Early San Francisco History
Even those who have lived in San Francisco for years know surprisingly little about the City’s intriguing past. This collection of information, located on the Internet and organized roughly by year, will clarify some of the most interesting parts. Most of the good stuff happened between 1846 and 1900.
This page provides some quick educational entertainment for San Francisco enthusiasts. Details may be partial or vary somewhat depending on the source. The page below explains more about such things as:
- In 1849 the gold rush started, hence the name 49ers. During the next 50 years San Francisco experienced some of the most dramatic changes in U.S. history
- In 1849 the population exploded from about 400 to 25,000 residents, the largest peacetime migration in the U.S.
- The Barbary Coast, where men outnumbered women 70 to 1, was a true den of iniquity. Largely due to it, San Francisco was widely proclaimed as the wickedest town in the U.S.A. until about the 1920s.
- This map shows how far the eastern shoreline was moved over the years (hint: more than 7 blocks).
1500s California First Sighted by Europeans
in 1533 (Lower Baja Peninsula) and in 1542 (Nueva California)
3000 BC Time of earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation in the San Francisco area.
1492 perspective: 10/12/1492 Columbus spotted land in America (actually in the Bahamas northwest of Cuba)
1519-1521 A viceroyalty in the Americas results from Spain’s conquest of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortes.
1533 California (Lower Baja peninsula) first sighted by Europeans.
1542 Cabrillo names the coast (from San Diego to Russian River) he discovered New California. It was not mapped until 1602.
The creation of a viceroyalty in the Americas was a result of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire (1519 to 1521) by Conquistador Hernán Cortés. Formed in 1535, the Viceroyalty of New Spain was the first of four viceroyalties eventually created to govern Spain’s overseas colonies.
New Spain, formally called the Viceroyalty of New Spain, consisted of territories in the north overseas “Septentrion” (North America and Philippines). At its greatest extent this territory included much of North America south of Canada: all of present-day Mexico and Central America (except Panama), most of the United States west of the Mississippi River, and the Floridas. The Spanish governed and controlled New Spain from Mexico City (formerly Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire).
The first recorded Europeans to sight the California region sailed in La Concepción in 1533 under the pilot navigator Fortún Jiménez in an expedition organized by Conquistador and New Spain administrator Hernán Cortés. Jiménez reached La Paz where they tried to establish a small colony. In 1535 Cortés himself participated in a second expedition, which explored the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). At the time of Cortés’ expeditions the region was occupied by a wide variety of indigenous peoples.
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo‘s 1542 expedition, commissioned by Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, was the next to reach the area. They sailed via the Pacific Ocean following the coast of the Baja California peninsula to a point beyond 40° North latitude (north of Russian River). He named the discovered territory “Nueva California” (New California) as opposed to “Vieja California” (Old California) whose coasts had already been sailed and explored.
- 1533 – First European landing “in California” on the lower Baja California peninsula by Fortún Jiménez.
- 28 September 1542 – First European landing near upper California by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in Ensenada (in Baja California).
- 1579 Sir Francis Drake’s most likely landing spot on the west coast of North America during his circumnavigation of the world (the second after Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1519-1522) by sea in 1579 is Drakes Bay. Drakes Bay is a small 8 mile wide bay just west of Point Reyes and about 30 miles northwest of San Francisco.
- 1595 4 November 1595 – Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño claims Pacific Coast for Spain. He was a Portugese navigator sent from the Phillipines to survey the California west coast line for Spanish King Philip II.
1600s Spanish return to California
Approximately 100 years of inactivity passed with little further presence in Baja California (i.e., Lower California, now the northern part of Mexico). Approximately 200 years of inactivity passed with little presence in Alta California (i.e., Upper California, which includes today’s California).
In 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno returned to New California for the first time since Cabrillo in 1542. He sailed in the San Agustín as far north as Monterey Bay. The Spanish explored the coastal area of Alta California in the 16th century and considered the area as the domain of the Spanish monarchy. They made various plans to settle the area, including Sebastián Vizcaíno’s expedition in 1602–03 preparatory to colonization planned for 1606–07 which was cancelled in 1608.
Key dates related to the Spanish, from 1697-1848, are as follow:
- 1620 – perspective: Pilgrims arrive in Plymouth, Massachusetts, north of Cape Cod.
- 1697 – Jesuit Missions erected in southern Baja California.
- 1768 – Spanish settlement begins in Alta California.
- 1769 – Alta California, a territory in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, was created out of the northern part of the former province of Las Californias.
- 1769 – 11/2/1769 The first documented European visit to San Francisco Bay when the Gaspar de Portola expedition arrives by foot.
- 1770 – 6/3/1770 Governorship established for Las Californias Province. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Californias
- 1776 – perspective: 7/4/1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence signed in Philadelphia
- 1786 – Public Administrator of Las Californias Province established.
- 1804 – Separate administrations established for Alta California and Baja California Provinces. The Spanish Crown created two new governments in Las Californias, the southern peninsular one called Baja California (Lower California), and the northern mainland one called Alta California (Upper California) in 1804.
- 1805 – perspective: 11/07/1885 William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition first sights the Pacific Ocean.
