San Francisco History

Charles Brown


San Francisco in the Past and at the Present.

The Earthquake of 1839.

A Reporter’s Interview with Charles Brown, an Old Resident of the Mission, who has Lived Here since 1829.

Echoes from the past of a great city fall pleasantly any time upon the ears of its people. The rapid and wonderful changes which have within a few years conjured into existence, as if by magic, this vast metropolis of the Golden Gate, have obliterated almost completely the landmarks of the past. Old houses have disappeared, to be replaced by more costly structures. Old streets have lost their identity. New thoroughfares span and encompass large districts which were formerly wild and uninhabited. Immense ranches have been swallowed up by the City. The very geography of the peninsula has been changed. Huge sand-hills have been laid low, and deep valleys have vanished. The bay has been encroached upon by the land, and solid business blocks now occupy the former domain of the waters. Drays rumble where ships lay at anchor. The busy hum of commercial activity is heard where in the long ago no sounds fell. . .[except the] creaking of capstans, and the groaning of cables. Telegraph wires traverse the air where the seagull and albatross flew. The task of enumerating in detail the astonishing changes effected in a few years, would be difficult as well as useless. Solitude has been succeeded by teeming life. The semi-barbarism of early days has given place to the ripe civilization of the present. The San Francisco of yesterday is merged and lost in the San Francisco of to-day. It has passed away, never more to return, and most of its eventful history exists only in the minds of its pioneer settlers. They, too, are one by one


To sojourn in the realm of the dead. One of the oldest residents of the city is Charles Brown. He reached here in 1829, when a boy of fifteen, and has lived here ever since. A native of New York, he left that city in 1827, and has never since seen his parents. The family, however, is a long-lived one, and they are both living at the present time. Mr. Brown came to this coast as a boy on a ship, and, taking a liking to the country, ran away from his vessel and cast his lot among the two or three white men and the Indians who then inhabited the peninsula. His experience has been a remarkable one. Within the comparatively short period of half a century he has seen changes take place about him which, if related by the romancer, would be scouted at as altogether impossible. He left civilization and it followed him. His advent here antedated the invention of the locomotive, the telegraph, and a host of other useful discoveries, which are now too familiar to be noticeable. It was only a few years before his arrival here that the first steamboat cleft the waters of the Hudson, and when he left New York City passengers were conveyed to Brooklyn on a ferry-boat propelled by horses. During Mr. Brown’s residence here nearly every country and city of the world has made rapid strides, but San Francisco has outstripped them all.

With the object of obtaining some of the information relative to the city’s growth which is stored away in the mind of the old gentleman, a CALL reporter visited him at his residence on Dolores street a few days ago. He was courteously received by Mr. Brown, who was at first inclined to be a little reticent; but, as the conversation progressed, he grew interested, and became more communicative. The scene which presented itself to him on his entrance through the Golden Gate was a lonely and dreary one. Bleak sandhills, covered with low brush, furze and scrub oaks, occupied the site where our city now stands.


Of the bay and the neighboring islands looked green and beautiful, and considerably improved the prospect. The peninsula of San Francisco then inhabited by 3,000 or 4,000 Indians, who were under the control of the missionaries. Their existence was an easy and contented one, and they spent their time in fishing, hunting, raising cattle and cultivating the soil. Bears, walrus and deer were numerous, and the hunter found plenty of sport in the region which is now the heart of the city. It was not till many years after the arrival of Mr. Brown on the coast that Yerba Buena, the little settlement which formerly occupied the site of the present city was built, and the only houses on the peninsula were a few rude structures of adobe at the Mission and the Presidio. The period intervening between 1839 and the gold excitement in 1847-’48 and ‘49 was mostly quiet and uneventful. The celebration of the Fourth of July, the arrival of Mr. Luse [Leese], the festivities which followed the completion of his store, and the annexation of California by the United States Government were the only events which relieved the monotony of the settlers’ peaceful existence. The excitement which prevailed in California in consequence of the latter event was scarcely felt in San Francisco. The earthquake, however, which took place in 1839 [current historians and earthquake experts believe the actual year was 1838], was an event which could never be forgotten by any one who had experienced its terrible and awe-inspiring effects. It occurred shortly after mid-day. Mr. Brown was then living in an adobe house, near where Redwood City now stands. He had been cutting wood, and had just entered his house when he was astonished by a sudden and stunning blow on the back of the head. Looking around he saw a vat which was suspended from the ceiling, and which was used to hold lard, swinging about the room in the most eccentric manner. Just as he was puzzling himself to account for this remarkable phenomenon,


And the floor tremble beneath him. Rushing to the door he beheld a spectacle of terrible sublimity. As far as his eye could reach  the earth was rising and falling in solid waves. Looking towards the mountains he perceived a strange commotion.

