The Emperor built a bridge

Very few know of the first and only Emperor of the United States, and this comes to no surprise. He was after all made royalty not by blood and steel, but by hermetic favor. Thus his phantasm mostly occupies our collective dreams, leaving only minor footnotes in our historians records.

Via the Emperor’s Bridge Campaign

Much is unknown about the Emperors early years. He was born on the fourth February of 1818 into rather unremarkable circumstances. The son of a trader he sought his luck in San Francisco after his parents death. Stepping in his fathers footsteps he made a comfortable wealth trading with various commodities. This was not to last however and 1858 he had to file bankruptcy, living in a boarding house. It is out of tragedy like this that heroes are born, and we can only assume the Emperor no differently. Still, this time of exile remains shrouded in mystery.

But for our purposes there is no point in further dwelling on these years. The Emperors story began on the 17th September of 1859 when the eremite came down from his mountain to take his place and declare himself “Emperor of the United States”. This was met in the same way one would react to a street preachers erratic epitaphs, and this comes as no surprise.

In this enlightened new world, what room was there for the sermons of the left-behind, the antiquated, the ghost of monarchy? It appeared by all means the act of a madman. Yet it would be a grave mistake to dismiss those acts as idiotic. For that spark of chaos surely is the motor of our histories revolution. The first man to utter defiance to his ruler, to set the cornerstone for enlightenment, was he not just as mad?

Still, with disregard to his subjects mockery the Emperor walked the streets of San Francisco. And this is where he earned his decorum, where he truly was crowned a royal spirit. Norton was a man of the people, lending an open ear to even the most poor and downtrodden, sharing his wisdom freely. But as always we must judge a person by his actions, rather than their words. And as valiant in conduct as in debate, Norton also proved his steadfast protection of those marginalized. So it is said that he once stood between a violent mob and the Chinese residents they chose as victim, reciting the Lords prayer.

While these actions are what gained him widespread adoration, his official decrees were what consolidated him in the peoples collective mind. Printed by major newspapers these were read by many, though ignored by the government. These proclamations varied wildly. One banned shortening the cities name to “Frisco”, one supporting women’s suffrage, one demanding Sacramento to clean its muddy streets and install gaslights.

Among all these proclamations however, only one he made on the 18th August of 1869[1], which ordered the building of a suspension bridge between Oakland Bay and San Francisco, was made reality. In 1933 construction on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge began, without thought or mention of the then-dead regent.

It was the evening of January 8th in 1880 when the Emperor died. His funeral was a grand affair, as he was beloved by many. It is reported that up to ten thousand people in a funeral procession of two miles long paid their respect. An obituary read thus:

The heritage of honor and integrity that he had handed down while in his affluence, was never squandered nor dissipated, and so he bore the respect and goodwill of the best of his people to the end. The jokes played upon him had been harmless, and the merriment that he sometimes excited had been without the bitter venom of ridicule.
If sincere, his was a career of long heroic sacrifice; if an imposter, he must be ranked as one of the most extraordinary of that class who has yet lived. He left no successor. The emoluments of an unattractive throne and an empty royalty were not alluring; there was none strong enough to follow him; and finally the world was entering upon an epoch of materialism in which there is no provision for such a monarch. From that strange stage through the doors of oblivion, thus passes forever Norton I, Emperor of the United States, and Protector of Mexico. L’Empereur est mort.

So the question remains: Joshua Norton, was he truly an Emperor? Was he a vagrant with delusions of grandeur? To answer this question we need to look no further than his actions. There is no doubt: He was a noble spirit, an Emperor if there every was one. Not by virtue of blood, but by virtue of his own.

And so the Emperor built a bridge. Not only a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland Bay, but also a bridge between people. A bridge between past and future. One that stood tall throughout the ages, even if it is one unbeknown to most. And yet it would be naive to deny its relevance to this day. Subtle its spirit is weaved into the cultural map of San Francisco, and subtle the Emperors spectre wanders our collective mind. Without measure, still ever-present.

And if you listen closely you may just catch its whisper, carried by the winds of our collective memory.

[1] Correction: As John Lumea from the Emperor’s Bridge Campaign told me:

“The August 1869 decree was published in the Oakland Daily News and specifies a 42-mile-long “bridge to nowhere” that veers from Oakland, to Yerba Buena Island, up to Sausalito, then over to the Farallon Islands, then (and basically still) an uninhabited outcropping of rocks 20 miles off the Pacific coast of San Francisco. This decree — whose date was memorialized on a 1939 plaque honoring Emperor Norton for envisioning the Bay Bridge — has come to be regarded as a hoax in which Oakland mocked San Francisco by mocking San Francisco’s Emperor.”
The three “bridge Proclamations” written by the Emperor were published in January, March and August of 1872. You can view those here.”