- 1810-1821 – Mexican War of Independence
- 1822 – 4/11/1822 Both provinces become part of the new independent nation of Mexico, now as the territories of Baja California and Alta California.
- 1846-1848 – Mexican American War. U.S. flag raised on Portsmouth Square in San Francisco in 7/9/1846.
- 1848 – 2/2/1848 The Alta California territory was ceded to the United States. “Alta California” becomes “California” and was given definite borders. The rest of what once was Alta California became parts of various American states, such as Arizona and Nevada.
1700s San Francisco Bay discovered 11/2/1769.
Presidio & Mission Dolores founded 1776
11/2/1769 The Gaspar de Portola expedition arrives by foot and first sees San Francisco Bay from Sweeney Ridge. This was the first documented European visit.
8/5/1775 The first time Europeans sailed into San Francisco Bay, on the Spanish ship San Carlos.
3/28/1776 Presidio sited as a Spanish Fort. It was actually built 9/17/76.
6/29/1776 Mission Dolores founded by Father Palou.
The Ohlone Indians resided in a few small villages when Europeans first arrived to San Francisco Bay in 1769.
The first recorded European discovery of San Francisco Bay was on November 2, 1769, when a Spanish exploration party traveling by foot looking for Monterey Bay arrived at the top of 1220 ft Sweeney Ridge in Pacifica. Their leader was Gaspar de Portolà. From Sweeney Ridge they sighted San Francisco Bay which Portola mistook for Drakes Bay (discovered 1869 by Magellan). The historical monument, located at what is now is called San Francisco Discovery Site, is accessible on the Sweeney Ridge Trail via either Mori Ridge Trail or Skyline College in Pacifica or Sneath Lane Trail in San Bruno.
It is believed that the San Carlos, commanded by the Spanish explorer Juan de Ayala, was the first European ship to ever enter San Francisco Bay. On August 5, 1775, it moored, south of what is now Tiburon, at Ayala Cove in Angel Island.
Alta California (English: Upper California) was a province and territory in the Viceroyalty of New Spain and later a territory and then a department in independent Mexico. The territory was created in 1769 out of the northern part of the former province of Las Californias, and consisted of the modern American states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, western Colorado and southwestern Wyoming. This territory passed to American control after the Mexican–American War and ceased to exist with the creation of the State of California in 1850.
The first mission was established in San Diego in 1769. In 1773 a boundary between the Baja California missions, controlled by the Dominicans, and those of Alta California was set by Francisco Palóu. The missionary effort was followed by the construction of presidios (forts) and pueblos, (local towns which were to be manned and populated by Hispanic people). The first pueblo founded was San José in 1777, followed by Los Ángeles in 1781 and the Villa de Branciforte in 1797.
Yerba Buena was the original name of San Francisco (Spanish for St. Francis) when in the Spanish Las Californias Province of New Spain, and then after 1822 in the Mexican territory of Alta California, until the Mexican American War ended with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, when California became a territory of the United States. It was located near the northern end of the San Francisco Peninsula, as a pueblo to support the Presidio of San Francisco and the Mission San Francisco de Asís.
Mission San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Dolores, is the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco and the sixth religious settlement established as part of the California chain of missions. The Mission was founded on June 29, 1776, by Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga and Father Francisco Palóu (a companion of Father Junipero Serra), both members of the de Anza Expedition, which had been charged with bringing Spanish settlers to Alta (upper) California, and evangelizing the local Ohlone natives.
The Presidio was originally a Spanish Fort sited by Juan Bautista de Anza on March 28, 1776, and built by a party led by José Joaquín Moraga later that year 9/14/1776. Its purpose was to give New Spain a foothold in Alta California and the San Francisco Bay. In 1783, the Presidio’s garrison numbered only 33 men.
The Presidio was seized from Mexico by the U.S. Military in 1846, at the start of the Mexican-American war. It officially opened in 1848, and became home to several Army headquarters and units, the last being the United States 6th Army. Several famous U.S. generals, such as William Sherman, George Henry Thomas, and John Pershing made their homes here.
1800s Mexican War of Independence 1810-1821
The Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821) was an armed conflict between the people of Mexico and the Spanish colonial authorities which started on September 16, 1810. The movement, which became known as the Mexican War of Independence, was led by Mexican-born Spaniards, Mestizos and Amerindians who sought independence from Spain. It started as an idealistic peasants’ rebellion against their colonial masters, but ended as an unlikely alliance between Mexican ex-royalists and Mexican guerrilla insurgents.
Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 upon conclusion of the decade-long Mexican War of Independence. As the successor state to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, Mexico automatically included the provinces of Alta California and Baja California as territories. With the establishment of a republican government in 1823, Alta California Territory, like many northern territories, was not recognized as one of the constituent States of Mexico because of its small population. The capital of the Alta California Territory was Monterey. After a revolt led by Juan Bautista Alvarado in 1836, the territory was transformed into a department, which gave it more autonomy. The last Mexican governor of California was Pío Pico, who served until 1846.
