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San Francisco and The Bohemian Club



San Francisco

The Englishman Lord Bryce wrote in his work for The American Commonwealth publication, "California, more than any other part of the Union, is a country by itself, and San Francisco a capital." San Francisco was in many ways the cultural capital of California, while the seat of government sat in Sacramento.

In the 1860s with the rapid growth in population also came a sizable local readership and magazines and papers formed to share news of this amazing time, and to comment upon its heroic, and sometimes criminal, activities. Bret Harte, who we feature in the camp reading section, was an early editor of The Overland Monthly. Harte's writing romanticized the California experience, and made quaint what were in actuality very difficult living situations in the Sierra foothills. But this romanticism caught on, and both Californians and those abroad relished in reading of the ennobling qualities writes like Harte brought to the world as representations of California's frontier life.


In the years from 1870 to the early 1900s, before the great earthquake of 1906, San Francisco was the home of a lively artist colony - painters, photographers, and writers - with outposts in on the eastern Piedmont hills overlooking San Francisco. In this great city, now filled with more millionaires than Boston or New York, the artists lived and worked, shared banter in local cafes, and desired nothing less than to become a colony with as much renowned as the artists café life of bohemian Paris. When that horrible earthquake hit in 1906, the colony relocated for a time to the south in Monterey.

But what these painters, photographers and writers are often the most famous for are their depictions of, and experiences in, California's untouched backcountry wilderness.

The Bohemian Club


In San Francisco in the 1870s, a group of painters, writers and the culturally interested formed the Bohemian Club. The Club rented inexpensive quarters where they could meet, talk, and exchange ideas after painting, working, or following their shifts at the local newspapers and magazines. Each summer this group would move to a rustic camp along the Russian River north of the city, and there enjoy close experiences with the out of doors. And during the year, they often trekked to Mt. Tamalpais just above the northern point of the San Francisco Bay. Most of these artists came from urban city homes in the eastern states, and held outdoor adventures as special, occasional times for inspiration. And it was the Bohemian Club's urban responsibility to entertain the visiting artistes - Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde were among its most famous guests from around the world. The Bohemian Club kept alive the "feel of frontier journalists - vest opened, feet up, pipes lit, and a companionable glass filled - talking far into the night after the morning edition had been put to bed". (quote from Americans and the California Dream by Kevin Starr, recommended reading)

At the turn of the century, the Bohemian Club experienced a growth in attention and membership under the appreciative eye of Mayor James Duval Phelan who hoped to see San Francisco become the Florence of Italy - the seat of a rebirth, or renaissance, of the arts. Joaquin Miller and Jack London, whose works are available in the Camp reading section, George Sterling, poet laureate of San Francisco, and painters like Maynard Dixon and Xavier Martinez were important figures during this time.

Friends of the Bohemian Club also began their own creative, if short-lived publication to capture the spirit of the times. The Lark was a paper designed and printed by artists from 1895-1897 and they proclaimed it captured the spirit of the redwoods as well as the spirit of life in San Francisco.


"To understand this, one must have spent long days and nights in the mountains of northern California beneath the giant trees that have covered the hills for centuries - before the Argonauts ravished the canyons of gold, before the Spaniards built their missions, before the Russians fortified the shores, before the American Indians hunted in the forests. One must have forded the rushing rivers, and trodden the mountain trails at dawn, in the glory of 'sunful-eyed noon' at twilight, and in the fragrance of midnight. We had a camp there which was an Arden in an Arcady. We were all young, happy, and sane beneath those boughs, and there came to us there a revelation of simple living, and clean-minded pastimes. To the town, variegated in its colour, so shut off from many of the tyrannies of the world, we brought back the impulse of the hills, and with those primal emotions were mingled many subtler reactions which no civilized being can do with out."

(Commentary on the Lark's inspiration by editor Gelette Burgess)