When Zinzin gets hold of a name that intrigues us, we go all in. We dig into its past, present, and ponder its future.
Here’s a name that got our wheels spinning: “Frisco.” At first, we only thought it was a nickname that tourists sometimes use for our fair city of San Francisco, apparently cringe-worthy to the ears of all “real” San Franciscans. However, when Zinzin learned about it’s 165-year-old storied and controversial origin, let’s just say the namer-train left the station.
Full speed ahead
Birth of a city
Love it or hate it, Frisco is a nickname that’s rooted in the city’s history. In 1776, Spanish colonists established a mission named Francisco after Francis of Assisi (Latin Franciscus Assisiensis) that became the original location of the city by the Bay we know today. Indeed, Frisco is a shortened version of the Spanish name Francisco.
In 1848, gold appeared in the California foothills. Soon after, San Francisco became the primary port and lawless epicenter of the Gold Rush. People poured in, and the city became a wild port of prostitution, gambling, saloons, and tent-shanties. Some believe port workers used the name “Frisco,” thereby making it a “working man’s word.”
By the late 1800s, construction began on the Central Pacific Railroad to connect San Francisco to the eastern United States. Construction also began on another railway line, “the Frisco,” which was the nickname for the St. Louis – San Francisco Railway line that, misnomerly, actually never traveled near San Francisco.
St. Louis – San Francisco Railway
Here is a great story of the origins of the name and logo of the Frisco Railroad. It’s a railroad that operated in the Midwest and South Central U.S. from 1876 to 1980. This fascinating excerpt is from 100 Years of Service, a booklet produced by the railroad in 1960 on the occasion of its centennial:
Few employees of the Frisco Railroad are acquainted with the history of the Frisco emblem or insignia which appears on timetables, advertising material, annual reports, calendars, etc., and is used by Employee Clubs on the railroad in making up their yearbooks.
Several years ago a pageant was given at Springfield, Mo., which told the history of that city on Frisco Lines, and after much research the story of how the Frisco emblem came into being, was uncovered. The story is authentic, and was compiled by Miss Eula Mae Stratton, employed in the Springfield General Office.
Before the turn of the century, so the old timers say, Mr. G.H. Nettleton, then Vice-President of the railroad (which was then known as the old KCM&B) was making an inspection tour of the system. The train pulled into the station of Neosho, Mo., (some old timers say it was Carthage, but most historians say it was Neosho), with the private car stopping in view of the west end of the depot building on which was tacked a coon hide to dry.
When Mr. Nettleton saw the coon hide, he immediately summoned the agent (Sam Albright, so the story goes)…to the business car.
“What’s that thing tacked onto the depot?” roared the Vice-President…”and just why are we using company property for tanning hides?”
We are told that Sam, not a soft-spoken man anyway, and a very busy railroader, told the Vice-President that it was hard to support a family on the $1.25 per ten hour day railroading, and that he was catching, tanning and selling coon hides to supplement his salary.
“Don’t you know railroading comes first?” said the Vice-President, and then to Sam’s surprise the Vice-President grinned and said…”Well, having a hobby is OK. How much will you take for that coon skin?”
The story goes that Sam was so startled that he blurted out…”Two bucks.”
And the deal was closed, leaving Sam in wonderment as to what on earth the official wanted with the pelt.
But it was not long afterward until an ink outline of the tightly stretched coon hide began to appear on Frisco drawing boards in the General Office Drafting Room in St. Louis, but instead of hanging up-and-down, the hide was turned horizontally.
Since the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway is made up of a number of smaller roads, some of which were — the old Southwest Branch, the Pacific Railroad, the KCM&B and others, with General Offices in St. Louis (and at one time before the Civil War the Frisco and Santa Fe operated jointly into San Francisco, Calif) it was only logical to combine the “F R” from Francisco,…the “I S” from the latter part of St. Louis, and the “C O” for Company, which produced…
F R I S C O
[which was] inserted inside the coon skin outline.
Early in 1900 many documents carried the emblem and in 1904, the time cards came out with the now well known cut.
The emblem is the pride of all Frisco employees, as it stands for service to shippers and passengers in the nine state territory.
(The original coon skin, from which the emblem was visualized, is now in a frame in the General Office Building in St. Louis, Missouri.)
Chugging right along
Frisco: love it or hate it?
Now that we know more about the origins of the nickname “Frisco,” let’s briefly explore why there are such strong feelings about this name, especially in the Bay Area.