1835 San Francisco first laid out by the Spanish
The first landing place on the northeastern tip of the San Francisco peninsula was a rocky promontory below Telegraph Hill that jutted into the San Francisco Bay at what is now Broadway & Battery Streets. It was later known as Clarke’s Point. The founding padres of Mission Dolores and the other northern California missions found the jetty at Clarke’s Point a convenient landing for their commerce in hides and tallow. It is the same location where Russian ships anchored to load supplies of meat and grain. Early European visitors were the British Raccoon in 1814 and the French frigate Artemise in 1839. The sloop USS St. Louis, which arrived in 1840, was the first warship to fly the American flag in San Francisco Bay.
Yerba Buena Cove swept inland from Clarke’s Point to as far as Montgomery Street to the west, and then further south and east to Rincon Point at the foot of Folsom and Spear streets. See pictures of Yerba Buena Cove: See cove from slightly north near Clarke’s Point and cove from directly off shore. It’s interesting to note that today this cove is completely covered by the financial district of San Francisco (as discussed later under Late 1800s San Francisco Landfills).
Prior to 1835 the few ships that came into the bay of San Francisco usually anchored either opposite the Presidio at Black Point, at North Point or at Sausalito. Sausalito was inconvenient and the anchorage of the others was unsafe. Therefore vessels began to seek the shelter and better anchorage found off Yerba Buena Cove, and the shipmasters petitioned Governor Figueroa to establish a port of entry there. This petition was favorably considered so the town site of Yerba Buena (meaning “good herb”) was initially laid out at the head of the cove in the latter part of October, 1835, by Francisco de Haro, an Alcalde (Mayor) who was residing at the Mission Dolores.
The place was then declared to be a port of entry, and Captain William A. Richardson, who had arrived in California in 1823 and had become a naturalized citizen of Mexico, was made captain of the port. He had been acting as agent of a couple of schooners that were engaged in carrying on a trade up and down the sea coast. He brought over his family from Sausalito, where he had long resided, and made his new residence on the side hill near where Dupont street (now Grant Ave) is, between Clay and Washington streets. His house, actually a combination of house and tent, was the first house to be located in the future city of San Francisco and Capt Richardson and his family were the first residents.
A year later, in 1836, the new village contained thirty or forty houses, located in the sandhills around the present Portsmouth Plaza. See http://www.sfgenealogy.com/sf/history/hgstr.htm
The town was laid out 1839. The assignment came from Alcalde (Mayor) Francisco de Haro by authority of Mexican governor Jose Figueroa. The 12 block area, plotted by Jean Jacques Vioget, was roughly bounded by Pacific Ave on the north south to Sacramento Street and by Grant Ave on the west east to Montgomery Street (the shoreline at that time). See the small yellow section on this upper right portion of this map.
1835-1880 Grant Avenue’s History
Calle de la Fundacion (Spanish for “Street of the Founding”), the oldest street in San Francisco, was first roughly laid out in October 1835 by Alcalde (Mayor) Francisco de Haro, He did so by marking upon the ground a simple street he called La Calle de la Fundacion (Foundation Street and now Grant Ave). It started at the sand hills near the present corner of Kearny and Pine streets and ran in a northeasterly direction toward North Beach and ended at Telegraph Hill.
Following the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) Calle de la Fundacion was renamed Dupont Street in honor of a Naval admiral from the USS Portsmouth. The Saloon, San Francisco’s oldest existing bar, opened in 1861 approximately 1 block north of Broadway at what is now 1232 Grant Ave.
The name of the southern end of Dupont Street was changed to Grant Avenue in the late 1870’s or early ‘80’s. When San Francisco was rebuilt after being leveled in the 1906 earthquake Dupont Street was upgraded and renamed Grant Avenue after President Ulysses S. Grant.
1846-1848 Mexican-American War
The Mexican–American War, also known as the Mexican War or the U.S.–Mexican War, was an armed conflict between the United States of America and Mexico from 5/13/1846 to 2/2/1848 in the wake of the 1845 U.S. annexation of Texas (which Mexico considered part of its territory despite the 1836 Texas Revolution).
Congress declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846, after only a few hours of debate. Although Mexico’s President Paredes‘ issuance of a manifesto on May 23 is sometimes considered the declaration of war, the Congress of Mexico officially declared war on July 7.
It took over a month for definite word of war to get to California itself. On June 15, 1846, following reports of the annexation of Texas to the United States, some thirty American settlers staged a revolt and seized the small Mexican garrison in Sonoma and declared independence there as the California Republic. At the same time, the United States and Mexico had gone to war, and forces of the United States Army and Navy entered into Alta California and overpowered the Mexican garrison and Californio militia units. The forces of the California Republic abandoned their independence and assisted the United States forces when the U.S. Army, led by Frémont, took over on June 23, 1846. The California Republic existed for less than one month and was never recognized by any nation but its flag (the “Bear Flag”) survives as the flag of the State of California.
Commodore John Drake Sloat, upon hearing of imminent war with Mexico and the revolt in Sonoma, ordered his forces to occupy Monterey, the Mexican capital of Alta California, on July 7, 1846. San Francisco, then called Yerba Buena, was occupied on July 9, 1846. The U.S. forces easily took over the rest of Northern California and within days controlled San Francisco, Sonoma, and Sacramento.
