San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco


Entrance to the Golden Gate.THE mid-entrance to the Bay of San Francisco lies in latitude 37º 48’ N., and longitude 122º 30’ W., from Greenwich. This is a strait, running nearly north-east, called Chrysopaloe, or the GOLDEN GATE, about five miles long, and of an average breadth of one and a half or two miles. The name “Golden Gate” first appears in the “Geographical Memoir of California,” and relative map, published by Col. Fremont in the spring of 1848. The term was descriptive, not of the literal golden regions within, then as yet undiscovered, but merely of the rich and fertile country which surrounded the shores of the bay, and of the wealth which the commerce of the Pacific, passing through the strait, would certainly give to the future great city of the place. The name was probably suggested by the Golden Horn of Constantinople. Since the discovery of the auriferous character of the country, the title has become of a still more happy nature; and its bestower must surely have had a prophetic soul, though he himself knew it not. At the narrowest point of the strait, where it is little more than a mile wide, the Spaniards had erected a small fort for the protection of the neighboring mission. This building is now in course of removal, to be speedily replaced (let us hope) by a larger and stronger fortress for the adequate defence of the bay. The southern point of land, on the side of the ocean, is called in the Spanish language, Punta de los Lobos (Wolves’ Point), and the northern, Punta Bonita (Pretty Point). A few small rocks, at all times quite visible, lie about the entrance, and along the coast of the strait; but the channel otherwise is very deep and free from obstruction. About twenty or thirty miles off the coast, and in a westerly direction from the Golden Gate, lie certain small rocky islands, called the Farralones, once favorite places for hunting seals and sea-otters by the Russians, and upon which that people had a small permanent settlement. Upon these islands the creatures mentioned are still to be found. A bar lies nearly across the mouth of the strait, upon which occasionally there is a heavy swell. Formerly this bar ran right across and within the actual limits of the strait, but during the last thirty years it has gradually shifted two miles farther to seaward, so that it now forms a kind of arch, altogether outside of the entrance, spanning from point to point of the strait. In the same period, a bank has likewise advanced from the south shore. By these natural operations the entrance channel to the bay has been much improved. On this subject it may be stated that all the shores in the mouth of the bay are liable to be washed off every year, by the combined strength of the wind, tides, local currents, and floods. In the great freshets of the spring of 1825 more than fifty yards of land were swept away to the westward of the fort.

The depth of water on the bar at low tide is considerable enough to permit the largest ship of war to safely cross it. The strait itself has a depth varying from five or six to sixteen fathoms and upwards. The shores are bold and rocky, and in some parts precipitous, swelling on the north side into mountains of upwards of two thousand feet in height. The hills on the southern side are more of a sandy nature, and may be only three hundred or four hundred feet high. On both sides they are quite bare and barren. The strong winds and heavy fogs which constantly assail them, and their own sandy or rocky nature, have effectually prevented trees or luxuriant vegetation of any kind from growing. On the very summit, however, of the mountains on the northern side of the strait, there happens to be a solitary group of red-wood trees, whose tall forms make a striking landmark to the mariner at sea. As he approaches the strait from the south, the voyager has seldom perhaps seen so dismal a looking place. A multitude of low, bleak sand hills on the sea shore, often swept over by flying clouds of dense mist, first greet his eyes. On passing gradually through the Golden Gate, however, the interior coasts begin sensibly to improve upon him. The hills assume a more even character, which, as well as the beautiful islands that stud the bay, are at certain seasons of the year covered with vegetation, presenting a truly pleasing appearance.

The tidal stream rushes through the gate in mid-channel generally about six knots an hour. Along the projecting portions of the strait there are numerous eddies. By taking advantage of this great tidal speed, and of particular winds, which can almost daily be depended upon, blowing either in or out of the channel at certain periods of the day, ships may always safely enter or depart from the bay at all times of the year. An occasional wreck, where ships may have been driven by the strength of the tide or local currents upon the rocky shores, has indeed taken place; but this has generally been traceable to the ignorance or carelessness of the pilot. Hitherto that class of men, as might have been anticipated, have not been all picked individuals; and some of them may not have had sufficient time to study the peculiarities of the channel. It may, however, be confidently asserted, that there are very few harbors in the world where the entrance and departure are so easy and safe as those of the one of San Francisco. To talk of it in the same breath with such difficult and dangerous ocean ports as those of Liverpool and New York, or the river ones of London and New Orleans, is simply ridiculous.

