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San Francisco at Statehood

by Katherine H. Chandler

Lithograph of San Francisco as seen in 1848

It is to American occupation and the admission of California to the Union that San Francisco owes its advance to a city. Under Spanish and Mexican rule it was valued simply as a trading post, for the Latins hated the harsh winds that sometimes (tell it in whispers) blew then, as now, and loved the sunnier towns to the south, Monterey and Santa Barbara and San Diego.

San Francisco in the parlance of 1850 meant the cluster of houses between Telegraph Hill and El Rincon. The Presidio was reduced to two dilapidated adobe buildings, in which was quartered a United States military company. The Mission was a resort where it was pleasant to while away a Sunday.

Of the town proper the plaza was the center. Reminiscences of the admission celebration of 1850 naturally linger there. There the sunrise Federal salute of thirteen guns was fired; there the procession, after circling around the vicinity, massed itself to attend the literary exercises of the day; there at sunset the thirty-one shots of the new national salvo were discharged; there the grand ball continued the jubilation until the sun ushered in another day.

Woodcut of 1850 Statehood celebration at Portsmouth PlazaThe plaza was laid out in 1839, when Captain Jean Vioget made a survey of the infant pueblo for the Californian authorities. The population being sparse the plaza was not improved until 1844-45. Then the National Government erected a Custom-house in the northern portion. The new structure was a spacious adobe with red tiles from the roofs of dilapidated buildings out at the Presidio. In front of it were placed two brass cannon, each with the name of the saint for whom it was dedicated embossed in high relief and a flagpole surmounted by the Mexican colors.

The plaza received its present title from the American man-of-war Portsmouth which was anchored in our harbor during the summer of 1846. On the 9th of July of that year, two days after Monterey had been seized by the Americans, a detachment of marines under orders of Commodore Montgomery marched to the plaza and raised the Stars and Stripes, amid enthusiastic cheers and a volley of twenty-one shots from the Portsmouth. They bestowed the name of their vessel upon the plaza and sent a number of names down to posterity through the surrounding streets. No opposition was made to the seizure. The Custom-house receptor, Pinto, had left a week before, after depositing with [Alexander] Leidesdorff a trunk containing the Mexican flag and documents.

The Mexican flagstaff remained in the plaza until July 4, 1850, when it was replaced by a gift from the citizens of Portland, Or. The new pole was 111 feet long, with a diameter of one foot at the base and tapered to a point. It was received with gratitude and admiration, but a good deal of affection clung to the old staff, which was now erected before the new Custom-house at the corner of California and Montgomery streets.

After being used as a barracks the adobe served as a quartermaster’s depot and then as a Custom-house, but in 1850 it was rented out in offices. Its platform, from its commanding position, served as a hustings and as a stage for the exhibition of public oratory, from the Sunday ranter to the political lecturer.

After the American occupation Portsmouth square was for several years the focus of all that was going on in San Francisco, but in 1850 the commercial activity moved to the water front. Although deserted by business the plaza still remained the center of life. Around it were grouped the hotels, each striving to out rival the others in new luxuries and recreations. Most of these buildings had been destroyed by fire three times, but three times they had been rebuilt, each time with more gorgeous finishings.

On the east side, a contemporary tells us, there was in September, 1850, “a line of palaces, the magnificence of whose interior even more than corresponds to the promise as their outward show. They were all devoted to the fickle goddess, Fortune, but they are good lounges for one who can withstand temptation.” At the right was the three-storied El Dorado, a fireproof building that had saved some of its weaker neighbors during the last conflagration. It was a favorite resort of the Mexican gamblers. Next stood the Parker House, the third of its name on the same site. The first was built in the spring of 1849 by Robert A. Parker and John H. Brown. It fronted sixty-five feet on the plaza and was 145 feet deep, with a wing thirty-five feet wide running back ninety feet. The whole structure was two stories high. During the festivities of Christmas eve, 1849, it was burned to the ground.

A few months later Thomas Maguire & Co. began the erection of a new three-story Parker House, with a frontage of thirty-five feet on the Plaza and a depth of 180 feet. It was to be reopened with a grand ball on the evening of May 4, 1850, but that very morning it was reduced to ashes. The third Parker House was a three-story building fronting seventy-five feet on the Plaza and running back 140 feet. Its second and third stories were partly occupied by the Jenny Lind Theater. The Union, the Crescent City and the Empire stood between the Parker House and the California Exchange, which, though unfinished at the time of admission, bid fair to eclipse them all in magnificence. Among other devices for attraction it introduced stained-glass windows, a novelty in San Francisco.

On the west, beginning at the right was the Postoffice, “a great improvement for the convenience of both public and employes upon the cramped and inconvenient offices higher up on Clay street.” Next was the “tidiest of miniature cafes,” joined with a fruiter’s establishment. Here “the fragrant Mocha was dispensed by one Thomas Truworthy.” Next came the store of Still, a bookseller and stationer. Mr. Still was an example of prosperity resulting from industry. He had worked his way around the Horn and landed in San Francisco without a cent, yet in 1850 he had a good store, with a late consignment of 8000 volumes and 13,000 newspapers. Next to Still’s was Justices’ Court, and it was hinted that Justice frequently slipped the bandages off her eyes to glance at the fees.