Outnumbered militarily, with many of its large cities occupied, and faced with many internal divisions Mexico could not defend itself. The ensuing treaty gave the U.S. undisputed control of Texas, established the U.S.-Mexican border of the Rio Grande River, and ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. In return, Mexico received $18,250,000 ($490,223,077 today) — less than half the amount the U.S. had attempted to offer Mexico for the land before the opening of hostilities — and the U.S. agreed to assume $3.25 million ($87,300,000 today) in debts that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens.
1846 American Flag Raised in San Francisco
7/9/46 Warship U.S.S. Portsmouth gave a 21-gun salute and landed at what is now the southeast corner of Montgomery Street & Clay Street. Captain John B Montgomery and his detachment rowed ashore and hoisted the American flag in the small community’s plaza one block away. This plaza is located on the site of the first public square established in the early 19th century within the small Mexican community of Yerba Buena. It was later renamed Portsmouth Square in honor of Montgomery’s ship.
A plaque California Historic Landmark No. 81 at the base of the Bank of Italy Building at the southeast corner of Montgomery/Clay marks the location of the U.S.S. Portsmouth’s landing (when the water came all the way up to what is now Montgomery Street. Transamerica Building now stands directly across the street at the northeast corner of Montgomery/Clay.) It is now more than seven blocks from the waters of San Francisco Bay.
1847 Renamed San Francisco 1/30/47
Captain Montgomery appointed his Spanish-speaking lieutenant, Washington Bartlett, as the first American alcalde (mayor) of Yerba Buena. The alcalde renamed the pueblo from Yerba Buena to San Francisco in an ordinance dated January 30, 1847.
San Francisco is Spanish for “Saint Francis” and probably came from the formal name of Mission Delores, Mission San Francisco de Asís, established in June 29, 1776. San Francisco’s original name was Yerba Buena (first noted in a ships log written in 1792) after Yerba Buena Cove. It means “good herb” after the native mint plant micromeria douglasii in the area.
1848 Gold Discovered 1/21/48, Announced 5/12/48
On January 21, 1948 James Marshall found several flakes of gold at a sawmill named Sutter’s Mill which he had partnered with Swiss pioneer John Sutter (note: Sutter’s Fort eventually became Sacramento). The sawmill was located approximately 36 miles northeast of Sacramento (between Auburn and Placerville) on the bank of the American River at what is now a town called Coloma.
Sutter and Marshall attempted to keep the discovery a secret but their employees were buying goods with gold from a store owner in Sutter’s Fort named Sam Brannan. Brannan went to Sutter’s Mill, as a representative of the LDS Church collecting tithes, to investigate. Then, after buying up all the picks, shovels and pans he could find, Sam Brannan announced the discovery of gold on May 12, 1848 in Portsmouth Square. Eventually Brannan became San Francisco’s first millionaire starting with what he made selling goods to the ensuing fortune-seekers. John Sutter, on the other hand, lost much of what he had worked for when Sutter’s Mill was overrun by gold seekers.
Also, in 1848 the first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco … two men and one women on the American brig, Eagle. This timeline shows the history of Chinatown thereafter.
1849 San Francisco’s Population Explodes
At the time the United States forces took possession of Yerba Buena, in 1846, there were about 300 inhabitants scattered about the sand hills. Small settlements had for a long time prior thereto existed at the Mission Dolores and at the Presidio, but they formed no part of the village of Yerba Buena. They did not fully become a part of San Francisco until 1856, when the act of the Legislature consolidated the city and county.
The discovery of gold touched off the largest peacetime migration in the United States. San Francisco’s population swelled from approximately 300 in 1848, to about 2000 in February 1849, to about 25,000 by December of 1849.
In 1848 a total of 11 vessels arrived in San Francisco Bay. In 1849 more than 700 vessels carrying thousands of fortune-seekers came from around the world. San Francisco Bay instantly became one of the world’s greatest seaports, dominating shipping and transportation in the American West until the last years of the 19th century. The Bay’s regional importance reached its zenith when the First Transcontinental Railroad located its western terminus in Alameda on September 6, 1869.
The land mass of San Francisco itself grew as the result of landfill dumped on the carcasses of hundreds of deserted ships whose crews abandoned them to search for gold. San Francisco’s border expanded a full 7 blocks east of the natural shoreline and four blocks north. See these interesting maps showing where the landfill is located:
- Overview of original San Francisco shoreline
- Map of original shoreline which also shows where the wharves going deep (now) inland are located and where the (now) buried ships were located.
- Zoomable historical map (1859) showing original waterline near downtown
- San Francisco topography
Barbary Coast runs rampant 1849-1906
From about 1849 to 1906 one of the most infamous red light districts of all times, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, named after the Barbary Coast in North Africa, thrived. It was centered in a 9-square block area where much of Chinatown is now located (bounded by Broadway on the north, Stockton on the west, Montgomery Street on the east, and Washington Street/Portsmouth Square on the South. The most notorious street was Pacific Avenue, from Montgomery to Stockton; and, the most dangerous portion of Pacific Avenue, between Kearny & Montgomery, was called Terrific Street.
