Skip to main content

Starting Again In San Francisco

July 2024
11min read

No city has more energetically obliterated the remnants of its past. And yet no city has a greater sense of its history.

On the edge of a pond a few blocks from my home, there is a knee-high chunk of granite with a bronze plate on one side, marking the spot where a band of Spanish soldiers commanded by a captain named Juan Bautista de Anza pitched camp on a March afternoon in 1776. They were scouting the site of what is now San Francisco, and like most San Franciscans ever since, they came here hoping to change their lives.

The itch to move along is a well-known American ailment, going back, I suppose, to the first wanderers from Siberia who decided to cross the strip of tundra that is now submerged by the Bering Strait. Anza and the expedition he was leading suffered the disease so desperately that they trudged all the way up from Mexico, through Arizona and the deserts of California, a ten-month, fifteen-hundred-mile hike, to get to the brackish little lake a few hundred yards from my house. Walking past the relic of their campsite on a misty summer morning, I feel a bond of sympathy with all of them—Don Juan Bautista, his lieutenants, and the company of colonists one of his men brought up later to this desolate peninsula. It was late June when the civilians got here, a damp and foggy month. Low clouds often skulk along the coast, sneaking ashore at night and hanging around till noon. I can imagine the colonists from Sonora shivering in their blankets, praying to God to grant them a fresh start.

That has always been the story in San Francisco: a gathering in of new arrivals, bewildered by the climate, dazzled by dreams, longing for rebirth. Bayard Taylor, sent out by the New York Tribune to cover the gold rush in 1849, reported back, “A man, on coming to California, could no more expect to retain his old nature unchanged than he could retain in his lungs the air he had inhaled on the Atlantic shore.” The prospect of changing your nature while filling your lungs has clearly been irresistible for several dozen generations of Americans, Europeans, Africans, Asians, beatniks, hippies, yuppies, revolutionaries, convicts, saints, and suicides.

Nowadays the place where Anza’s soldiers slept is favored by groups in padded jackets and knit caps who stroll the path along the lake with their arms folded, chatting amiably in Cantonese. In the past two decades, uncounted—perhaps uncountable—immigrants from Asia have settled in San Francisco. Nicaraguans and Salvadorans have colonized a neighborhood known as Nicador. Self-service gasoline stations post instructions on the pumps in Chinese, Spanish, and Tagalog. The school department, trying to keep track of the proliferation of cultures, has devised a new category for students who do not fit any of the major classifications of San Franciscans. At one high school the list currently includes Cambodians, Ethiopians, Samoans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Yemenis, Palestinians, Koreans, and Fijians. The city is growing in complexity as well as numbers. There are said to be at least a hundred thousand homosexual men in San Francisco. Most of them, too, have come from somewhere else, seeking respect and companionship and the satisfaction of “coming out.”

No other event—not even the Crusades—had ever brought together such a sampling of humanity as the Gold Rush.

The promise of transformation that Bayard Taylor found here depended on the discovery of gold. Anza’s people built a fort, a Catholic mission, and a trading post, but their San Francisco colony, on the outer edge of a declining empire, never developed much allure for immigrants. Northern California was the most isolated province of Mexico, an enormous distance from both God and the United States. It appealed primarily to landless soldiers who wanted free acreage and solitude. A few “blue eyes” from Liverpool, New York, and Boston jumped ship in California, learned Spanish, and set up as traders on the edge of Yerba Buena Cove, but it is not recorded whether they developed a new outlook on life. An American naval commander who visited the village a few years before the United States went to war with Mexico reported that the settlement consisted of a “large frame house occupied by an agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company; a store kept by an American; a billiard room and bar; a poop-cabin of a ship, occupied as a dwelling by an AngloAmerican captain; a blacksmith shop, and some outbuildings.” Among the sand hills were a few corrals for cattle brought in from the nearby ranches and several adobe sheds used for storing salted rawhides, the “California banknotes” of the Cape Horn trade. Most of these municipal improvements and their owners were still around, waiting for the main chance, when a workman named Jim Marshall found gold in John Sutler’s millrace, up in the foothills of the Sierra, in the first month of 1848.


