Petitioning California Governor and 2 others

NAME IT THE EMPEROR NORTON BRIDGE (Preserve Existing Names — Just Add This One)


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This petition about the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge does not call for a wholesale re-naming of this bridge system for Emperor Norton. Rather, it highlights a naming solution that simply would add a name like "Emperor Norton Bridge" for the system, which Emperor Norton decreed in 1872.

In this scenario, the existing names and signage for the system and its constituent parts ("spans," tunnel, pedestrian/bike path, etc.) would remain in place. The "Emperor Norton" name could be memorialized with a single prominent overhead sign on either end of the bridge and perhaps other such signs at a handful of key bridge approaches around the Bay Area.

This solution is consistent with the State of California's precedent and current practice of giving multiple names to certain state-owned bridges.

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August 2013

Updated September 2013 to reflect actions by the California State Legislature

"San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge." It's a name straight out of bureaucratic central casting. A clunky, hyphenated mouthful of a moniker that tries to please everyone — but winds up pleasing few. It's little wonder that, as soon as the bridge opened in 1936, local residents cropped the name down to the handier "Bay Bridge." Still a fundamentally technical, descriptive name that lacks poetry — but two syllables are better than eight.

After 80-plus years, though, the original name has earned its place. "The Bay Bridge" is here to stay. And yet...

For generations, the Bay Bridge has had a second name — a parallel name, if you like. This second name — which some consider to be the bridge's real name — never has graced any official highway sign. But it lives in the hearts of many. 

It's time for the bridge's historical name to share the marquee with a name that has a history of its own. A name that speaks to a deeper history. A name that finally honors the bridge's original 19th-century visionary.  

In short: It's time to make the alias official — time for the State of California to recognize that, before the first survey for the structure was begun in the early 1920s, this bridge was, and shall remain...

The Emperor Norton Bridge. 

The San Francisco pioneer, Joshua Abraham Norton (c.1818–1880) — the self-styled "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico" — was considered eccentric, and so he was. Some considered him certifiable.

But Emperor Norton also was a visionary. He was:

  • an adversary of corruption and fraud of all kinds — political, corporate and personal;
  • a persistent voice for fair treatment and greater legal protections for marginalized and immigrant communities — including Chinese, African-Americans, Native Americans and women;
  • a champion of religious unity who saw the dangers of religious puritanism and sectarianism — and advocated against it;
  • an advocate for fair labor practices;
  • a defender of the people's right to fair taxes and basic services, including well-maintained streets, streetcars, trains and ferries;
  • an exponent of technological innovations that advanced the public welfare; and
  • a general ambassador of his adopted city, who embodied and heralded the values of tolerance and the common good that came to be identified with San Francisco, Oakland and the Bay Area.

In January 1872, Emperor Norton issued a proclamation that declared, in part:

"Whereas, we observe that certain newspapers are agitating the project of bridging the Bay; and whereas, we are desirous of connecting the cities of San Francisco and Oakland by such means; now, therefore, we, Norton I, Dei gratia Emperor, do hereby...order that the bridge be built from Oakland Point to Telegraph Hill, via Goat Island [now Yerba Buena Island]."

In a second proclamation, in March 1872, the Emperor specified that the bridge should be a suspension bridge [emphasis added]:

"The following is decreed and ordered to be carried into execution as soon as convenient: That a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island [now Yerba Buena Island], and then to Telegraph Hill; provided such bridge can be built without injury to the navigable waters of the Bay of San Francisco."

He repeated this decree with a third proclamation, in September 1872

"ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel...."

[See the Resources section below for a link to view all three proclamations, as they originally appeared in The Pacific Appeal newspaper.

In adding, for consideration, the possibility of a cross-Bay tunnel — something he originally had called for in a separate proclamation in June 1872 — Emperor Norton anticipated by more than a century the 1974 opening of the Transbay Tube, which carries four of the five lines of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system under the Bay.]

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In essence, the Emperor's vision for a cross-Bay bridge came to pass in 1936, with the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, known as "the Bay Bridge."

In fact, the "bridge" is a bridge system composed of two bridges. The monumental Western crossing, or "span," connecting San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island, is a suspension bridge, as the Emperor specified. The original Eastern crossing, connecting the island to Oakland, was built as a more conventional (at the time of its construction) cantilever-and-truss bridge.

The new Eastern crossing that opened in early September 2013 is a different kind of suspension bridge than the Western crossing.

But, in its way, the new crossing brings to full flower Emperor Norton's original vision of 1872, and makes it an especially appropriate time to finally name the entire Bay Bridge for him.


Well, yes and no.

