San Francisco – Everyday Insider (TM) – Trip 30

Lotta’s Fountain, in San Francisco, played an unsurpassed role in the City during the 1906 Quake, so I want to share a little about this unusual lady from California Gold Rush times, whose legacy stands right in the midst of the financial district.

In 1875, Lotta gave “Lotta’s Fountain” at Market and Kearny streets, to the people of San Francisco. It was a generous gesture from a self-made woman, at a time when there were very few of women who “made it”.

I used to walk by it a lot, and I was always fascinated by this beautiful structure and by her smart philanthropy. Who was Lotta?

Charlotte Mignon “Lotta” Crabtree lived from 1847-1924.

Her father was John Crabtree who came from New York seeking gold. He sent for his family in 1853, and moved them to Grass Valley, in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the gold claims.

A few doors away lived Lola Montez, the famous Countess Landsfeldt, who began to teach young Lotta to sing and dance.

Next, the Crabtree family moved to San Francisco in 1856, when she was 9, and by age 12, she was known as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite”. She later became the nation’s first super-star and was known as “the nation’s darling”.

Throughout her life, she clearly invested her earnings. By age 22, she purchased San Francisco real estate and began building a fortune valued at $4,000,000 at the time of her death in 1924!

San Francisco Historical Society still has documents: Charles D. Carter’s Real Estate Circular for September 1869 noted “Sale to Lotta, the Actress”.

Miss Lotta Crabtree, before leaving California, purchased a lot, 50×137 1/2 on the south side of Turk street, 87 1/2 feet east of Hyde, paying $7,000 for it.

Scholars believe that this was a portion from her last, short and successful engagement at one of the San Francisco theaters.

Lotta’s Fountain, which has stood at Market, Geary and Kearny streets for more than 123 years in good times and bad, was recently refurbished. In times of financial stress, the City of San Francisco chose to rescue her cast-iron gift because it is so historically important.

The team of skilled ironworkers unbolted the top of Lotta’s Fountain and lowered the pieces to the sidewalk. It was a treacherous job, because the fountain was so old and delicate. The ironworkers said that some of the rings that hold the monument together were as thin as paper! But, it has now been strengthened, restored to its former glory and returned to the people of San Francisco – the City Lotta loved – providing them with fresh drinking water at a time when just finding a drink, especially for ordinary workers, was not easy.

Immediately after the horrific San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, the survivors gathered at the base of the Fountain — and they have done so every year since 1907 to remember the day when the San Francisco of their youth was destroyed.

No one now living, not even San Francisco’s oldest old-timer, was alive when Lotta’s Fountain was dedicated on Admission Day, September 9, 1875.

The fountain had been cast in Philadelphia, then shipped to San Francisco on an 18,000 mile sea journey around Cape Horn, then reassembled and presented to the citizens of San Francisco by Charlotte (Lotta) Mignon Crabtree, who you have just learned was one of the most famous entertainers of her day.

Without children, this really became her legacy — and it was one of compassion and generosity which may be only understood in the context of her time. The water it provided for the ordinary citizen was so important, that it was the first place San Franciscans rushed to, hoping it was strong enough to have survived, as the City was burning. It became the “internet” of it’s day, where people found out the news and found loved ones. It’s preeminence cannot be over-stated.

Lotta Crabtree was regarded by old San Franciscans as “one of the world’s greatest actresses”. And, she returned the affection. Lotta’s Fountain was modeled after a lighthouse prop from a now forgotten play called “Zip” and it was a beacon, indeed, in the City.

For many years, the Geary-Kearny-Market intersection was the heart of San Francisco, a meeting place for all walks of life, so Lotta was smart, again, in where she placed her gift and legacy.

When Lotta finally left for fame and fortune on the East coast, the citizens of San Francisco presented her with a wreath of pure gold and a package of $20 gold pieces.

Lotta was carefree and talented and beautiful, but her mother was shrewd, and taught her daughter to use the money wisely. From that early age, she performed in the vaudeville houses of San Francisco, and in the next decades she became the most popular comedienne of her era and the highest paid performer on the Broadway stage.

She retired in 1892 at age 45, but she made one last San Francisco appearance at “Lotta Crabtree Day” during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.

The restored fountain now is just for show, not for drinking water, but her memory lives on in a City which adored her, and which she loved equally.

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©2010 mystic at Travel Vacation Review

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