The Tale of Shanghai Kelly

Last night, I was hanging out at 21st Amendment before Lopez handed the baseball game to the Giants on behalf of the Phillies.  A new friend says (naively) “You’re not a Steelers fan too, are you?”.  No no, I’m from Philadelphia, not Pittsburgh.  He says “Good, because I hate Shanghai Kelly’s when the Steeler’s are playing”, to which I respond “But you love the story of Shanghai Kelly, right?”.  He looks at me blankly along with another friend of my mine.  This makes me realize that I possess this little bit of knowledge about our city that I very rarely find other people know about.  So I decided to share the story with them last night, and now with anyone who cares to learn more about the history of San Francisco.

Back in the day, before the gold rush of 1949, San Francisco existed primarily as a port city, with boats leaving for far off places like Shanghai, China to bring back goods to the Pacific Northwest for trade.  Newcomers to the city quickly found jobs staffing these boats as deck hands and sailors alike.  Tons of people were coming from near and far to the city, including boats that sailed from the New York, all the way around the southern tip of South America, because the Panama Canal wasn’t open yet, north to the California coast.  One of those boats carried an Irish dude named Jim Kelly.

Kelly’s boat wasn’t the smartest, and when they sailed through the golden gate, they had no idea where San Francisco actually was; so they docked on Pelican Island, a.k.a The Rock, a.k.a. Alcatraz.  When they “docked”, they tore apart most of the hull, and had to be rescued by more seasoned veterans of the bay.  They dragged the boat to the Pacific pier and called it awash.  Well, everyone did except for the enterprising Jim Kelly.

Jim Kelly sawed off the bow of the boat and opened the ship saloon.  He served drinks out of that bow until he had enough money to open up his own hotel and bar, where new and old citizens of the city could congregate and rest their heads.  New sailors were coming in everyday to the saloon, and heading off to far off lands for trade.  Trade was the dominant business until news broke that there were “gold in them hills”.  Suddenly it became very difficult to find sailors.

Being the ever enterprising man that he was, Kelly knew there was a service he could provide to captains of boats who now found themselves struggling to find sailors.  So developed the ruthless practice of drugging naive newcomers to the city, and selling them off to boat captains. These poor men would wake up from their drugged daze by the time the boat was in Shanghai and have no other choice then to man the boat if they wanted to get back to San Francisco.  This practice became known as ‘Shanghaing’, and the most ruthless of them all? Jim Kelly, who earned the name Shanghai Kelly.

The next time you’re at the Old Ship Saloon in the Jackson Square Historic District, or at Shanghai Kelly’s nestled between Russian and Nob Hill, you can know that both are an ode to a San Francisco legend.


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