Men outnumbered women 70 to 1 in 1849. And, of the 300 women there in 1849, approximately 200 were prostitutes. Prostitution, gambling, drinking, opium, shanghaiing (drugging and kidnapping of sailors, also called crimping), and violence were rampant and literally out of control.
Chinatown was a ghetto covering the area roughly from Broadway south to California Street and from Stockton Street east to Kearney Street. This 1885 map of Chinatown (Grant Ave was known as Dupont Street then) shows the locations of houses of prostitution, gambling, and opium dens at the time. Slave trading was also active.
See some excellent descriptions of the Barbary Coast can be found at
The vice on the streets and the associated corruption in government subsided only after most of Barbary Coast burned down during the 1906 earthquake and, finally, after the 1914 Redlight Abatement Act. See more about this below under the heading “1920s The Barbary Coast is finally Tamed.”
1850s California becomes a State
1850 On September 9th, 1850, California became a state in record time. In 1849 alone more than 60,000 people arrived so, faced with such rapid growth, Congress allowed California to jump straight to full statehood as a free, non-slavery state without ever passing through the formal territorial stage. California’s first capital was in San Jose, then Vallejo, then Benecia, and finally Sacramento in 1854.
1852 The Cantonese clan association (三邑會館) in San Francisco founded the Mazu with the formal title Tin How Temple (Cantonese for Empress of Heaven Temple), one of the earliest Chinese temples in Chinatown. In the 1950s, the Tin How Temple was temporarily closed for about 20 years until its reopening on May 4, 1975.
1854 Old St. Mary’s Church, the first Asian church in North America, is one of the most prominent buildings in Chinatown. The cathedral was built by Chinese laborers in 1854 using brick that was shipped around Cape Horn and granite from China. After the original construction was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake the cathedral was rebuilt in 1909. ( See old St. Mary’s Cathedral and today’s St. Mary’s Parish).
1880s Chinese Immigration Banned
1882 The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act bans immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States for ten years and prohibits Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens. Later the 1924 Immigration Act banned all Asians until it was ended by the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act.
1870 Italian fishermen provided 90% of all fish consumed in San Francisco. Fishing in San Francisco reached its peak in 1800s when more fish were sold there than at all other West Coast ports combined. But, as early as 1900 the fishing business started to precipitously decline due to pollution and river damming.
1887 The 301 ft square-rigged windjammer Baclutha was christened in Scotland. She survived 17 trips around Cape Horn and a ship wreck on Alaska’s coast. The Baclutha can now be seen at Fisherman’s Wharf along with other famous ships such as the ferry ship Eureka.
1890 The ferry ship Eureka was built. As a passenger ferry, she could carry 2,300 passengers and 120 automobiles making her the biggest and the fastest double-ended passenger ferry boat in the world. Now located at Fisherman’s Wharf the Eureka is the only surviving ferry with a wooden hull. Another claim to fame is in the late 1990s she was used as a main filming location for the TV-show Nash Bridges.
The Eureka was still active carrying people across San Francisco Bay during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. For years she was the final leg of the railroad journey to San Francisco, first via Tiburon (1890) and finally via Oakland (1957).
1895 The Ferry Building, modeled after the Seville Tower in Spain. was constructed. It ushered in as many as 50 million passengers/year, more than any other transit terminal in the nation.
1936-37 Completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 effectively doomed ferry service.
Late 1800s San Francisco Landfills
San Francisco’s original serrated east shoreline of sandy coves and rocky promontories historically ran south and inland from Clarke’s Point below Telegraph Hill to present-day Montgomery Street and eastward toward Rincon Point, enclosing a cove named Yerba Buena Cove.
During and after 1849 gold rush the land mass of San Francisco grew as the result of landfill dumped on the carcasses of hundreds of deserted ships whose crews abandoned them to search for gold. As the city grew, Yerba Buena Cove continued to be filled with anything that could be found (including trash, dead cats, horse manure) to create a better place where ships could dock. San Francisco’s eastern border expanded a full 7 blocks east of the natural shoreline and four blocks north.
The land lying between Montgomery and East streets (now Embarcadero Street adjacent the Ferry Building) was overflowed by the tide but, even so, it was surveyed and laid off in streets and lots up to the line of the low water mark. Streets were extended from time to time, often on piles driven into the bay and then planked over. Wharves were extended in the same manner from the newly created streets. Many houses were built in the area on similar foundations though the empty lots were left muddy. It was not until the Embarcadero seawall was finally built that the ebb and flow of the tide was shut off from these streets and houses.
Over a period of fifty years, 1878-1924, a large offshore seawall was built and the mudflats were filled creating what today is San Francisco’s Financial District. These mud flats went from Montgomery Street to what was called East Street (now a section of The Embarcadero between Folsom Street and Drumm Street). A roadway followed the engineered seawall on reclaimed land and, at the time, a short line railroad for freight name the San Francisco Belt Railroad ran along this roadway.