On the south side the old City Hall stood at the right. There was a large, low adobe, with a veranda in front, erected in 1846 by Leidesdorff. In 1847 it was kept as a hotel by John H. Brown, and so was often known as Brown’s Hotel. It was the headquarters of the gamblers and coined money from the tables. The American Hotel and others filled up the block.

On the north side the Alta California publishing house faced the Plaza, and below it, in the same block, was the banking-house of Palmer, Cook & Co. and the offices of Glaysen & Co. and Stevenson & Parker, land agents.

In the center of the Plaza was an unsightly artesian well which had been a failure and butt of innumerable jokes.

In 1850 a mining excitement added to the disorderly condition of the Plaza. Strangers arriving in California expected gold to greet them from every inch of surface, and many jokes were played at their expense. During this summer an individual placed two or three ounces of gold on the surface of the Plaza in front of the Parker House, and then took out some late arrivals to show them how gold could be found in the streets. He took a pan of dust, and on washing it got two ounces of gold. Instantly an excitement arose. Others procured pans, and in a short time the Plaza had all the appearance of a placer. One man was rewarded by getting 20 cents in his first pan, but no more gold was discovered. Later it was learned that the man who deposited the gold and the sellers of the tin pans were partners, and that they had reaped a harvest from pans at $2 a piece. This was known as the “spelter” excitement.

What with spelter and the artesian well, with deposited goods and animals roving at will, the Plaza did not present an attractive appearance. The papers were constantly calling attention to the nuisances, but without effect until the news of the admission arrived. Then the City Council ordered that the streets and Plaza be cleared in order that the procession be not impeded.

The adobe continued to stand as a picturesque monument to that government from which California had sprung, until the great fire of 1851 destroyed it and many of its companions, and so changed the Plaza that it could not be recognized as the scene of the first admission celebration.

The business section, starting with Montgomery street, extended to the wharves. North of the Plaza, between Broadway and Green, Kearny and Stockton, was Little Chile, whose denizens represented all the Latin-American countries; and just below, between Kearny and Sansome, Broadway and Green, was located Sydney Town, the rendezvous of the lowest strata of the population. South of Market, between what is now First and Second, Natoma and Mission, lay Happy Valley, and below it, between Mission and Howard, was Pleasant Valley, both boasting of manufacturing industry and of good health.

In the summer of 1850 many ordinances were passed for the improvement of the streets, and $500,000 was appropriated for the work. Hills were removed to hollows, and many of the streets were graded and planked, and some sewered. The city paid one-third the expense, and the remaining two-thirds fell in heavy assessments on the property-owners. A planked toll road to the Mission was planned this year, and built in 1851. The length of the streets was increased by extending them into wharves, twelve of which were built by September, 1850. Central Wharf was the first constructed, and it extended 2000 feet into the bay. It was built by a private company at a cost of $130,000. As vessels could load here even at low tide, Central, or Long Wharf, as it soon was called, became a great thoroughfare and the noisiest spot in the city. From the foot of Sacramento street, Howison’s pier ran out 1100 feet, and Cunningham Wharf extended from Battery, between Vallejo and Green, for 375 feet, and then had a T at the end 330 feet long, 30 feet wide and with a 25-foot depth of water. Market, California, Clay, Washington, Jackson, Pacific, Broadway and Green streets all had their wharfage extensions, varying from 250 to 900 feet in length.

The narrow streets, as well as the combustible material of the houses and the scarcity of water, made San Francisco an easy prey to the god of flame. In January, 1849, a noted resort, “The Shades,” was reduced to ashes, and in the following June the ship Philadelphia was burned to the water’s edge; but these conflagrations seemed to make little impression on the citizens. On the morning of December 24, 1849, at about 6 o’clock, the whole town was aroused by a fire raging near the Plaza. It started in Dennison’s Exchange, about the middle of the east side of the square, and plunged down Kearny to Washington, and along the south side of Washington to Montgomery, destroying all in its path. It was only checked by the authorities pulling down some buildings and blowing up others, so as to deprive it of sustenance. Water was so scarce that one merchant paid $1 a bucket to save his property; others threw mud from the streets—it was a rainy winter—against their walls. Photograph of U.S. Senator David C. BrodericksAt this fire David C. Broderick first came into prominence by using to advantage his knowledge gained as a New York fireman. The loss incurred by the fire as about $1,250,000. Hardly were the ashes cold before buildings of the same type of wood and canvas were commenced on the former sites. One contract illustrates the haste of erection: A Mr. Cornwall contracted to rebuild the Dennison Exchange within sixteen days at a cost of from $25,000 to $30,000, agreeing to forfeit $150 for each day in excess of the sixteen. He completed it on time, even though wages were high and materials scarce. While the excitement swayed the public mind the Independent Unpaid Ax Company was formed, the Ayuntamiento [city council] awarded $500 to be expended under the direction of the Alcalde “for wagons, axes, hooks, ladders and ropes.”

