American literature fans recognize Jack London (1876-1916) as the author of epic tales like The Call of the Wild, most recently portrayed by Harrison Ford in 2020. But he did so much more than that, especially where he grew up in the Oakland area, east of San Francisco, just across the bay, 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, an oyster pirate at 15, and signed on to a sealing schooner for Japan at age 17, and, after a disruptive contact with his suspected biologic father at 21, dropped out of Berkeley, and headed north to the Alaskan gold rush, each 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 money during his short lifetime.
In addition to his Klondike log cabin and an old wood plank bar, visit the farmer's market from 9am to 2pm Sunday, go to the waterfront for fine dining or stroll the Oakland city streets to see more of what was available back in his day as well as our own.
Walk under the lit Jack London Square sign and let the adventure commence.
1. Jack London Cabin This rustic log cabin, accompanied by a plaque on a stone in front, shows what may have been 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 Yukon author Dick North, 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 five years for him to first find and then confirm the 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 five feet up. A trapper had removed it for safe-keeping and for a time it was feared lost, but with Mr. North's investigation, found it, confirmed its authenticity, and the cabin's wood was split to build the two now existing cabins.
The Square's cabin was driven to Whitehorse, then Skagway, where it was placed aboard an Alaskan State Ferry for its journey to Seattle. From there, it was driven to Oakland and installed at the Jack London Square, with Dick North in attendance.
Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon at Jack London Square
2. Heinold's First & Last Chance Saloon Opened June 1, 1884, by John M. Heinold, Jack London studied at this port-side bar. 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. Jack's first wife was his tutor for the entrance exams.
The saloon, 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 gaslighting and pot-bellied stove, tables, movie machine, music box, clock, and pictures of the Saloon over the years. The dark ceiling is caused by years of staining from creosote, and smoke from the stove, lanterns, and cigars and cigarettes (until smoking was banned in 1998).
The saloon's name comes from customers having the opportunity to stop both coming and going whether pedestrians or ferry passengers.
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 Farmer's Market
Though the number of 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 items are available.
When you're lucky enough to meet a long time local, be sure to ask for their favorite places to visit.
4. Walk The Waterfront
The superb walk along the waterfront offers great views of the city. Wide open spaces with paved sidewalks making 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
o 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 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).
o This restaurant's menu features traditional Japanese fusion-style cuisine. Their Happy Hour occurs Monday thru Friday 4:30pm to 6:00 pm. 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 current run movies, you can even pre-order your tickets if you're that certain of your schedule (or have quick WIFI service on your cell phone).
7. Grab A Pint - Elbo Room Jack London
Open every day from 5:30 pm to 2:00 am, this 21 and over club contains two bars, the main one on ground level, and a second one with a dance floor and stage upstairs. Check the website for 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 this 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.
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 - that's what keeps guests coming back time and time again."
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.
8. USS Potomac – FDR's Floating White House
Fans of history will enjoy the tour of this ship, even if the pandemic makes it impossible to take out on 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, completely refurbished, 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 two-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 re-acquired. And if there really is an Elvis connection.
Our cruise took us around Angel Island and Alcatraz before heading back to her berth at the 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 functional).
You'll be well advised to leave at least an hour longer than your tour to watch the introductory film (15 minutes) and tour the museum (history buffs, leave 1.5 hours).