The end result was The Embarcadero, a 1200 ft long bulkhead which added 800 acres to the city and 18 miles of usable docking space. It is now the eastern waterfront and roadway of the Port of San Francisco and was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 20, 2002. The Embarcadero was constructed atop an engineered seawall on reclaimed land and derives its name from the Spanish word verb embarcar meaning “to embark.” The word Embarcadero itself means “wharf” or “the place to embark.”
Somewhat earlier, about 1859, David Hewes with his so-called “steam paddy” and sand cars on a temporary movable railroad track removed the sand hills on and immediately north of Market street and filled up the swamps or marsh south of Market street making a marked change in that part of the city. In the late 1800s, the North Beach area north of Francisco Street and east of Taylor Street was also filled with landfill.
There were originally many more hills in San Francisco. For example, sandy Rincon Hill, one of San Francisco’s original “seven hills” standing about 100 feet tall, was the southern shoreline of Yerba Buena Cove. During the 1850-1860s it became a prestigious residential neighborhood. However, in 1869 a 100-foot canyon was cut through it to provide Second Street easier access to the southern waterfront. After the 1906 earthquake burned down the rest of the mansions the Rincon Hill neighborhood further deteriorated . Then in the 1930s it was bisected once again by the construction of the Bay Bridge which removed more land and covered much of the remaining hill.
Here are some interesting topography maps showing landfill areas:
- Map of the original shoreline which also shows where the wharves and the buried ships were located.
Late 1800s San Francisco Streets & Cable Cars
No effort had ever been made to improve any of San Francisco’s streets until after the winter of 1849-50, when their condition was so bad and so muddy that even horses could not safely pass over parts of the most used of them. Therefore, in the spring of 1850, a movement was made for street improvements and a few were partially graded and planked. Whenever private enterprise made such improvements toll gates were erected and toll collected; this was done on Kearny street near Post, on Mission street, and later on Folsom street.
The California Gold Rush brought renewed activity to San Francisco’s Mission Dolores area which became a popular resort and entertainment district. In the 1850s, two plank roads were constructed between what is today’s Downtown to the Mission.
On a damp summer day in 1869 Andrew Hallidie, whose father had patented wire-rope manufacturing, witnessed a horrible accident in San Francisco. The combination of steep slope, wet cobblestones, and a heavily loaded horse-drawn streetcar combined to drag five horses backwards to their death. This inspired him to invent the first cable car system which he tested near the top of Nob Hill at Clay and Jones Streets August 2, 1873.
Twenty-three cable car lines were established between 1873 and 1890 (only three remain) and were a dominant form of transportation until replaced by less expensive electric streetcars starting in 1892. By 1912 only 8 cable car lines remained, all on steep gradients impassable to electric streetcars. After being replaced by buses the 3 remaining cable car lines were shut down in 1951 when the City purchased and saved them in 1952 due to tremendous public support.
Early 1900s San Francisco Thrives
At close of 19th century, the port of San Francisco moved more cargo than all the other West Coast ports combined.
The trolley loop, now the plaza in front of the Ferry Building was one of the busiest areas of foot traffic in the world during the early-20th century when the seaport was at its busiest and before the construction of the Bay & Golden Gate Bridges. Only Charing Cross Station in London and Grand Central Terminal in New York City were busier.
There was once a pedestrian footbridge that connected Market Street directly with the Ferry building and a subterranean roadway to move cars below the plaza. In the earliest days, a maze of cable car tracks terminated here, servicing the ferry commuters. These were eventually replaced by a loop for several streetcar lines.
The ferry connections from San Francisco facilitated the growth of communities in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and fostered California’s agricultural business. For example, the Delta Queen docked at Pier 1, ferrying people between San Francisco and Sacramento.
Completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 effectively doomed ferry service.
On March 14, 1896, Sutro Baths was opened to the public as the world’s largest indoor swimming pool establishment. It had one salt water pool and seven fresh water pools of different temperatures, a museum, zoo, concert hall, and seating for 8,000. The developer, Aldolph Sutro a former Mayor who owned 1/12th the acreage of San Francisco. He also owned the Cliff House and Sutro Heights Gardens above that. The complex was initially serviced by a rail line (the Ferries and Cliff House Railroad) which ran along the cliffs of Lands End from California St & Presidio Ave. The Baths struggled, due to high maintenance costs, for years until 1966 when a fire destroyed it while the buildings were being demolished.
8/18/1906 The 1906 earthquake destroyed about 1/4th of San Francisco’s buildings and rendered over half of the 400,000 residents homeless. The most famous fireplug in the city still stands at 20th Street & Church, at the southwest corner of Dolores Park. It is repainted gold every year on August 18th. Here is where water was “magically” found for the 3000 civilians who stopped the advancing inferno in a 7 hour fight described as “hell itself.” The Mission District south of 20th Street was saved!
1907 The Cannery building was built and used by Del Monte label until 1937; it was renovated in 1967. Earlier, in 1893, Domingo Ghirardelli purchased an entire city block nearby in order to make it into the headquarters of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.
1920s The Barbary Coast is finally Tamed
In response to rampant crime and to extreme municipal corruption two major vigilante groups were formed, one in 1851 and one in 1856. As word of vigilante lynchings and kidnappings of criminals got out the crime rate dropped rapidly. Each Committee of Vigilance formally relinquished power after it decided the city had been “cleaned up.”