It's true that, on 12 September 2013 — following an earlier 68-0-10 vote by the California State Assembly — the California State Senate, on a 26-7-6 vote, passed a non-binding resolution (Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 65,  or ACR 65) to name the Western crossing of the Bay Bridge — the "San Francisco side" — the "Willie L. Brown, Jr., Bridge," for former California Assembly Speaker and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

But the state continues to recognize "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge" as the name of the entire bridge system.

Indeed, the 2015 Named Freeways, Highways, Structures and Other Appurtenances in California — the most recent edition of the authoritative listing produced regularly by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) (see Resources, below) — has separate and independent listings for both the "Willie L. Brown, Jr., Bridge" (p.143) and the "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge" (p.164) The former is listed with a citation for ACR 65; the latter is listed as "Not Officially Named."

In other words: For naming purposes, the State of California places these two things — (1) the constituent "spans" of the Bay Bridge and (2) the bridge as a whole — on two separate planes. Which means that the naming of the Western crossing of the Bay Bridge for Willie Brown and the naming of the entire Bay Bridge system for Emperor Norton is not an either-or proposition — it can be both-and.

Put another way...

In effect, the Willie Brown name now functions as one "subtitle" of the larger landmark. 

But the main title of the landmark — "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge" — remains.

Addressing this main title is the opportunity and the imperative highlighted in this petition to name the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton.


Not necessarily.

Today, the state of California has a dozen or so bridges that have multiple "main titles."

Following this precedent, it should be possible to simply add an official "Emperor Norton" name — say, "Emperor Norton Bridge" — to stand alongside the "Bay Bridge" name. The "Emperor Norton" name could be memorialized with a single prominent overhead highway sign on either end of the bridge and perhaps other such signs at a handful of key bridge approaches around the Bay Area.

In this scenario, the existing names for the bridge and its constituent parts, together with all existing highway signs for these names, would be left in place.  


It's been widely recognized, since the opening of the Bay Bridge system in 1936, that the entire system — both Western and Eastern crossings, connected in the middle by Yerba Buena Tunnel — is a remarkable feat of architecture and engineering.

But it's not solely Emperor Norton's 1872 calls for the technological achievement of a Bay-spanning bridge connecting San Francisco with Oakland that warrants the Bay Bridge system's bearing his name.

What must be kept firmly in mind is that, in calling for a cross-Bay bridge, Emperor Norton also was planting the seed of inspiration that would enable those after him to water and reap the deeper possibility of what such a bridge could do — namely, to nurture the two-way commerce of goods, ideas and influence between people on both sides of the Bay.

From this perspective, the Emperor can be seen as an early, if unwitting, visionary of the whole idea of a local "regional economy."

Indeed, whatever the Emperor's specific intentions in calling for a cross-Bay bridge 140-plus years ago, it seems undeniable that a major result of the Bay Bridge system has been to facilitate and nurture such an economy, to the benefit of people on both sides — and that, without a bridge system connecting San Francisco and Oakland, we would not mean the same thing by "Bay Area" as we do today.

To be sure, Emperor Norton is identified as a San Francisco figure. But, the truth is that, for many years, day-trips to Oakland via ferry were part of the Emperor's weekly routine. In his day, Emperor Norton was very well-known in those streets.

Moreover, the Emperor's prescient proclamations calling for a cross-Bay bridge have blossomed, in the hearts and minds of succeeding generations of Bay Area visionaries, into a profound recognition that Oakland needs San Francisco — and that San Francisco needs Oakland.

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The 145-year-old vision for a bay-spanning suspension bridge that unites the people of San Francisco, Oakland and the East Bay via Yerba Buena Island — a vision that has shaped the lives of generations of the area's residents and visitors, and that has been advanced further than ever before with the opening of the new Eastern crossing as a suspension structure...

This vision is specific to Emperor Norton.

In recognition of this — and whatever name(s) might be given to the constituent sections of the bridge, i.e., the West Bay Crossing, the East Bay Crossing and Yerba Buena Tunnel... 

This petition calls on the State of California to authorize and recognize a second name for the bridge system as a whole — the larger entity known as the "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge."

Name it the Emperor Norton Bridge.

San Francisco

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To learn much more about this project, visit

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This petition is the impetus for a nonprofit launched in September 2013:


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Media coverage of this petition
SFist — & &
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS (and others) — &
GOOD DAY SACRAMENTO (local CBS morning show) —
JAMIE ZAWINSKI (Mozilla and Netscape co-founder) — &

Emperor Norton's 1872 "Bridge" Proclamations (as originally published)
6 January 1872 —
23 March 1872 —
21 September 1872 —

Articles on Emperor Norton

Short Documentary Film on Emperor Norton

Named Freeways, Highways, Structures and
Other Appurtenances in California

Policy on Measures Naming Highways
Structures | California State Senate
Transportation &
Housing Committee

Text of Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 65
("Willie L. Brown, Jr., Bridge")

Analysis of ACR 65 by the State of California's
Office of Legislative Counsel

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