American literature fans recognize Jack London (1876–1916) as the author of epic tales like The Call of the Wild. But he did so much more than that, especially where he grew up in the Oakland area, east of San Francisco, where a village in his name stands today.
There are many ways to reach Oakland: private car, Amtrak, plane, BART (the Bay Area’s transit system), and ship. I like Oakland generally and Jack London Square, specifically, for its history and because it’s a great walkable city with a strong foodie scene. Clubs with live music are open and thriving.
As one of Oakland’s most famous adopted sons, London began working 12-to-18-hour days at a cannery at age 13 and an oyster pirate at 15, then signed on to a sealing schooner for Japan at age 17. After a disruptive contact with his suspected biological father at 21, he dropped out of Berkeley and headed north to the Alaskan gold rush, both of which contributed to his financially successful stories. For him, writing was first and foremost a business and he was one of the rare authors who made significant wealth during his short lifetime.
Walk under the Jack London Square sign and let the adventure commence.
Note: All places mentioned are accessible from ground level except the USS Potomac which has limited wheelchair accessibility.
1. Jack London Cabin
This rustic log cabin was available to Jack whilst in the Klondike. The back wall is solid log, but windows from either side allow for a good view, as does the front door when open.
Thanks to Dick North — who famously wrote about London and the Yukon territory — half of this cabin came from Jack’s Klondike cabin, the other half resides at the Jack London Museum in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada.
Mr. North heard that Jack had lived along the left fork of Henderson Creek and went to the Dawson mining recorder’s office where he discovered the original claim, “Number 54 above discovery ascending the left fork of Henderson Creek.” It took 5 years for him to first find and then confirm accuracy of the cabin, including the search for the author’s signature, which Jack London had written in the middle of the back wall about 5 feet up. A trapper had removed it for safe-keeping, and, for a time, it was feared to be lost, but with Mr. North’s investigation, it was found, confirmed authentic, and the cabin’s wood was split to build the two, now existing cabins.
2. Heinold’s First & Last Chance Saloon
Opened June 1, 1884, by John M. Heinold, London studied at Heinold’s First & Last Chance Saloon. At 17, he told Mr. Heinold of his dream to attend the University at Berkeley (UC- Berkeley) and become a financially successful writer and the owner lent him the tuition money.
The saloon is built from the wood of the Umatilla, an abandoned stern-wheel paddle steamer in service during the Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858. Original features still in use include the gas lighting and pot-bellied stove, tables, movie machine, music box, clock, and pictures of the Saloon over the years. Years of staining from creosote, and smoke from the stove, lanterns, cigars, and cigarettes — until smoking was banned in 1998 — has turned the ceiling dark.
Johnny willed the Saloon to his son George who willed it to his widow, Margaret. In 1984, Margaret sold the business to Carol Brookman, whose love of history and tradition makes our visit possible today.
3. Sunday Farmers Market
Though the number of farmers market booths vary by week, they are strung along the waterfront path like Christmas lights. Samples include various meats, jams, and other foodstuffs. Artisans create everything from jewelry to housewares and clothing.
When you’re lucky enough to meet a long time local, be sure to ask for their favorite places to visit. Or pick up tips like tangerines, which are a traditional symbol of luck and prosperity and welcome in New Year celebrations.
4. Walk The Waterfront
The superb walk along the waterfront offers great views of the city. Wide open spaces with paved sidewalks make walking or biking safe and easy. Water sports around the marina include sailing, paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking, and rowing. It’s easy to walk your dog here, stop off for a fitness break, or throw a frisbee with a friend. Benches dot the waterfront area with great people and water watching spots.
5. Get A Meal
Scott’s Seafood Grill & Bar
Straight under the sign, down a block to the left on the waterfront, Scott’s Seafood is a popular place to stop and eat or purchase sports memorabilia. Their fish-focused menu pairs well with their cocktail and wine selection. Be sure to make reservations if you want dinner with a sunset over the marina. It’s a lovely time to be at Jack London Square.
Pro Tip: If you’re going to be at Jack London Square after dark, park your car in the garage with valet at 71 Broadway (right in Jack London Square).
The Yoshi’s menu features traditional Japanese fusion-style cuisine. Known for their live music, be sure to check online for their current band. They’re well known for their private rooms if you’re going with a group. You can even reserve space for their dinner-and-show package to obtain premium seating.
6. The Regal Jack London
Whenever you’re ready for a break or climate control, check out the movie listings at the Jack London Theater. Offering movies currently running, you can even pre-order your tickets if you’re that certain of your schedule. You’ll be grateful for the rest as well as the entertainment.
7. Grab A Pint
Elbo Room Jack London
Open every day from 5:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., the Elbo Room contains two bars, the main ground level bar, and a second one with a dance floor and stage upstairs. Check the website for the live band and DJ schedule as you can hear any kind of music here.
The Fat Lady Restaurant
Built in 1862, it’s been suggested that The Fat Lady Restaurant was once a house of ill repute, where Jack London was said to have visited, conveniently located within walking distance of his home. Now, though, Louis Shaterian’s family celebrates more than 50 years at this location.
The Art Nouveau-style of the brass handles on the beveled glass doors as you enter gives you an idea of what you can expect. Whether dining on the patio under red umbrellas or in the front dining room with echoes of San Francisco’s old Barbary Coast, be sure to see Ray Smith’s eponymous painting.
At The Fat Lady, you could “indulge your senses — sipping on cocktails while gazing upon the crosscut oak back bar & dining with friends under warm amber light, swaying to the sultry sounds of Ol’ Blue Eyes & reveling in the hospitality of our continually amazing staff…”
8. USS Potomac — FDR’s Floating White House
Fans of history will enjoy the tour of the USS Potomac, even when the pandemic makes it impossible to take out on a cruise. The introductory film describes the ship’s history from its days as FDR’s floating White House, never refurbished in “presidential” style considering the Great Depression, to its current incarnation as one of the top sites to visit along the waterfront.
The Docents are informative and friendly and, if you get to take the 2-hour cruise, will share information about the boat as well as the area you pass. Be sure to ask them about the drug-running history and how the ship was reacquired. And find out if there really is an Elvis connection.
Our cruise took us around Angel Island and Alcatraz before heading back to her berth at Jack London Square. The sense of history is palpable with most of the ship’s original hardware retained and an elevator made to accommodate President Roosevelt’s wheelchair remains (but I don’t think it is functional).
You’ll be well advised to leave available at least an hour longer than your tour to watch the introductory film (15 minutes) and tour the museum; history buffs should leave 1.5 hours available.
9. Waterfront Hotels
Staying right on the waterfront provides great opportunity, especially for early morning and blue-hour photography. They’re easily accessible from the airport via BART and put you within walking distance of all that Jack London Square has to offer.
Here are a few favorites:
- Waterfront Hotel — on the right as you enter, you’ll notice a beautiful backdrop
- Z Hotel — all the amenities, typically at one-third the price of San Francisco hotels
10. San Francisco Ferry
This Ferry connects people from local communities throughout the Bay Area. Offering easy access to Oakland, San Francisco, and Vallejo. I think it’s great because it’s the least expensive way to see amazing views of both cities and catch wildlife in the Bay.
Pro Tip: The free Broadway Shuttle offers fast connections from Amtrak, BART, San Francisco Bay Ferry, Amtrak San Joaquins, and Capitol Corridor to downtown Oakland (check for times, it has been intermittently suspended due to COVID-19).
When deciding how much time to spend in San Francisco vs. Oakland, check out these key differences. And for more information on the Bay Area, check out these stories: