San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco



MARCH.—San Francisco is passing through a time of much mercantile distress. For many months before this period, commercial business bad been unprofitable to those conducting it. We have already alluded to the circumstance that an excessive quantity of goods had arrived during the latter part of 1853. In the spring of 1854, importations continued very large. The market was completely glutted, and prices of the great staples of commerce fell day by day. Several bankruptcies ensued, and the whole commercial community were suffering severe losses. The clipper ship Bald Eagle, and some other vessels, were fully freighted to New York and other eastern ports with goods similar to those they had recently brought from thence. Besides the general lack of business and low prices of merchandise, one great cause of commercial losses here was the high rents charged for stores and general business premises. During 1853, an unusually large number of expensive fire-proof buildings had been erected, which at first were in great demand at much increased rates. When sales and prices of goods fell off, dealers could no longer afford to pay the raised rents. It was found, at the same time, that builders had been largely anticipating the natural demand for business accommodation, and had erected far more houses than could be profitably occupied. Soon the large number of empty stores forced owners of house property to reduce rents from twenty to thirty per cent.; at which reduction not many more tenements were occupied than before.

All this while, as building was briskly going on and rents were rising, the marketable value of all kinds of real estate was greatly enhanced. Unimproved lots, within a wide circle round the settled portions of the city, became suddenly in demand, at many times their recent price. Speculation in real estate was rife, and holders who had the prudence timeously to sell out, realized large sums. Many people thought that surely the advance could not last, but it did; and prices still continued to rise. Had trade been good, it is hard to say how high and how long the increased prices,—great part of which was certainly without just cause,—would have gone on; although doubtless the reaction would have come by and by. The bad condition of commercial affairs, and the reduction in store rents, hastened the downfall. About the close of December, 1853, at the time of the great sales of water lots, prices of real estate were about the highest. Two months later, unimproved town lots were almost unsalable at any price, while house property suffered a fall corresponding to the reduction in rents. This led to the failure of a few speculators in real estate. Looking, disinterestedly, at the great extent of ground around the city still unbuilt upon, the number of empty stores, the acknowledged overdoing of commercial business, and, above all, the comparatively slow rate at which, of late, the population of the State and city is increasing, it appears to us highly probable that many years will pass before the recent high prices be again witnessed. Most likely, the present reduced prices for all kinds of real estate, but more particularly for unimproved lots, will continue, for some months, to fall lower. When the population of the State, and by consequence that of its great port, are materially increased, prices of real estate in San Francisco may be expected to rise far above the present or even the recent high rates.

While there seemed not much hope for any rise in the value of real estate for a long period, prices of merchandise in the latter part of this month began slightly to improve. The prospects of a general European war, and the expected diminution of shipments from other ports to San Francisco, as well as the increasing production of gold at the mines, led to the belief that before long the commercial market would, at last, become again profitable to merchants. All mercantile communities are subject to occasional depression, but these in the end work their own cure. In the instance before us, the chief loss would fall, not upon the general inhabitants of San Francisco,—who only got their merchandise cheaper,—nor even on its many commission merchants; but on the foreign shippers who wilfully and recklessly continued to flood our market with goods that were not wanted at the time.

About this time, a combination was formed among the owners of the various steamboats plying on the bay and interior waters. The capital of this great joint-stock association, called the “California Steam Navigation Company,” was declared to be $2,500,000; divided into shares of $1000. It was provided that the partnership should exist for fifty years after the 22d day of February, 1854,—that being the date of incorporation. Merchants and others, both in San Francisco and the large interior towns, considered that their interests would be prejudicially affected by this combination, which would, for a time at least, effectually hinder all competition. Very soon, the people of Marysville and Sacramento began to call public meetings, and agitate the question of no monopoly. Preliminary arrangemeets, while we write, are being undertaken to form companies to start opposition boats.

The rates of freight and passage established by the old combined companies are as follows:—From San Francisco to Sacramento; passage, $10 cabin, and $7 deck; freight, $8 per ton. From San Francisco to Marysville; passage, $12 cabin, and $10 deck; freight, $15 per ton, and $12 measurement. From San Francisco to Stockton; passage, $10 cabin, and $7 deck; freight, $6 per ton.

MARCH 9th.—Much excitement was caused by a duel which took place this day between Mr. Philip W. Thomas, district attorney for Placer County, and Dr. James P. Dickson, of the State Marine Hospital at San Francisco. Mr. Thomas had been challenged by another party for certain derogatory remarks he had made upon the character of the challenger, but had refused to fight a duel with the latter, on some such ground as that he was “no gentleman.” Dr. Dickson, a friend of the challenger, thereupon took the quarrel on himself; and in his own name challenged Mr. Thomas. The parties met at Oak Grove, near Sacramento, close by the spot where the fatal duel between Gilbert and Denver had taken place, in August, 1852. On this occasion, the weapons were duelling pistols, and the distance fifteen paces. At the first fire, Dr. Dickson fell mortally wounded. He was shot through the body, and died the same evening. His death was much regretted by a numerous body of friends.

The practice of duelling seemed to be on the increase about this time, and much attention was drawn to the subject. It was admitted to be a barbarous custom, and many suggestions were made as to how it could best be put down. Perhaps a Cervantes or a Butler may hereafter arise to laugh it out of fashion. “Courts of honor,” if only patronized by the leading politicians, who are usually here compelled to be great “fire-eaters,” might have much influence in banishing the vice from among us. Newspaper editors in California have long been particularly exposed not merely to the literary raking fire of antagonists but to their literal fire. Their professional motto should surely be tam Marte quam Minerva—by pen and rifle to do business. Shortly after the Dickson duel, rival editors of the Alta California and Times and Transcript, of San Francisco, thought fit to afford each other a long shot. Rifles, and forty paces, were of course the weapons and distance. At the third fire, one of the combatants had a good hat spoiled by a ball which passed through it, within an inch of the head that was in it. At the fifth fire, the same party received a bullet in his body, and was “satisfied.” Only about a hundred persons were witnesses of the occurrence. Usually there is a much larger number of spectators on such occasions. Of course, the duellists and their friends were not molested by the civil authorities. Why should they have been? No legal evidence could be obtained on the subject; and, if it could, no jury would convict. Several other duels were fought during this month; and some others that were feared, or hoped for, were happily nipped in the bud. The excitement, which ran high for a time on the general subject of duelling, and led to many admirable appeals by journalists on the surpassing folly of such encounters, speedily died away.

Elsewhere we have noticed the facts, that the constitution declares all those who have been directly or indirectly concerned in duelling to be incapable of filling any office in the State, and that, notwithstanding, many of the highest officials are notorious for having fought duels. The provision in the constitution is quite inoperative. A general opinion was expressed about this time that the law of Louisiana on this subject should be adopted, which obliges parties, before entering upon any State office to which they may have been elected, to take an oath to the effect that they had not been engaged in any manner of way, as principal or second, in any duelling affair. By striking thus directly at a man’s pecuniary interest, Louisiana, formerly noted for duels, has ceased to be so. It is believed by many that such a compulsory oath would materially help to put down duelling in California. Most citizens hope in time to fill some lucrative post in the government, and some of them would pause awhile before they allowed a momentary gratification of passion to spoil all their political prospects. The scheme may be worth trying, although its effect,—where so many in California are neither native nor naturalized citizens, and whom therefore the proposed law would not affect,—might not lead to the universal good anticipated. Still, many who are urged to duelling and who do fight, through mere force of a supposed public opinion or senseless clamor that hounds them on, would be very glad to have the excuse of such a law as is proposed, for their refusal to accept a challenge.

MARCH 9th.—Sales took place this and the next day of the interest which the State had in certain portions of the town lots called the “Government Reserve,” when the sum of $241,100 was realized. The prices obtained were considerably lower than what had been freely given at the great sale rather more than two months before.

Wilson's Exchange, Sansome street.MARCH 17th.—St. Patrick’s day. The Irish population in San Francisco celebrated this occasion in a very grand manner. Two of their associations—the “Hibernian Society of San Francisco” and the “Sons of the Emerald Isle,” united in performing the ceremonies. There was a large procession of the members formed, which paraded through the city, and then proceeded to the mission. In the old church there the Rev. Father O’Connell addressed the people in a suitable oration. Previously, they had been entertained by a substantial collation served on the green at the residence of Mr. Wallace, at the mission. The procession next returned to the city, and made sundry evolutions in the plaza, and marched through some of the principal streets. There were nearly a thousand persons engaged at the ceremony, some hundreds of whom were on horseback. All were dressed in holiday garb, and many wore characteristic green sashes. A fine band of music, and a beautifully painted flag, showing the wolfdog and harp of Erin, headed the procession. There was much excitement among the Irish citizens, and Erin go bragh! was the order of the day. In the evening the festivities were wound up by a grand dinner at Wilson’s Exchange (Henry Toomy in the chair), and a splendid ball at the Musical Hall.

MARCH 24th.—Col. H. P. Watkins was this day convicted, in the United States District Court, of setting on foot a military expedition against the Republic of Mexico—in other words, of “filibusterism.” This gentleman had been “Vice-President” of the new Republics of Lower California and Sonora. Though he was found guilty by a jury of the alleged offence, it is not to be supposed that the general opinions of the inhabitants of California on the subject of filibustering expeditions were different from those which have been previously mentioned. If the very judge in his charge to the jury on this occasion could openly declare his sympathy with the prisoner, it may naturally be supposed that the people in general felt and expressed a similar sentiment. Judge Hoffman, who presided at the trial, is reported to have thus spoken: “From my heart I sympathize with the accused, but I am sworn to the execution of the law, and must discharge my duty, whatever my sympathies may be. To the law and to the evidence then we must turn our exclusive attention. I may admire the spirited men who have gone forth on these expeditions, to upbuild, as they claim, the broken altars, and rekindle the extinguished fires of liberty in Mexico or Lower California. It may be that they are not adventurers, gone forth to build up for themselves a cheap fortune in another land. But even were my opinion of their purposes such, and their objects as glowing and as honorable as depicted by counsel, still, sitting as a judge, I should regard only the single question, has the law been violated?“

The evidence was clear, and decidedly against the accused, and the jury had no help but to convict him. On the 7th of April following, he was sentenced to pay a fine of $1500. On the 10th of the same month, Major Frederick Emory, another of the filibusters, and Secretary of State for the new Republic, entered a plea of “guilty” to a similar charge to that of which Col. Watkins had been convicted. Maj. Emory also was fined $1500. The parties afterwards professed their inability to pay these fines. While we write, it appears to be a doubtful question in law, or in fact, whether they can be compelled either to pay them or to be imprisoned till they do so, and it is probable that neither Col. Watkins nor Maj. Emory will be much troubled about the business. Thus are matters managed in California.

San Francisco United States Branch Mint.APRIL 3d.—Opening, for business purposes, of the Mint. The bill by the United States Government for the establishment of this much-needed, long looked-for institution, dates so far back as 3d July, 1852; but it was only towards the end of 1853 that active steps were taken to construct the edifice, and provide the necessary machinery. The building is situated in Commercial street, between Montgomery and Kearny streets. It is sixty feet square, and three stories high; it is built of brick, covered with a fine cement, and is thoroughly fire-proof The machinery is of the newest, finest and strongest kind used in such establishments. This Mint can coin, in gold, about thirty millions of dollars yearly, in different kinds of pieces, or nearly $100,000 daily. The silver coinage produced by it will be comparatively small.

For some years, many private coining establishments existed here, though, at this date, there is only one in operation. It was, however, the firm of Moffat & Co., long the United States Assay Contractors, which chiefly supplied the large gold coinage that was required by the increasing population and commercial tranactions of the country.

City of Oakland, Contra Costa.APRIL 10th.—Lecture given by Gov. Isaac J. Stevens, of Washington Territory, in Musical Hall, to a large and respectable audience, on the subject of the great Inter-oceanic Railway. It is evident that the agricultural and other resources of California can never be fairly developed, until some cheaper, more expeditious, and less hazardous and painful mode of reaching the country be provided, than the present overland way across the great plains, or the Isthmus, or round by Cape Horn. What California wants is population; an industrious, active, intelligent population. If the long talked of Atlantic and Pacific Railroad were once formed, the western terminus being in the State, this want would soon be remedied. Three general routes have at different times been proposed for this great undertaking. These are: first, the southern route, which proceeds from Texas through the Mesilla Valley, in the northern part of the Mexican territories, and enters California at the southern extremity of the State; second, the middle route, which proceeds from the State of Missouri across the plains to Utah, and from thence across the Sierra Nevada to some point on the Sacramento River; and third, the northern route, which would connect the basin of the St. Lawrence with Puget Sound, passing along the lines of the Upper Missouri and the Colombia Rivers. This last route lies considerably to the north of Califbrnia. Gov. Stevens, in his lecture, dwelt much on the advantages which the extreme northern route possessed over all other proposed routes—on its comparatively low levels, its freedom from deep snows, the fertile country in its course, &c. In the present thinly peopled condition of the immense regions which lie between the Eastern States and the Pacific coast, it is probable that no more than one through railway will be made for a great length of time. It is therefore of the utmost consequence to San Francisco, and to California, that that railway should terminate within the bounds of the State, and if possible at its chief city. It should never be forgotten, that Puget Sound offers commercial advantages nearly as many and as great as the Bay of San Francisco presents, for the establishment of a great maritime city upon its shores. If the western terminus of the Inter-oceanic Railway be made at the former great inlet of the sea, immigration will be prematurely diverted from California, and turned directly, and chiefly, to the advantage of a far northern territory. The people of San Francisco and of California, if they study their own interest, will take care that a rival State and city do not suddenly arise to overshadow their own greatness. The best way to maintain the supremacy of the former is to make sure, by all and whatever means, that the first great Inter-oceanic Railroad terminate at San Francisco. Later through lines may terminate where they will; only let our city have the first one.

