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Jack London Square’s early days: A saloon, a local sports hero and a floating restaurant

Oakland wanted Jack London Square to be a dining destination from day one; here’s its evolution

Jack London Square has seen its ups and downs, but in the past few years, several popular restaurants have opened on its waterfront. Now, with plans for a 35,000-square-foot food hall and the possibility of a new A’s stadium next door, the area may become the “waterfront restaurant center” that Oakland officials hoped it would be when they first dedicated it to the famous author.

Seven decades ago, Oakland officials assumed the London name would help attract tourists and build a destination like San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. While it never grew to that level of popularity, Jack London Square had unique dining draws early on. During a search through The Chronicle archives, I found photo negatives of the Oakland landmark and realized some of the negatives show the original restaurants under construction.

The story of Jack London Square begins in 1950, when Oakland’s Board of Port Commissioners named four blocks of waterfront area after one of its most famous former residents. London spent time at a saloon in the square during his youth, worked in the area, and took off from the port on his journey to Hawaii, a voyage that inspired two of his books.

The square was dedicated on May 1, 1951, the 99th anniversary of the founding of Oakland. Bess London Fleming, London’s youngest daughter, was in attendance. “Daddy would have appreciated this,” she said. “He didn’t like anything that was useless, and he loved anything that had to do with the sea.”

One of the early restaurants to open at Jack London Square was the Bow & Bell, which had the “charm of an old English tavern and chop house transplanted to the Oakland docks,” The Chronicle wrote on May 7, 1951. Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding was a specialty.

The Bow & Bell had an added draw. One of the original owners was local athlete Jackie Jensen, an “all-city everything at Oakland High,” as columnist Ron Fimrite described him in 1968, who was also named All-American during his time on the UC Berkeley football team. But he spent most of his sports career in major-league baseball, playing for the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, where he was named American League MVP in 1958.

“To this day, the Bow & Bell is something of a monument to Jensen,” Fimrite wrote in 1968. “His plaques, trophies and photographs serve as wallpaper.”

Another early restaurant took advantage of its location on the water. The Sea Wolf, named after one of London’s most popular books, was noted in The Chronicle’s 1952 Dining Guide as having “ an excellent view of the Bay and its bridge.”

In 1951 the Petaluma, a paddlewheel steamboat, dropped anchor at the foot of Broadway at Jack London Square. Renamed the Showboat Restaurant, and renovated to house a circular bar on the upper level and a spacious dining room below, it was described as a floating palace. There was a ladder and a mooring to allow local yachtsmen to drop off their passengers on the boat for a meal or a drink.

While restaurants have come and gone since the square was first named, Heinold’s First and Last Chance saloon was there before and remains still. There has been a drinking establishment there since 1865, and Johnny Heinold became its owner in 1883. The bar survived the 1906 earthquake and had to rebuild after a fire in the 1920s

The saloon has strongest ties to Jack London. The writer spent lots of time at the bar in his youth, and Heinold lent him the money to go to college. The bar owns a photo that shows the writer at age 10, sitting at one of the bar’s three tables and reading from a large dictionary Heinold had bought for him.

The Showboat was a converted paddlewheel boat remodeled into a floating restaurant at Jack London Square. Shown April 24, 1952.
The Showboat was a converted paddlewheel boat remodeled into a floating restaurant at Jack London Square. Shown April 24, 1952.
Photo: Art Frisch / The Chronicle 1952

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From the Archive is a weekly column by Bill Van Niekerken, the library director of The Chronicle, exploring the depths of the newspaper’s archive. It’s part of Chronicle Vault, a twice-weekly newsletter highlighting more than 150 years of San Francisco stories. It is edited by Taylor Kate Brown, The Chronicle’s newsletter editor. Sign up for the newsletter here, and follow Chronicle Vault on Instagram. Contact Bill at [email protected] and Taylor at [email protected].

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