Our charming quadrant of San Francisco has borne more than one name since the first European settlers decided to build on these strange and beautiful hills. Today’s strip clubs on Broadway owe their lusty lineage to the Barbary Coast, which centered on now-genteel Pacific Street. For a while we went by Little City (or Little Italy, if you were looking at a tourist guide). Of course, these days we like to call ourselves North Beach. Of all the labels this patch of land has worn over the years, however, Sydney-Town was the first.

North Beach 1856 - The Sydney Duscks

View of North Beach from Telegraph Hill, ca 1856

Centered at the base of Telegraph Hill where Broadway met the waterfront, Sydney-Town was loosely policed by the Sydney Ducks, a gang of British laborers and prison escapees who made their way to San Francisco from Australia in the mid-19th century (Ducks, because the marshy waterfront was a magnet for seabirds). In the anarchic maelstrom that was Gold Rush San Francisco, this neighborhood somehow managed to distinguish itself as the most debauched, vice-ridden locale of them all: a magnet for broken gamblers, drug users, petty thieves and low-level prostitutes, for over a decade Sydney-Town was San Francisco’s dark, wicked center, a repository for all things dissolute and degenerate.

The first street gang in California history, the Sydney Ducks were criminals of the lowest order, and the undisputed lords of their derelict domain. Resourceful to a fault, they ran what would be called a protection racket today, threatening to burn the businesses of those who refused to pay. They would wait until the wind was blowing away from the waterfront, then set fire to the city, and proceed to loot the local properties and warehouses. They did this more than once, and their exploits led to the formation of San Francisco’s First Committee of Vigilance, and to their eventual demise.

To read the whole fascinating story, visit the Belle Cora web site and scroll down for this article.


This article is part of a series examining the fascinating people and places that make up the rich history of North Beach and The Barbary Coast, sponsored by the great people at Belle Cora. Visit us again soon for more great content.