- Historic Sites
Starting Again In San Francisco
No city has more energetically obliterated the remnants of its past. And yet no city has a greater sense of its history.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
If I were introducing a newcomer to San Francisco, I would be tempted to take him to the stone where I hobnob with Captain Anza, to drag him helplessly through streets inhabited by ghosts. It would be gratifying to point out to a willing listener the old red brick of the De Young Building, hidden under an armor of metallic panels, to explain that on this corner Luisa Tetrazzini sang and on another corner someone threw the bomb for which Tom Mooney was sent to jail. What a pleasure it would be to lecture my captive in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid about the venerable Montgomery Block, which stood here for a century, the first and most important office building in the West, occupied by its builder, Henry Wager Halleck (who was later to become the chief of Lincoln’s armies); the vineyardist Agoston Haraszthy; the tavernkeeper Duncan Nicol; the aphorist Ambrose Bierce; the filibuster William Walker; the storywriter Bret Harte; the poet George Sterling; the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen; the restaurateur Papa Coppa; the lyricist Gelett Burgess; and so on.
These are the sorts of memories that haunt historically minded folk. Historically minded folk make garrulous guides, and I have already done too much of this.
Privately I can walk on Market Street and think about my city, visualizing it as it was a hundred years ago and vainly wishing I might have seen it then, alone and splendid at the end of the continent. Four tracks of horse-drawn trolleys ran up and down the center of this boulevard, past oyster bars and taverns that served a free lunch with a five-cent mug of beer, past the block-long, seven-story Palace Hotel, quite the grandest in Western America and recklessly too large for San Francisco, with its tiers and tiers of bay windows and its great interior courtyard, roofed with glass, round which a long procession of cabs and carriages could comfortably circle, disgorging their distinguished passengers at the lobby door: kings, presidents, and operatic prima donnas.
Travelers in those days came mostly from the East, over the great transcontinental railroad, the wonder of the age, which had been completed fewer than twenty years earlier. The trains deposited their passengers with all their trunks and hatboxes and picnic baskets at the end of a wooden trestle thrusting two miles into the bay from the Oakland shore. From there the travelers had to take a ferry. Everyone would rush up to the open decks, a visitor in 1877 recalled. prepared to be electrified by the vast panorama of San Francisco Bay. “with the distant city reposing on its sand hills and the afternoon sun slanting down toward the shining gap of the Golden Gate.”
Sometimes the capricious weather teased them. “There is a luminous haze, a golden fog wrapped about everything, through which the black and white seagulls dart and flash their wings,” one of them wrote. “Nothing else is visible. …
“As the boat starts, however, and the strong cold wind sweeps in our faces, there is a slight lifting, or rather a thinning, of the fog, and the shadowy shapes of islands and mountain ranges shimmer through. Then we see, across the rough, white-capped, gray-green waters of the bay, a long line of low hills, like domes of windswept sand—silvery-gray, tawny yellow, and crested with the dark roofs, the crowded towers, and spires of a great city.”
This is the city I would show my visitor, a city I can recognize, this San Francisco of a century ago. Driving home at sunset, crossing the bridge from Berkeley, I see it gleaming in its golden mist beyond the signboards urging me to fly to Reno and to smoke erotic cigarettes. The crowded towers and spires are loftier, more crowded now, the ferries gone, the transcontinental railroad feeble and attenuated, the great bay laced with bridges; but the fogs, the flashing gulls, the strong, cold winds still swirl above the water, and the shapes of hills and islands shimmer through. At the end of the bridge, beyond the bay, the city still holds its promise of renewing life.