A 2017 article in SF Gate called “Why do some hate the nickname ‘Frisco’?” offers one explanation:
Author Charles Fracchia, the founder of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, tells me nobody knows exactly where the word originated, but he thinks Frisco got its start in the late 1800s — potentially from some drunkard making a contraction out of San Francisco.
He thinks one of the first written uses was maybe on some sheet music, like this example from 1897. Other people say it may have come earlier, perhaps during the Gold Rush.
Frisco’s use was probably in its heyday when the ports were strong here, around the time of World War II in the 1940s.
“It was kind of a working man’s period of time,” Fracchia says. “The port was thriving, you had lots of small manufactories here. Frisco is kind of a working man’s word.”
And this is a great article on Mother Jones called “Why San Francisco’s “Frisco” Debate Will Never, Ever Die: A history of the nickname that’s been driving a proud city nuts for over a century.” Here, they cover Herb Caen’s own conflicted relationship with the nickname:
Legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen had an odd relationship with “Frisco.” In 1941, he insisted that “It makes you feel good all over once in a while to say ‘Frisco’ right out loud.” Then in 1953 he wrote a book called Don’t Call it Frisco. He flipped-flopped a lot. In 1993, the three-dot scribe praised “the F word” as “a salty nickname, redolent of the days when we had a bustling waterfront.” Yet in another column that year, Caen observed, “I no longer hear people say either ‘Frisco’ or, in automatic reproof, ‘Don’t call it Frisco.’ An ominous sign…” But then: “Adolescence is believing that ‘Frisco’ is a racy nickname for a city; senility is automatically saying ‘Don’t call it Frisco’; maturity is figuring it doesn’t matter all that much…”
Zinzin also appreciates the article’s mention of a Buzzfeed post, 17 Reasons Why It’s Okay To Call It Frisco (San Fran is still strictly forbidden), along with this 2016 sentiment:
A digital media company valued at $1.5 billion encourages San Franciscans to “reclaim ‘Frisco'” to honor “the vital blue collar core of our city” and because it “pisses off tech bros.”
“Frisco” keeps on rolling
October 31, 1929, just days after the stock market slide that triggered the Great Depression, the American early country music duo Darby and Tarlton released a record called, “Lonesome Frisco Line” (crank up the volume):
Six years after the debut of the song “Lonesome Frisco Line,” a western film called “Frisco Kid” hit theaters in 1935. Starring James Cagney and Margaret Lindsay, it takes place in San Francisco in the 1850s. It tracks the rise and fall of a sailor who achieves wealth and success on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast.
In 1979, another “Frisco”-inspired film came out called “The Frisco Kid,” starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford. This time it’s a western comedy with Gene Wilder as a Polish rabbi who travels to San Francisco, and Harrison Ford as a bank robber who befriends him.
Frisco, Texas | population 188,387 (2020)
While the railroad itself may be gone, the name and logo live on in the town of Frisco, Texas. It’s a rapidly growing suburb 30 miles north of Dallas, named after the railroad that birthed it long ago:
When the Dallas area was being settled by American pioneers, many of the settlers traveled by wagon trains along the old Shawnee Trail. This trail was also used for cattle drives north from Austin. This trail later became the Preston Trail, and later, Preston Road. Preston Road is one of the oldest North South Roads in all of Texas. With all of this activity, the community of Lebanon was founded along this trail and granted a U.S. post office in 1860. In 1902, a line of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway was being built through the area, and periodic watering holes were needed along the rails for the steam engines. The current settlement of Lebanon was on the Preston Ridge and was thus too high in elevation, so the watering hole was placed about four miles (6 km) to the west on lower ground. A community grew around this train stop. Residents of Lebanon actually moved their houses to the new community on logs. The new town was originally named Emerson, but that name was rejected by the U.S. Postal Service as being too similar to another town in Texas. In 1904, the residents chose Frisco City in honor of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway on which the town was founded, later shortened to its present name.
Frisco, Colorado | population 2,913 (2020)
Along with the bigger Frisco in Texas, there’s also a smaller municipality called Frisco, Colorado near Breckenridge. It’s a classic mountain town called “Mainstreet of the Rockies” due to it’s historic downtown and opportunities for outdoor adventure.
About the origins of the town’s name, it seems the debate is alive and well. According to our friends at Wikipedia, this town wasn’t named after San Francisco:
Frisco was founded by Henry Recen, in 1873, and was built because of the Colorado Silver Boom, which began in 1879. Frisco was incorporated in 1880. The town’s name does not come from the popular nickname for the city of San Francisco, California, but is rather named after the popular Frisco Lines Railroad in hopes of it bringing the rail line to the town.