San Francisco was still widely proclaimed as the wickedest city in the U.S.A., mainly due to Barbary Coast activity. The primary industry there was prostitution. The worst of cribs (small one-story shacks some twelve feet wide and fourteen feet deep, divided into two rooms by heavy curtains of coarse material, and occupied by from two to six girls) or cow-yards (U-shaped buildings up to four stories high that were partitioned into numerous cubicles wherein the girls lived and worked) were to be found on Morton Street (now ironically enough called Maiden Lane). Some of the most notorious were the Nymphia on Pacific Street (built 1899, the largest cow-yard ever seen with 450 rooms), the Marsicania on Dupont Street (Grant Ave), and the Municipal Brothel (thus named since most of its profits went into the pockets of city officials and prominent politicians) on Jackson Street near Kearny. Three blocks of dance halls with the loudest possible music blasting forth extended from the foot of Telegraph Hill to the shoreline, largely along Pacific Street and Broadway.
After the 1906 earthquake most of Barbary Coast burned down but parts of it rapidly recovered. The first dive to open after the earthquake, and perhaps the most notorious establishment of the post-earthquake period, was the Seattle Saloon and Dance Hall, on Pacific St. near Kearny. It was sold in 1908, when its name was changed to the Dash and the waitresses without underwear were replaced by male cross-dressers who for $1 would perform whatever sex act was requested. It was soon revealed that the new managers were two officers of the Superior Court under Judge Carroll Cook.
The defeat of the Union Labor Party in 1911 marked the beginning of the end of the wide-open Barbary Coast. In 1912 the new Police Commissioner Jesse B. Cook launched a direct attack on the Barbary Coast publishing his plans in the newspapers: 1) All dance-halls and resorts patronized by women in Montgomery Avenue (now Columbus) west of Kearny Street and on both sides of Kearny Street to be abolished. 2) Barkers in front of the dance-halls in Pacific Street to be done away with and glaring electric signs forbidden. 3) No new saloon licenses to be issued until the number had been reduced to 1500 which was to be the limit in future. 4) Raids to be made against the blind pigs (i.e., unlicensed saloons which would charge customers to see an attraction and then serve a “complimentary” alcoholic beverage thus circumventing the law, e.g., charging 25 cents for a sight of a strange Greenland pig and throwing in a gin cocktail).
More and more restrictive laws were enacted and in 1914 the Red-Light Abatement Act gave the city authorities the right to impose civil court actions against any property used for purposes of prostitution. Even so on occasions signs of the old life were evident. E.g., on 1/24/17 three hundred prostitutes marched to Central Methodist Church to protest the anti-prostitution campaign by Rev. Paul Smith; when admitted to the church they posed the question, “How are we to make a living when all the brothels have closed?”
In one final gasp for life, the Barbary Coast once again attempted to resurrect itself in 1921. The Neptune, Palace, Elko and Olympia again opened their doors, selling near beer and featuring a few dancing girls. However the watchful efforts of Mrs. W. B. Hamilton, Chairman of the Clubwomen’s Vigilante Committee, soon saw to it these newly opened dens of iniquity were not to be endured. The police took immediate action and the Barbary Coast was at last closed down for all time in 1921.
Primary Source: http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=BARBARY_COAST
1936-37 Bay Bridge & Golden Gate Bridge both Completed
The Golden Gate bridge-opening celebration began on May 27, 1937 and lasted for one week. Until 1964 it was the longest suspension bridge main span in the world, at 4,200 feet.
The Bay Bridge opened for traffic on November 12, 1936, six months before the Golden Gate Bridge. It originally carried automobile traffic on its upper deck, and trucks and trains on the lower deck. This bridge still has one of the longest spans in the world and the new Bay Bridge opened September 2, 2013, at a reported cost of over $6.5 billion is currently the world’s widest bridge, according to Guinness World Records.
Yerba Buena Island between San Francisco and Oakland has gone by many names starting with Isla del Carmen in 1776. Seabird Island, Yerba Buena for the mint plant growing all over it, and often mistakenly Treasure Island (which is actually the flat artificial island, attached to and built just north of hilly Yerba Buena Island, for the 1939-40 Worlds Fair). The first California legislature, when passing an act establishing the limits of San Francisco County in February 18, 1850, officially named the island Yerba Buena. After the 49ers started pasturing goats there the name Goat Island became popular so the name was changed in 1895 by the U.S. Geographic Board to that. Then in 1931, that same board changed it back to Yerba Buena Island.
1943 Chinese Granted naturalization Rights
The Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act was passed by Congress and grants Chinese aliens naturalization rights.
1950s Beatniks & Giants
The term “beatnik” originated from North Beach scene in 1950s. Neighborhood cafes and bars there became the home of the Beat Generation. City Lights Bookstore, a favorite haunt and the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S., opened in 1953.
In 1958 the Giants moved to San Francisco. After two years at Seals Stadium they moved to the new Candlestick park in 1960. They lost the 1962 World Series. In 1989 they lost the “Earthquake” World Series to Oakland. In 2000 they moved to AT&T Park in San Francisco and, finally, in 2010 won a World Series against the Texas Rangers and in 2012 did it again against Detroit.