The horror of the first fire was scarcely dimmed when on May 4, 1850, the second great one cost the town $4,000,000. It broke out about 4 A.M. in the United States Exchange and by 11 three blocks had been swept away—the one bounded by Kearny, Clay, Montgomery and Washington, and the two from Dupont to Montgomery, between Washington and Jackson. In all, about 300 houses were destroyed, most of them rickety gambling places. During this fire, water sold for $60 a cartload and the labor of some despicable spectators had to be bought for $3 an hour. Later some of these appeared before the Town Council and demanded compensation for their services, threatening worse ills when refused. This conduct led to suspicions and a reward of $5000 was offered for information about the starting of the fire. Several arrests were made, but nothing was ever proven. The Town Council immediately passed several ordinances providing for the building of wells and reservoirs and requiring each householder to keep six buckets of water prepared for an emergency.

New structures were being erected on the ashes and people were beginning to breathe freely once more when, on June 14th, at 8 in the morning, the alarm of the third great fire was sounded. A defective flue in a bakery in the rear of the Merchant’s Hotel on Kearny street, between Sacramento and Clay, was the starting point. Unfortunately one of the fiercest winds of the season was blowing and in a few hours all between Clay and California from Kearny to the water’s edge was made of flames. The entire loss was estimated to be $3,500,000.

The city at last seemed to realize that something more than mere exertion at the time of the conflagration was necessary to avoid being swept away by fire. Many of the buildings commenced on the ruins were of brick; numerous hook and ladder, engine and hose companies were formed; the City Council passed ordinances for the erection of fireproof vaults for the archives of the city and for the establishment of a fire department, and instructed a committee to obtain an estimate of the best method of supplying the city with water.

Woodcut of the fourth Great Fire in San FranciscoOn September 17th the fourth fire in nine months struck awe to the hearts of the citizens. The superstitious began to believe that Heaven was chastising the city for its wickedness. The flames originated in the Philadelphia House on Jackson street near the Washington market, and swept away most of the blocks between Pacific and Washington, Dupont and Montgomery streets. Nearly all the houses were one-story wooden structures, so the loss did not exceed a half million. On Washington street, between Dupont and Kearny, the brick walls of the Alta California building, erected after the May fire, stopped the flames and saved its neighbors to the corner. This fact caused more substantial materials to be used in the rebuilding. In this fire the newly organized fire department did effective work, and would have saved more had it had a supply of water.

The great fires of 1850, while at the time considered a curse, were really beneficial to the city in their results.

The old ramshackle shanties were replaced by more respectable buildings, a water supply system was secured for the city, an efficient volunteer fire department under an official head was organized under the charter, and it became fashionable to become a fireman.

In a city where the population was mostly masculine and where homes were few, men naturally congregated for their leisure hours in the most attractive places. These, in 1850, were the gambling places, the “better class” of which immediately faced the Plaza, while the poorer ones crowded around its vicinity. They used to their advantage music, lights and paintings, and at some resorts pretty women dealt the cards. No hotel was without its gambling rooms, and fabulous rents, such as $10,000 a month, were paid by the gamblers for these apartments. Sometimes enormous stakes were played—$16,000 in gold dust being lost in one play by a faro dealer—but from 50 cents to $5 were the ordinary stakes, so that even the common laborer could enter. Monte, faro, roulette, rondo, rouge et noir and vingt-et-un were the favorite games. Gambling became a profession, and those who followed it were “among the richest, most talented and most influential citizens.” At first the city licensed the gambling rooms at $50 per month, with $25 extra for each Sunday. But in September, 1850, the Town Council prohibited all gambling places being open on Sunday. Chance pervaded all business. Lotteries were held for all kinds of merchandise and even of real estate. Howison’s pier was disposed of by lottery, 2000 shares at $100 each being placed on the market, with the announcement that the property had a monthly rental of $5000.

During 1850, before September 9th, nine papers were issued in San Francisco, and eight of them had some claim to distinction. The best remembered to-day is the Alta California, child of the union of the pioneer journals, the Californian and the California Star and mother of the California press, as she was affectionately termed by early newspaper men. The Journal of Commerce had intended to be the first daily in California, but the Alta, learning its intention, outwitted it by appearing as a daily one day previous to its advertised time, January 23, 1850.

In reading over the old files one sees that, in spite of the fabulous tales of gambling and of crime that have crept down through the years the citizens of San Francisco were leading earnest, busy lives, and showing a greater interest in public affairs than is exhibited by most citizens to-day, and one feels that it is not the mere fact of admission to the Union nor the wealth of field or forest or mine, that has carried California to her present position among her sister states, but the impetus given her by the strong, reliant characters that governed her in 1850.

San Francisco Chronicle
September 9, 1900
Katherine Chandler (1876-1930) was author of Habits of California Plants (1903), as well as several books about Pacific Coast folklore. In 1905, she compiled, for the Library Association of California, a list of California periodicals issued before the 1861 completion of the transcontinental telegraph.

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