However, Zinzin dug up a little more history behind Frisco, CO. We found a 2003 article in The Summit Daily that offers a different take on the origin of the town’s name:
“It was [Henry Recen’s] cabin where the Indian scout passing through carved the words ‘Frisco City,’ [local author-historian] said, adding that where the name Frisco came from is a matter of debate. According to the Recen family, the name “Frisco” was a joke related to San Francisco, said Sharon Recen, wife of Henry F. Sharon never had the chance to meet Henry Sr., but she remembers his sons; Henry A. Recen Jr. and Albert Recen.”
More Frisco, anyone?
Digging even deeper into “Frisco” via the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Zinzin discovered that it’s also a great, old, obsolete English word meaning, “A brisk movement in dancing; a caper.” Here are the only usage examples given by the OED:
1520(?): J. Rastell Nature .iiii. Elem. — That shall both daunce & spryng‥.with fryscas & with gambawdis round.
1566: J. Partridge Worthie Hystorie Plasidas — With fetching frischoes here and there.
1598: R. Barckley Disc. Felicitie of Man — He fetched at the last such a frisco, that he fell downe and brake his necke.
1608: R. Armin Nest of Ninnies — Shee longed to heare his friscoes morrallised, and his gambals set downe.
1675: H. Teonge Diary — Having taken their frisco, returnd as they cam.
Pulling into the station
Zinzin’s parting thoughts
We know the power of a good name, but we’re amazed how Frisco is frought with fracas. We’re also amazed to discover how an iconic logo shape came from a stretched raccoon skin discovered by chance on a railroad journey. It’s a great example of how you never know exactly when and where inspiration will strike. It also shows how something that might appear to be “throwaway” or even actively marring your brand presentation might lead to important discoveries. And like all great brands, this one keeps on giving, long after its “death.”
Zinzin is certain the debate will continue. But however you feel about “Frisco” — love it or hate it — consider all the ways it’s rooted firmly in the city’s history. It’s always important to remember where a name’s been and how it influences us today. Most importantly, a great name, or even nickname, always supports a brand position.
Ok, now it’s time for Zinzin to hop off. We hope you enjoyed the ride.
NOTE: This is an updated version of a post Zinzin originally published in 2012, hence the comments below ranging from 2013-2020. Feel free to add to them!
Jay Jurisich says
And if you have a grudge against “that mean old dirty Frisco,” there’s also Eric Clapton’s song “Mean Old Frisco” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56o7wNMiYfA
Ali Sell says
Here are a few more connections to “Frisco” and music! There’s a country song, “Frisco Depot” by American singer/songwriter Mickey Newbury on his 1971 album, Frisco Mabel Joy. Country music legend Merle Haggard sang “Here in Frisco” on his 1975 album, Keep Movin’ On. This year, Little Dragon released the album Frisco, with a track called “Frisco.” And there’s a British songwriter, rapper, grime (genre of electronic music) MC, and record producer named Deshane Cornwall, professionally known as Frisco.
Earl Smith says
My comment is as follows; As a kid I lived in Thayer Missouri, and my Grandpa was sometimes a Conductor on the south bound Passenger train. I often got ride with him, when they again headed south. My Grandma would then drive south to Mammoth Springs Ark. (Only about a mile or mile & a half) to pick me up. I was told the cost for the ride was only ten cents. Oh well so much for my memory.
Bernie Shepley says
I have Frisco railroad paintings by Andrew Harmantas available if you are interested. I am helping his wife sell his collection.
Sue Parkman says
My father was born 1900 and mother 1902 …they married 1920 and after a brief time of working on a farm my father was hired on the Maintenance Crew of the Frisco Railroad. He took us on vacation on the train between STL and Memphis. We had to take the Moose on the branch line to connect with the mainline on to St. Louis. Mother packed a lunch basket for us as she didn’t want us to be hungry when we arrived it my grandmothers. Grandmother met us at the station and for the first time in my life I rode to her house in a taxi cab. Dad paid the fare as I doubt Grandmother had enough to cover it with having to live in an apartment in STL in hard times. Each summer I was allowed to take the train from Lilbourn Mo. to Memphis Tn. to visit my sister. My father had a good friend who was the conductor on that train and he took care of me when I went alone and saw to it I was met and connected with my sister before he would get back on the train. I felt safe with his good attention and when I look back it is one of my fondest memories of my life as the daughter of a Frisco Railroad Foreman.
Sue Parkman says
I have fond memories of our family vacations via train. Quite a difference from a branch
line train and a main liner but the Conductor saw to it we kids were cared for and a
piece of chewing gum from his pocket helped calm us awhile.