APRIL 10th.—Oakland, on the eastern side of the bay directly opposite San Francisco, is to the latter, something like what Brooklyn is to New York. Between the two former places there are frequent daily opportunities of communication by steamers. Many people who carry on business during the day in San Francisco, have their dwellings and families at Oakland. The latter is one of the sweetest and most beautiful places on the bay. It is a great excursion quarter for holiday folk from San Francisco. As its name implies, Oakland is celebrated for its trees, of the live-oak kind, which give at all times a peculiarly cheerful and refreshing character to the place. Recently a small village, then a thriving town, it has now assumed the name, if not all the pretensions of a city, although the inhabitants number only two or three thousand. Of this date, the first election under the city charter took place, when Mr. Horace W. Carpentier was chosen mayor.

APRIL 12th.—A portion of the U. S. Bonded Warehouse, at the corner of Battery and Union streets, fell. This was only one of several accidents of a like nature which happened about this time. Public attention on this occasion was strongly drawn to the generally inferior character of building materials used in San Francisco, and to the supposed frail condition of many of the most elegant and apparently substantial structures in the city. Not only is the greater part of the materials—such as brick, lime and timber, employed in building, of an inferior quality, but the sites on which the houses have been erected are of a shifting and treacherous nature. Nearly all the edifices situated below the line of Montgomery street have been built on what was only a few years ago the bed of the sea. The mud bottom of Yerba Buena Cove, on which dry sand has been loosely heaped, to form the foundations of these edifices, could scarcely be expected to be very secure. Accordingly, by the unequal sinking of the walls, many fine houses have been, or will soon be, totally ruined. The tides are also continually washing out particles of the loose sand, and thus still more danger is threatened to the stability of many buildings. It seems absolutely necessary for the protection of the lower part of the city, that a great sea wall, on the outer front of the harbor, be soon constructed. Until, however, the various schemes which are being continually hatched, for extending the water front are for ever settled, one way or another, and the really permanent water front fixed, nothing can be done regarding a sea wall. If, in addition to such a breastwork against the waves on one side and the rolling sands on the other, the foundations of the larger and more important buildings, to be erected on the “beach and water lots,” were deeply and closely piled, much farther security would be obtained for the structures.

APRIL 15th.—Explosion of the boiler of the steamer Secretary, while midway between San Francisco and Petaluma. Out of between fifty and sixty persons on board at the time of the accident, upwards of one-half were killed, and nearly all the rest were more or less severely wounded.

APRIL 19th.—The Lord Warriston arrived from China with 780 Chinese passengers, 200 of whom were females. About this time, there was a very large immigration of Chinese, and it was understood that many thousand more of these people were only waiting for ships to embark in from the ports of their country for San Francisco. The State and city press discussed at much length the propriety of excluding the race altogether from California, or at all events of only admitting it to labor under certain specified restrictions, particularly reserving the gold mines to the white population. It was admitted on all sides, that the Chinese were naturally an inferior race, both mentally and corporeally, while their personal habits and manner of living were peculiarly repulsive to Americans. It would be out of place in a work of this nature to discuss the general Chinese question, which promises to give much debatable ground for philosophers, statesmen, politicians, and mere laborers in California, for many years to come.

APRIL 20th.—The clipper ship Flying Cloud arrived at San Francisco from New York, having accomplished the voyage in eighty-nine days, eight hours. This is the quickest passage recorded as having been made by a sailing vessel between the ports named. On a former occasion, the Flying Cloud made the same voyage in eighty-nine days, twenty-one hours.

April 22d.—The Golden Fleece was wrecked at Fort Point, on leaving the harbor.

Source: Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. 1855: San Francisco.

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