Emperor Norton was born Joshua Abraham Norton in England, 1818. He eventually made his way to California like so many other optimistic settlers during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. Unfortunately for him, his business venture of selling Peruvian rice to China during a shortage went belly-up. He was eventually left penniless. Norton also had a flair for the dramatics, often wearing outlandish costumes, and he had a knack for making outrageous proclamations.
Besides printing his own money, which was accepted as legal tender at places he frequented, he made the prescient claim, with three newspaper proclamations in 1872, that San Francisco and Oakland should be connected by a bridge via Yerba Buena Island. It took another 64 years for this fevered notion to become a reality with the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on November 12, 1936. Norton would eventually declare himself “Emperor of the United States,” and “Protector of Mexico.”
Many years after his death in 1880, for which the entire city mourned, the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, a fraternity known as “the Clampers,” commissioned a plaque to be dedicated in his honor. This tribute was designed by William Gordon Huff and was unveiled at the Transbay Terminal on February 25, 1939. Fittingly, this was the transportation hub that serviced the East Bay.
The plaque was not formally installed anywhere for another 16 years, when the Clampers placed it across the city at the Cliff House in 1955. The group eventually moved the plaque to the Transbay Terminal in November 1986, in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Bay Bridge. When the terminal was being prepared for demolition in 2010, the plaque was placed in storage. In late 2018, as the Salesforce Transit Center, the terminal’s replacement, was nearing completion, the plaque was refurbished at the de Young Museum. Joined by a small but boisterous group of supporters, the Clampers rededicated the plaque on September 7, 2019 at a location inside the transit center.
Some decades after the plaque’s original dedication in 1939, that last date, August 18, 1869, was revealed to have been the date of a fake proclamation published as a joke by the Oakland Daily News. That “proclamation” had the Emperor calling for a bridge from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island to Sausalito to the Farallon Islands—the original bridge to nowhere.
Update as of February 2021: After the plaque was vandalized in fall 2020, the Clampers removed it in February 2021. A new location is pending.