“The redwoods rocked like to lake-side reeds.”

Thousands of them were broken off and hurled through the air for immense distances. By his side was a Spaniard, who exclaimed that the end of the world had come, and casting himself on the ground prayed to God for deliverance from impending death. Mrs. Brown, at the time of the awful occurrence, was washing clothes at the side of a creek near the house. Before she was aware that the earthquake had commenced, the bed of the stream was uplifted, and its waters poured over her. Adobe houses, with walls seven feet thick, were cracked from top to bottom, and fissures were made in their walls wide enough for a person to walk through. The ground was cracked in all directions, and one immense opening was made which extended from near Lone Mountain to the Mission San Jose. It was ten or twelve feet in width, and its depth was never fathomed by man. Traces of it are said to exist to the present day. Mr. Brown stated to the reporter that, although he had felt many earthquakes since his arrival in California, he had experienced none which approached in violence the one of 1839. He expressed the opinion that it was impossible to make a building so strong as to be earthquake-proof.

In the early days of San Francisco the only vessels which ever visited the place were an occasional whaler or Russian seal-hunting craft. It was not till about the year 1847 that the Chinese began to come, and at first they immigrated in such small numbers that their coming gave rise to no feelings of apprehension. They located, on their arrival, in the very spot


And established on the corner of Kearny and Jackson streets, the first restaurant in San Francisco. The first hotel which was ever built was called the “City Hotel.” It was built of adobe on the west side of Kearny street, and extended from Clay to Commercial streets. It belonged to Mr. Leidesdorff. One of the first theatres ever built in the city was situated on Kearny street, between Washington and Merchant streets, the building which is now known as the old City Hall, and was called the “Jenny Lind.” The first church ever erected here was a small frame building on Mission street, near Third. The gold excitement infused a wonderful amount of activity and life into the town, and each incoming ship and steamer brought its quota of immigrants through the Golden Gate. For a time the building accommodations of the city were insufficient for the motley throng which poured into it. Shanties were hastily constructed and tents were constructed by the hundred. As the rush to the mines continued the condition of affairs in San Francisco became anomalous, and prices ascended with wonderful rapidity. The supply of labor was scarce, and it was difficult to get men to work for $20 and $30 a day. Lumber sold for $200 a thousand feet, and the price of clothing and provisions was almost fabulous. Coin was a commodity almost unknown, and gold dust was the medium of exchange. Those were palmy days for gambling houses and saloons. Thirsty miners passed the yellow sand over the bar by the pound, in exchange for drinks, and gamblers thought nothing of winning or losing a few thousands in an hour. A stroll through the streets was deemed unadvisable without the accompaniments of a brace of revolvers and a bowieknife, and bloody affrays were numerous. An organization of 200 or 800 young roughs termed the “Hounds,” caused considerable trouble for a time. They robbed, murdered and burned with impunity, but the rise of the Vigilantes soon terminated their exploits. The quarter in San Francisco in which Mr. Brown lives is that formerly


Of the city, and he owns the lot where once stood the house of the Sanchez family. The excitement which occurred some three months ago in reference to a treasure buried there, he said was to be attributed to himself. On a visit to San Quentin he met a young Spanish convict who informed him that he had buried $32,000 in the Sanchez lot. He described the exact location of the treasure. In conversation with neighbors, Mr. Brown revealed the secret, and the news soon spread over the entire neighborhood. One night, a short time after, three men were seen working with pick and shovel in the vacant lot. On the succeeding evening their number was increased to six. This ended the digging, and on the next day a card was found near a large excavation which had been made, stating that $32,000 had been unearthed, and praising God for the find. The old gentlemen told the reporter that there were only two or three of the old Spanish families living in that portion of the city. One by one they had departed, he knew not where. He entertains a very high opinion of the Spanish race, and says they are the kindest-hearted and most hospitable people under the sun. He traveled once a distance of 1,200 miles in Mexico, accompanied by two or three men and several mules, but found it impossible to spend more than sixty-eight dollars during the whole journey. He would much prefer, he said, to sleep with his pockets full of coin, among twenty Mexicans, than with one American. Mr. Brown lives in an old-fashioned house, built by himself, which presents a picturesque appearance, with its white walls, green veranda, and tree-shaded garden. Directly opposite his house is a building erected by himself in 1851, and which now bears the appropriate and euphonious name of “The Pioneer Saloon.”

Source: San Francisco Morning Call. 21 December 1879. 1.

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