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The History of Jack London Square

exterior of heinhold's first and last chance saloon on jack London square

Strolling through Jack London Square today, with its trendy restaurants, craft coffee shops, breweries and wine-tasting bars, and scenic waterfront trail, you might not guess at its historical roots as a scrappy seaport. But look more closely and you’ll get glimpses of the square’s storied past. The juxtaposition of the old and the new is part of what makes it such an interesting destination, drawing 3 million visitors every year.

Where is Jack London Square?
Jack London Square sits along a stretch of Oakland waterfront at the south end of Broadway, just across the Oakland Estuary from Alameda. It takes less than 15 minutes to walk to the bustling square from your apartment at Fourth Street East.

Why is it called Jack London Square?
Jack London spent much of his childhood in Oakland—specifically the Oakland waterfront, which served as his preferred stomping grounds. One of his favorite spots was Heinhold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, and he had a special relationship with the owner, Johnny Heinhold. As a young boy, London made special trips to the saloon just to read a dictionary Heinhold kept on the premises. As London grew older, he’d stop in for a drink and to talk with the owner. When he was 17, Heinhold got him a job on a sealing schooner (a voyage that turned out to be the basis for his 1904 novel, The Sea-Wolf), and a few years later Heinhold lent London money for tuition at UC Berkeley (though London only stayed for a semester before dropping out). Even after London found success as a writer, he would visit Heinhold at the saloon and give him a copy of his latest book.

Of course, the area wasn’t called Jack London square back then. That didn’t happen until the 1950s, when the Board of Port Commissioners coined the name and began developing the stretch of waterfront. They tore down several dilapidated buildings but—aware of the rich history behind Heinhold’s First and Last Chance Saloon—left it as it was and built up around it. Over the years, the area has transformed from a humble, hardworking seaport to a thriving waterfront hub.

What is Jack London Square like today?
Today, Jack London Square is full of life, drawing crowds year round. Fortunately for residents at Fourth Street East, it’s practically right in our backyard. To get there, just walk west for six blocks on 4th Street, turn left on Broadway and walk three more blocks, and you’ll be there in about 15 minutes.

A visit to the Jack London Cabin is a must—especially for first-time visitors to the square. His original cabin was first built in 1898 on the North Fork of Henderson Creek, south of Dawson City, and then in 1965, the cabin was dismantled and two replicas were reconstructed using the original logs. One replica is still in Dawson City, while the other is, fittingly, in Jack London Square, on the same block as London’s old haunt, Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon.

While you’re there, you can’t miss your opportunity to check out Heinhold’s. Dimly lit with maritime memorabilia cluttering the walls, it looks much like it did when London himself would sidle up to the bar and order a drink.

The other bars and restaurants on the square may not have the rich history that Heinhold’s does, but they have their own appeal. Plank is a crowd favorite, thanks to its 50,000 square feet of space, outdoor beer garden, and bowling, bocce, and arcade games. Yoshi’s, another crowd-pleaser, draws crowds for its Japanese fare and live jazz. Check out more of our favorite foodie spots here.

You can easily pass a day walking the waterfront trail, enjoying the local shops, and maybe even getting out on the water in a kayak or stand-up paddle board. You can find some of our top recreation and shopping recommendations here.