Starting Again In San Francisco

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The notorious town that festered on the shore does not show in the picture, but we San Franciscans remember it as if we had been there, swaggering around in stiff new boots, sailcloth breeches, and red flannel shirts, the conventional costume of the adventurers who came to be known as Argonauts or fortyniners. The best of the streets were paved with sunken bales of cotton to save mules from drowning in the mud. The gambling halls had crystal chandeliers; the hotels had canvas walls. The whole town burned down so frequently that a young lawyer from Virginia observed that “contracts for new buildings are signed by the light of the fire that is consuming the old.”

As for the population, no other event, not even the Crusades, had ever brought together such a sampling of humanity. There were British colonials from the sheep farms of Van Diemen’s Land, dressed in moleskin trousers and cabbage-tree hats and carrying bedrolls made of possum fur; Chinese in kneelength breeches and quilted blue jackets, with pigtails coiled up in hats that looked like small, black beehives; Peruvians in long, chocolate-colored ponchos; and thousands of bearded young fellows from Baltimore, New Haven, or Philadelphia, who had whiled away the eight-month trip around the Horn making barrels and coffins to sell.

 

Everyone figured his moment had arrived. Daguerreotype photographers equipped their studios with painted backdrops of snowcapped peaks, pine forests, and granite boulders and provided picks and shovels, gold pans, gravel rockers, and battered felt hats as studio props. Many a young man, fresh off the ship, had his picture taken in the costume of a miner and then went out to seek his fortune selling tubs of lard or whiskey by the glass.

There were practically no families: no moms and dads; no wives and kids. Almost all the fortune hunters were men. They lived a dozen to a tent, coming and going without advice or counsel. Sometimes their best friends knew them only by nicknames. Taking on a new identity, or no identity, was the first step in getting rid of your old nature. Was anyone surprised when the prosperous San Francisco merchant Talbot Green turned out to be none other than Paul Geddes, who had absconded with the funds of a bank in Philadelphia? Who cared that the Yale-trained lawyer Rufus Lockwood, celebrated for his lengthy exhortations, proved to be neither a lawyer nor a Yalie? The town council gave a golden dinner service to Mayor Cornelius Garrison, although some of his constituents recognized him as the recent proprietor of a monte-bank casino in Panama. People swore they saw in the streets the lost dauphin of France, the murderous New Yorker John C. Colt, and the shipwrecked English baronet Robert Charles Tichborne.

Minstrels sang about it in the music halls:

Oh, what was your name in the States? Was it Thompson orJohnson or Bates? Did you murder your wife and flee for your life? Oh, what was your name in the States?

The question was considered impolite. The most aggressive newspaper editor in town was shot and killed because he let it be known that one of his enemies, a member in good standing of the board of supervisors, had a record of imprisonment at Sing Sing. (You can find a plaque recording the encounter on a corner of Montgomery Street, the main line of the financial district.)

Like most San Franciscans, I know these stories of my city not from relics but from the mythology abundantly available in books. There is very little left of the old San Francisco, any old San Francisco, outside of museums and libraries. Blame it on the great earthquake of 1906 and the subsequent devastating fire. Blame it on the wastefulness, the mindless haste of a society that values novelty above tradition.

One day I took a copy of the celebrated panoramic photograph of the bay in 1850 up to the top of Telegraph Hill and tried to find a vestige of the gold-rush harbor. I was writing an illustrated book about the city and was looking for thenand-now photographs. From this perspective all the then had disappeared. Yerba Buena Cove was gone, filled up with dirt and rock and sunken ships. (The streets of our downtown business district run above the skeletons of schooners from New York. Oak timbers and rusted anchors turn up in excavation holes like Roman coins surfacing in London.) Rincon Hill, the southern elbow of the cove, was scraped away a hundred years ago and is now an inconspicuous anchorage for the bridge to Oakland. Even Telegraph Hill, celebrated for its cocktail parties, flights of stairs, and parking problems, was half-devoured by a contractor.