After passing the strait, the great Bay of San Francisco suddenly opens up. This bay lies almost at right angles to the entrance just described; and extends from north to south nearly seventy miles, with an average breadth of about ten or twelve. The southern division, comprehending about two-thirds of the entire length, chiefly lies south of the entrance, and is more properly styled the Bay of San Francisco; although the whole body of inland waters, when spoken of in a general sense, is commonly understood by that phrase. The northern division, which is in some degree topographically separated from the other by narrows and several small islands about the eastern end of the strait, is known by the name of the Bay of San Pablo. At the eastern extremity of the last named bay, the waters contract into the Strait of Carquinez. Still more to the east, they again widen into Suisun Bay, into which, through various channels, called the Slough, a sort of delta much overrun with large trees and jungle, the mingled streams of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, enter and lose themselves. From the ocean to the north-east corner of Suisun Bay, following the line of mid-channel, there may be a distance of between fifty and sixty miles. The largest ships may sail as far as the city of Benicia, originally called Francisca, situated on the north side of the Strait of Carquinez, where the channel is little more than a mile wide, and at which place are a government dock-yard and naval stores. Above that point, the water is at parts scarcely deep enough to allow vessels of great burden to proceed, while the channels of the Sacramento, through the delta, or slough, are intricate, and encumbered with shifting shoals and sand-banks.

The Golden Gate.Around the northern shores of the Bays of San Pablo and Suisun lies a very fertile and beautiful country, watered by streams, severally called the Suisun River, Napa, Sonoma, and Petaluma Creeks. The valleys of these rivers will in a few years be the residence of a great number of agricultural settlers, while already numerous small towns are beginning to be established among them. But the Sacramento and its greater tributaries, the Puta Creek, and the American, Feather and Butte Rivers, and the San Joaquin, with its leading feeders, the Mokelumne, Calaveras, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne Rivers, are the great highways of communication between the interior country and the ocean; and in the extensive, beautiful, and most fertile districts drained by them will be located hereafter the abodes of many millions of human beings. In the valley of the Sacramento and its offshoots are situated the great city of that name, and the thriving towns of Marysville and Nevada. In the valley of the San Joaquin, or in the connecting valley, are the considerable and growing towns of Stockton and Sonora. Besides these places, there are numerous other towns beginning to be established in this great district.

City of Stockton.South of San Pablo and Suisun Bays, and east of the Bay of San Francisco proper, lies the district of country called Contra Costa. This quarter is very mountainous, some of the summits being upwards of three thousand feet high. One of them, Monte Diablo, is three thousand seven hundred and seventy feet in height. On the west, however, between the mountains and the Bay of San Francisco, is a considerable tract of level land which, like nearly all of a similar description in the country, is exceedingly rich and productive.

On the opposite side of the bay, and between it and the ocean, lies the long peninsula called the District of San Francisco. This strip of land is upwards of thirty miles long, with an average breadth of perhaps twelve or sixteen. The side immediately next the ocean is cold and barren. In the interior, and towards the bay, it possesses a mild climate, and is of great fertility. The surface is irregular and hilly; but the many small glens are green to the top, covered with luxuriant herbage, on which feed many thousands of sheep and cattle. The northern portion of this district is generally bare of trees and the larger shrubs; but much heavy timber grows in the middle and southern parts. At the southern extremity of the bay lies an extensive tract of land, which may be considered the choicest portion of all the country we have been describing. Here, near the mouth of the valley, watered by the River Guadalupe, are situated the towns of San José and Santa Clara. The beauty and salubrity of this district, its mild and agreeable climate, and exceeding productiveness, make it especially the granary, orchard and garden of the City of San Francisco and surrounding parts.

We may observe here, that there is a tradition among the Indians of California, that San Francisco Bay originally formed a fresh water lake. An earthquake, however, suddenly opened the line of mountains along the coast, when the sea rushed in, and changed the region to what it now is. The surplus fresh waters of the old lake were supposed to have been discharged into the Bay of Monterey, by a great river flowing through the valley of San José and Santa Clara. This river was believed to pass near the Mission of San Juan, and to fall into the present stream of the Pajaro.