1964 6/19/1964 Carol Doda performed topless at the Condor Club, Broadway & Columbus, near the old Barbary Coast location. Soon thereafter the rest of Broadway went topless followed by the rest of the U.S. Her silicon-enhanced breasts (eventually going from size 34 to 44) became so popular that she started dancing 12 shows/night. She danced bottomless from 1969 until 1972 when the California Alcoholic Beverages Commission put a stop to it all.
1967 Summer of Love. As many as 100,000 people converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco initiating a major cultural and political shift.
1969 Although the Dragon Gate looks like it could be as old as Chinatown it was actually installed in 1969, a gift of the government of the Republic of China.
1970 6/28/70 First Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. There were 20-30 marchers and about 200 people at the Gay-In in Golden Gate Park. In 2011 the crowd estimate was 1 million for the Pride Celebration and Parade.
1971 October 1971 The first est training was held by Werner Erhardt. The last in 1984.
1981 The San Francisco 49ers played their first of six Super Bowls in 1981. They also won in 1984, 1988, and 1989 cementing the reputations of Walsh, Montana, and Rice. Steve Young led them to a 5th consecutive win in 1994. In 2012 they lost their sixth Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens
Since the 1980s Little Italy has seen most of its native Italian American population shrink due to a decrease in Italian immigration and gentrification. Chinatown has now expanded north of Broadway along Stockton Street into North Beach.
1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake
October 17, 1989, at 5:04 pm local time was marked by the Loma Prieta earthquake. It lasted 10–15 seconds and measured 6.9 on the Richter Scale. The quake killed 63 people throughout Northern California, injured 3,757 and left some 3,000–12,000 people homeless.
The earthquake occurred during the warm-up practice for the third game of the 1989 World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants. Because of game-related sports coverage, this was the first major earthquake in the United States to have its initial jolt broadcast live on television.
1991 Embarcadero Freeway Demolished
After the completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936 there was a rapid decline in the need for ferries and the Ferry Building so the shoreline neighborhood fell into decline. A transition to container shipping, which moved most shipping to Oakland, led to further decline.
The Embarcadero Freeway was built there in the 1960s due to automobile transit efforts. This improved automobile access to the Bay Bridge, but detracted aesthetically from the city. For 30 years, the highway divided the waterfront and the Ferry Building from downtown.
The Embarcadero Freeway was torn down in 1991, after being severely damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Since this tear down the entire Embarcadero shoreline has been dramatically improved, from AT&T Ballpark (3/31/2000) to the renovated Ferry Building (2003) to the new Exploratorium (opened 4/17/2013 at Pier 15) to Pier 39, North Beach.
A sculpture, “Cupid’s Span” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, was built in 2003 along the Rincon Park area. Resembling a giant Cupid’s bow and arrow with the arrow implanted in the ground, the statue was inspired by San Francisco’s reputation as the home port of Eros, hence the stereotypical bow and arrow of Cupid.
3/10/2000 The Dot-Com bubble bursts. From 1997-2000 a large number of dot-com companies located in the south of Market SOMA area and the economy boomed. It took several years for it to recover from the bust in year 2000.
3/31/2000 The new 42,000 seat AT&T ballpark opened for the San Francisco Giants. This was the first Major League ballpark built without public funds since the completion of Dodger Stadium in 1962. This new ballpark further accelerated gentrification of the SOMA neighborhood; for example, $1 million dollar condos were soon being built right across the street from the new ballpark.
2012 San Francisco, the 14th largest city in the country (837,442 population as 2013). Among big cities the median rents were the highest, at $1,463 in 2012. Just under half of SF’s occupied 2317,452 rental units cost $1,500 a month or more. San Jose, the 10th largest city in the U.S. (998,537 population as of 2013), came in second at $1,441. New Yorkers paid a median rent of $1,187 in 2012. Rents and housing prices continue to accelerate in the entire SF Bay through 2014 and beyond.
2014 The San Francisco 49ers moved to the new $1.2 billion dollar Levi’s stadium in Santa Clara. Candlestick Park is closed for good.
2017 The new $4.5 billion dollar San Francisco Transbay Transit Center (replacing the Transbay Terminal), started August 2010, is scheduled for completion in late 2017.
Sources & Related Pages
- Wikipedia – The great resource often used as the source of content in this summary. For a start see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_Bay and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco#History
- http://foundsf.org – An excellent web site on historical San Francisco. It is like a specialized Wikipedia on San Francisco alone.
- http://www.sparkletack.com/ – Good blog on San Francisco history.
- http://www.sfgenealogy.com/sf/history/sindex.htm – A wide variety of links related to SF History.
- http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=22491 – History sources from the California Parks Department.
- http://www.ronhenggeler.com/History/yerba_buena/yerba_buena_index.htm and http://www.ronhenggeler.com/history_gallery.htm – Excellent historical pictures with links to further sources.
- http://www.zpub.com/sf/history/sfh2.html – A timeline of San Francisco history.
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