. They were at a loss who to blame for the slight and they resented the treatment.

This resentment was particularly conspicuous at school. Teachers began to note that the portrait of the General in the history book, which hitherto had been exempt from pen and pencil embellishments, such as were plastered all over Christopher Columbus and other text-book veterans, whose names were connected with the memorizing of dates and other dry details, was no longer respected. The General’s features in the history book in those dark eyes of doubt and suspicion were now found adorned with hideous, bulging goggles, trailing Dundreary whiskers, and often topped off with a peaked hat, making the master of Appomattox resemble a rakish old wizard or a bewhiskered Mother Goose.

In some home circles a feeling of resentment was shown against dad’s Grant Invincible oil-cloth cape, scarred as it was with the torchlight blisters of two political campaigns. It was often found cut into strips for a belt and fringed Indian leggings. Muttering became exclamations and the grown-ups had to take notice. Whether they realized that a fatal blunder had been made by someone, or whether, as it was asserted, the programme that was afterward carried out had been planned and kept secret to spring as a surprise, is not known. Be it as it may, the announcement was made that General Grant was to return and that the school children of San Francisco were to be specially presented to him in that paradise of youthdom, Woodward’s Gardens.

All was serene immediately. The grim specter of rebellion that had again threatened to loom up before the great chief was exorcised by decisive action. The embellished history book pictures were looked upon with shame-flushed faces, and many a leaf was ripped out.

The big affair was scheduled for a Monday, the ninth day after the General’s arrival, and the selection of a day which ordinarily would have been devoted to study was considered a master stroke of diplomacy.

With what a flutter of joyful anticipation was that Monday afternoon ushered in. Every school in the city was to be represented; every carline was to run out every car it owned to carry the little ones and those who had too far to walk to the scene of ceremonies. And they did. Pink balloon cars bobbed along sprouting gingham and calico at every window. Red and blue bob-tail cars and their big two-horse brothers fairly bulged with their loads of kiddies. The dark blue Market and Valencia cars looked like crazy quilts on wheels with the multi-colored raiment of little girls and boys, who whooped exuberantly as the horses struggled with the load. But these were somewhat insignificant in comparison with the parades of schools in classes that came from all directions, with the gardens as a common center of interest. There were 30,000 youngsters out that day if there was one.

And the blossoms in loose bunches, the posies and nosegays, and the huge bouquets, some as big as cabbages and as hard, that were in evidence! Not a bud or blossom was left in a city garden that day. Queen Flora threw up her hands in dismay at the devastation and fled the town, taking refuge in her wild-flower patches on the San Mateo hillsides. Perhaps she had an intuition of the shocking doings that were to crown the committee’s order to bring flowers.

The parades and carload lots of young San Francisco met and mingled at the garden gate, and the block between Ridley and Fourteenth streets looked like an army of children afloat on a sea of blossoms. The General arrived at 11:30 in the big barouche, and accompanied by Superintendent of Schools A. L. Mann and the Board of Education, headed by President Hiester. They all wore shiny silk hats and looked as happy as the children that spread blossoms in their pathway as they headed for the big pavilion, where the tiers of galleries were groaning under the weight of happy restless childhood.

There the first part of the programme, including speechmaking went off merrily. It was arranged that in the amphitheater the General and the children were to come into closer communion. That amphitheater at Woodward’s always was the abiding place of a demon of mischief, and under his baneful guidance boys were known to do outlandish and unaccountable things. The General and his party were to take up position on a platform by the bear pit, and all would have gone off well had it not been for the despicable amphitheater demon. Certain it is that the trouble was not started by any of the boys, who had heartily forgiven the supposed sight of being overlooked. Certain it is the demon that day boldly pushed his way into the front ranks, and grabbing a huge bouquet from the hands of a boy hurled it at the distinguished group on the way to the amphitheater. It caught the shiny tile of Superintendent Mann and sent it whirling. Again and again did the demon snatch bouquets, always the biggest and hardest, and pick out another shiny hat. Then, with a malignancy almost inconceivable, the demon, who was possessed of ventriloquial powers, imitated the voices of well-known teachers and cried: “Throw your bouquets, boys!” What was to be done but to obey and not think about whys and wherefores? The order was obeyed with alacrity and hundreds of bouquets made up a floral fusillade. It began to look as if it might be another Tarpeian affair, with the amphitheater tunnel under Fourteenth street representing the famous Roman gateway, and the General and his hosts playing the part of Tarpeia in manifold and being buried beneath an avalanche of bouquets, instead of heavy shields of Sabine warriors. The children, of course, were careful to avoid hitting their military hero, but the irrepressible demon was not satisfied and, within a roar of glee, took a shy at the General’s tile and sent it spinning, even as all the others. Then, as a gasp of horror went around, he gave a final chortle and disappeared in his mysterious retreat behind the big monkey cage, leaving the General hatless, and perhaps considering the advisability of amending his famous saying about keeping up a fight along certain lines if it took all summer. But, happily, the battle was over. Not another bouquet was thrown. There wasn’t one left in the throng.

Before the confusion was straightened out the General had one more ordeal. A pretty buxom girl suddenly broke from the ranks, and, throwing her arms about his neck, made him the victim of an unconditional surrender to an osculatory caress, the smack of which could be heard over in the camel paddock.

With the restoration of order the bear pit was reached, the children passed in review and the General shook hands with as many as he could, and even smiled genially upon the horde of autograph seekers that attacked him and signed his name a hundred times or more.

All in all, it was a gladsome day of frolic with the great General and ex-President. Do you remember it? Does not the remembrance of it assail you at times like a whiff from Riley’s “Orchard Lands of Long Ago” or an echo of the old times. “When Sally Brown and I (or you) Slid Down Old Grimes’ Cellar Door”?

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 1 October 1916. 28.

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