In the fertile districts of country all around the shores of the bay the average productiveness of the soil is exceedingly great, far beyond the usual return from tillage lands in most other countries of the temperate zone, and rivalling, in fact, those of the torrid zone itself. A common yield from sown wheat is from seventy to eighty fold, though it is said to run often as high as one hundred and upwards. A moderate average may be taken at fifty fold. Maize occasionally gives a return of one hundred and fifty fold; while if it produces less than one hundred, it is scarcely considered worthy of notice. It may be remarked that the seed in general is much less thickly sown than in most other countries; and, naturally, therefore, having space to spread and fructify, there is a greater corresponding increase. Potatoes have been found of the enormous weight of seven and eight pounds, while those of two and three pounds are quite common. The usual yield of potatoes is from two to three hundred sacks an acre. And such potatoes! In no part of the world are there larger, finer, firmer and healthier roots grown. Newly-come immigrants and casual visitors are invariably full of raptures at the sight of such magnificent earth apples. The cabbages, again, are absolute monsters in size, often from fifteen to twenty inches in diameter; and as good in quality as enormous in bulk. Carrots often grow nearly a yard in length, and are of corresponding girth. Turnips, beets, radishes, onions, and indeed every kind of edible root and table vegetable grows equally large, and of the best and most wholesome description. California is indeed celebrated for its garden and field productions. The berries and fruits of the vineyard and orchard show a corresponding increase, and are of the most excellent kind. Long ago it had been imagined by hasty travellers and writers, that California had only an arid, sterile soil, never adapted to the successful pursuit of agriculture. On the contrary, the country is exceedingly well watered, the soil is naturally rich, and the diffused warmth and geniality of the climate is such as to force to safe maturity an abundant harvest of all kinds. Of course, manure in the present stage of California, is out of the question. The teeming fields will not require it for a generation or two, if ever. The present practice is simply to break fresh ground every year; and until the agricultural settlers become much more numerous, there will be abundance of land for such a mode of farming. There is no need of farm buildings to house and stock the grain for shelter. The climate is so dry in the harvest season that the crops are never spoiled by wet; but the ears are just threshed out on the fields where they grow. Farming operations formerly were of a very rude nature, as they still generally are, though the soil shows so large a return. When an improved method of husbandry is adopted, the yield will be correspondingly great. A slight wooden shed, open upon one side to the weather, and merely covered with canvas or scantling, affords quite a sufficient shelter, summer and winter, to milch cows and the most delicate trained horses.

From the previous description of the districts surrounding the inland waters known by the general name of the Bay of San Francisco, it will be noticed that their respective productions, seen to be so great, can best be interchanged across that bay; and that their only communication with the ocean is through the Golden Gate. Conveniently placed as nearly as possible to this gate lies the city of San Francisco, in latitude 37º 48’ N. and longitude 122º 25’ W. from Greenwich. It is situated on the north-east corner of the peninsula already mentioned, about a mile south of the eastern end of the general entrance to the bay, and is distant about six miles from the ocean. The situation happens to be about the most barren part of the district; and the immediate vicinity consists chiefly of low sand-hills, covered with coarse shrubs and scattered patches of grass. The name of the Spanish village which originally stood on a portion of the site of the present city was Yerba Buena—good herb. In some maps of the country it was designated as San Francisco; but locally it was only known by the name we have mentioned. Yerba Buena signifies also the herb mint, great quantities of which grew about the spot, and from that circumstance no doubt the name of the place is derived.

An island, lying in the bay about two miles east of the city likewise bears the name of Yerba Buena, where the herb mentioned grows abundantly. Probably this island first bore the name which later was given to the cove lying between it and the main land; and subsequently it was extended to the plain and village surrounding the beach. But the name mentioned was descriptive both of the island and the shore itself, since on both grew the yerba buena. This herb grows through the underwood in form of a vine, some feet long. The leaves are six inches apart, each directly opposite another. It is very fragrant, and is used to make a tea or alterative medicinal drink, though its frequent use is said to debilitate the system. The name of so insignificant an herb for the rising city being perhaps judged not sufficiently imposing, it was changed into SAN FRANCISCO in January, 1847, by an ordinance of the then alcalde of the place, and under this last designation it has been alone known to the world at large.

Island and Cove of Yerba Buena.The village of Yerba Buena was situated in the small cove of that name, which extended little more than half a mile between Clark’s Point (so named by Captain J. F. Hutton, in 1849), on the north-west, and the Rincon, or Rincon Point, on the southeast. The first tenement was constructed in the year 1835, by Captain W. A. Richardson, and up to the year 1846, there might not be more than twenty or thirty houses of all descriptions in the place. The only practicable landing spot for small boats at low tide was at Clark’s Point, where there were a few rocks. In the inside of the cove where the water was shallow, there was an extensive flat of mud, laid bare at low water. The rise and fall of ordinary tides was about eight feet. About a quarter of a mile from the beach, the water deepened to five and six fathoms, and continued of the same or of little greater depth the whole distance to the Island of Yerba Buena opposite. This space now forms the present harbor and centre of the anchorage ground of San Francisco. As Yerba Buena began to increase in size and importance, the beach and water lots were seen to be of the utmost value; and measures accordingly were taken, in 1847, and following years, to extend the village, or town as it might now be called, over a great portion of the cove. About the same time the present character of the place began to be formed, which subsequent years developed into the existing grand plan of the City of San Francisco.