There is a famous photograph that shows what happened to San Francisco after word got around. The cove is filled with ships, their masts so close together that it looks like a burned-out forest. The yardarms are lashed up vertically to keep them from getting tangled in the rigging of other ships. Some of the vessels near the shore have settled in the tidal mud, and the hulls are being used as shops and dormitories.

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.

I know of only two remainders of the Spanish colony. One is the army post the soldiers built across the lake from Anza’s camp and down the hill. It is still an army post, and it still retains its lovely Spanish name, Presidio, although there is only one building from its colonial beginnings—a small adobe structure, totally submerged in reinforced concrete and whitewashed stucco; it is used as an officers’ club. I do not approve of what has happened to the walls of sun-dried brick, and my imagination is not powerful enough to reconstruct the one-story house where a succession of Spanish and Mexican commanders lived until the day in 1846 when the American naval captain for whom Montgomery Street is named sailed into the bay and issued an ungrammatical announcement that he was taking charge. The other Spanish relic is the Mission of San Francisco de Asi’s, a tile-roofed chapel with painted beams and squatty columns, in the sheltered valley that is now Dolores Street. Anza’s chief lieutenant, José Moraga, is buried here, as are three victims of the Committee of Vigilance and more than five thousand Indian victims of diseases brought to California by the Europeans. The New World was not brave enough to withstand smallpox and syphilis.

The neighborhoods around the Spanish mission are, by coincidence, the most Hispanic in the city, but the majority of Spanish-speaking San Franciscans, like the rest of us, are relatively new arrivals. Historically San Francisco is about as Spanish as New York is Dutch.

As for the city of the gold rush, that too has disappeared. Lawyers, interior decorators, and advertising agencies have seized upon a few square blocks around Jackson and Montgomery streets that inexplicably escaped the earthquake and fire. Restorers have given the bricks and cast-iron doors a good scrubbing and put in plumbing. It is pleasant to walk under the Indian laurel fig trees, appraising the furniture in the windows and reading the brass plaques on the doors, but it does not feel as though you’re caught up in the scramble to the mother lode.

In the ravines of the financial district, San Francisco looks (and is) about nine years old. At the Civic Center it appears to be slightly more mature, offering up a show of grandeur from the early twentieth century, when cities could afford Beaux-Arts designs and copper domes. And even the old-fashioned neighborhoods, where creaking black cypresses and monkey-tail trees shadow the narrow gardens of so-called Victorians, hold barely a century of memories. Like most American cities, this is a youngish place, with a characteristic American enthusiasm for tearing things down and starting over.

Why is it invariably said, then, that San Francisco is “historic”? Why are we San Franciscans so self-assured about the historical importance of our city?

Some of this egocentricity, this almost Athenian parochialism, grew out of isolation. A hundred years ago, when California was (as it is now) by far the most populous region west of the Rockies, San Francisco had two-fifths of the population of the entire state. Not only did San Francisco rule California politically and economically, it also supplied much of the capital, the energy, and even the cast of characters for the development of other parts of the Far West.

We are still a city of immigrants, puffed up with converts’ zeal.

Throughout the century the disproportionate stature of San Francisco has been melting. San Francisco now has something less than 3 percent of the population of California. Not only have we lost ground, so to speak, to Southern California, but we must share our bay with upstart towns like Oakland and San Jose. Nostalgia overcomes us. We look back with longing to the days when we were small and strong, lonely and unique.

Then, too, there is the courtship of new arrivals, the ever-sustaining gold rush, the ever-renewing promise of a new life. We are a city of immigrants, puffed up with converts’ zeal. I know this because 1 am an immigrant myself, born and raised in the rivalrous city of Oakland, across the bay, where children of my generation were taught in public schools to look on San Francisco as a crowded, clammy, treeless place that dominated the rest of the Bay Area because of a regrettable mistake in urban planning. Ignoring this, I chose to live in the mislocated city. I had a job here, and I wanted to make some changes of my own. I found that San Francisco allows, even invites instant possession, immediate affection. Practically everything that matters has been swept away by time and fire and carpentry, yet the spirit that infused the gold rush infests the city like the fleas in a miner’s blanket.

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.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.