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Did Jack London once live in Bernal?

October 1, 2014

While doing some research for our new and improved Bikes to Books map (24″ x 36″! Bike Ride Oct 11! And map talk Oct 8!), I came across an interesting tidbit about Jack London on FoundSF:

Shortly after Jack was born, his family moved to Bernal Heights…

And in Irving Stone’s 1903 biography of Jack London, Sailor on Horseback:

Upon advice of their doctor the London family moved from town to Bernal Heights, a district of farms, where Flora advertised for a wet nurse. Mrs. Jenny Prentiss, a negress who lived across the road and who had just lost her own baby, became Jack’s wet nurse, foster mother and lifelong friend.

The Book of Jack London (1921):

When the baby was returned to his family they had moved to a cottage on Bernal Heights. And now upon the maternal Eliza devolved most of the rearing of her half-brother, indoors and out, in the energetic year spent in the cottage. The perambulator containing the baby boy, wheeled by a no less azure-eyed girl-child, became a familiar object of an afternoon on the hilly streets.

Welcome to Bernal, Jack!

jack london bernal

This is totally not a surprise given the scriberial supremacy consistently shown by the Greater Bernalian Litosphere. It was only for a year, but the time spent in Bernal as a one year old clearly rubbed off on Jack.

But where in Bernal? Jack London was born on January 12, 1876, and John London married his mother either in September 1876 or February 1877.

The 1878 SF city directory gives a potential answer:

1878 John London Precita

Remember that the directory information was at least a year out of date, so this most likely refers to 1877, not 1878.

Jack’s adopted father was John London, a Union veteran who married Jack’s mother Flora after Jack’s birth. But there are two John Londons! Which one? Also, how does 27th meet up with Harrison? And where is Gunnison Ave and Precita? And how does 28th have anything to do with Precita?

The 1876 and 1877 directories don’t help much in clearing up which John was which, and unfortunately the 1878 directory doesn’t give a middle initial to either John.

1876 1877 John London

John London was once a farmer, but worked a series of odd jobs after moving to California, one of which was a carpenter. He also worked for the Singer Sewing Machine company, which makes me wonder about the 1877 Victor Sewing canvasser, though the address makes no sense, nor does F. B. Taylor. He did work for Martin Flavin’s IXL Auction House:

john london book of jack london IXL

1877 Flavin IXL Auction House

So the carpenter <-> contractor makes sense, though it’s hard to say how quickly the Langley directory staff noted changes in occupation. (The story behind them and how they made the directories would be a hell of a post in its own right…)

Anyway, back to the mystery of Gunnison. It turns out that it is that bit of Harrison on the other side of Precita, renamed in that typical Bernalian “I do not give a damn about contiguous streets” methodology. Thanks to @NAParish for tracking it down:

Here we can see Gunnison on the 1886 Sanborn map:

1886 Precita and Gunnison

zoom, and rotate north:

1886 Sanborn Precita and Gunnison north

And @NAParish also notes that Gunnison is visible in the epic “every other street is named California” map of Bernal!

1889 Bernal Gunnison crop

Zoom and Enhance:

1889 Bernal Gunnison zoom

Applying BURRITOVISION filter:

1886 Whitaker & Kelley + 1886 Sanborn

Not entirely sure how to reconcile the lots and streets from 1889 property map vs the houses shown on the 1886 map. (Given it still references Dale and Grove instead of 29th and 30th, I have to wonder if it’s mis-dated.)

And then there’s the mystery of 27th and 28th streets extending Precitaward. I have seen this in a number of directory entries of that era (remember Graham’s Groceries, which was just around the corner, and the Bad Characters of Bernal Heights?)

I can only assume that people were using 27th and 28th as handy reference points for those who didn’t know that part of the city very well, almost like a line of latitude?

27th and 28th St extended

That’s the best explanation I have. Let me know what you think.

27th and 28th St extended crop

According to the 1886 Sanborn map, there were no buildings on either side of Harrison on the north side of Precita Park. Given how close they are together, could the two John London entries be duplicates? If so, zooming and enhancing on the Sanborn, one of these could very well have been the house that Jack London crawled around in.

1886 Precita Place & Gunnison Jack London Sanborn

After playing in Precita Place, perhaps his sister Eliza preambulated Jack over to Graham’s Groceries on Alabama and “27th St”! And perhaps they were able to “comically gaze upon” the throngs of San Franciscans crossing Precita Creek over “the romantic Folsom St bridge” the Great Bernal Gold Rush of May 1876.

1876 May Daily Alta California Gold Bernal Headline

1876 May Daily Alta California Gold Bernal

Anyway, we in the rebellious colonies salute Bernal (well, Precitaville, actually) and their latest historo-literary acquisition, Jack London.


I may have found the address of Thomas Prentiss, the husband of Jenny Prentiss, Jack’s “wet nurse, foster mother and lifelong friend…” Jenny Prentiss’ husband worked with John London, and there is a Thomas Prentice listed in the 1878 directory as a carpenter, one street over from Gunnison (now Harrison) on Columbia (now Alabama) between Precita and Parker (now Montcalm).

1878 Thomas Prentiss

So somewhere in this block? Is the “W s” mean “west side”? Oh for the love of street addresses… If that’s the case, then perhaps the “E s” means the east side of Gunnison, meaning the Prentiss and London families were back door neighbors? The only house I see in the rear are the ones are at the top of the block. If anyone knows of more specific records, please let me know in the comments.

1886 Sanborn Gunnison Columbia Jack London Prentiss

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2014 12:09 pm

    Man, that’s good knowledge.

  2. Michael Boyle permalink
    February 22, 2019 10:11 pm

    Interesting piece. And good detective work too! Here is another one for you. Was Jack London in New England in the August of 1903? If so where was he and who was he with. It is entirely possible he conceived a daughter during that time, probably a prostitute but it could have been someone more respectable.


  1. Jack London Lived in Bernal Heights Before He Was Cool | Bernalwood

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