Rising up from Clark’s Point, and between Yerba Buena Cove and the cove farther to the north-west, now called the North Beach, is the high ground named the Telegraph Hill. West and south of this hill, in a semicircular direction, lie other connecting high grounds, bearing the names of Russian Hill, Fern Hill, &c. These hills are about three hundred feet high. From the Rincon likewise rises a high ground of about from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet in height, which runs a short distance in a westerly direction towards the Mission Dolores. Beyond and south of the ridge alluded to lies Mission Bay, and the low ground bordering Mission Creek. The distance between Telegraph Hill and the last mentioned ridge, may be about three quarters of a mile; while that between the semicircular line of hills on the west and the advanced line of streets built much within the limit of ebb tide in Yerba Buena Cove, may be nearly the same.

Upon this limited space stands the most valuable and business portion of San Francisco, and its most substantial and magnificent buildings. However, over all the hills, and much of the country on every side beyond them, the ground has been regularly laid out into building lots, lying upon long straight streets, crossing each other at right angles; and many excellent houses, together with a scattered multitude of an inferior description, have been erected on them. Indeed the nominal limits of the city and the building stances, as actually surveyed and mapped out, at this time, extend from the west side of North Beach to the south side of Mission Creek, a distance of nearly four miles, in a straight line; and from Rincon Point to the Mission Church, a distance, likewise, in a direct line, of upwards of three miles. Over all this space, some eight or nine square miles, on height and in hollow, and upon every degree of elevated site, are spread a variety of detached buildings, built partly of stone and brick, though principally of wood. But, as we have already stated, the heart and strength and wealth of the city is contained within the little level space lying between the hills or rising grounds particularly mentioned, and the narrow waters of Yerba Buena Cove. These waters are yearly continuing to be encroached upon as the cove gets filled up with sand and rubbish, excavated from the sand-hills and the foundations of the limits behind, and as new streets and houses, formed on piles, are pushed further out into the bay. By these operations the old character of the cove has been completely changed, and at present, instead of the former semicircle of beach there is almost a straight line of building extending across the middle of the cove from the Rincon to Clark’s Point. In many places of what is now the very centre of the business portion of the city lie large vessels, which in the disastrous years of shipping, 1848 and 1849, got stranded or were used as store-ships or lodging-houses on the beach. When the extension of the city towards the waters of the cove took place, these ships remained where they lay, fast imbedded in mud, while long streets, hollow beneath, and numerous solid houses arose on every side, effectually to hem them in for ever.

The deepening water will prevent the city from moving much farther into the bay, while the steep rising grounds in the rear will equally prevent it from climbing and spreading over the sandy, irregular country beyond them. The city will probably therefore be forced to proceed northward towards the North Beach, where there is already a long pier formed, but where there is remaining but limited building room at best. It will also spread, as it is beginning to do, over the extensive and comparatively level tract of ground lying to the south-west, on the banks of Mission Creek, and in the direction of the Mission Dolores. Perhaps not many years hence the whole shores at North Beach and South Beach (Mission Bay), and the bay itself to a considerable distance from the present high-water mark, will be covered with streets and houses, quays and long piercing piers, just as now is the cove of Yerba Buena. The existing surveys and plans of the city, anticipating futurity, already exhibit these places, both on land and sea, divided and fairly mapped out into streets and wharves.

Over all these square miles of contemplated thoroughfares, there seems no provision made by the projectors for a public park—the true “lungs” of a large city. The existing plaza, or Portsmouth Square, and other two or three diminutive squares, delineated on the plan, seem the only breathing-holes intended for the future population of hundreds of thousands. This is a strange mistake, and can only be attributed to the jealous avarice of the city projectors in turning every square vara of the site to an available building lot. Indeed the eye is wearied, and the imagination quite stupefied, in looking over the numberless square—all square—building blocks, and mathematically straight lines of streets, miles long, and every one crossing a host of others at right angles, stretching over sandy hill, chasm and plain, without the least regard to the natural inequalities of the ground. Not only is there no public park or garden, but there is not even a circus, oval, open terrace, broad avenue, or any ornamental line of street or building, or verdant space of any kind, other than the three or four small squares alluded to; and which every resident knows are by no means verdant, except in patches where stagnant water collects and ditch weeds grow.

While the position of San Francisco on the shores of the bay was undoubtedly the best that could have been selected for maritime purposes, there certainly have been sad drawbacks to the extension of the place on the land side. The want of sufficient level space on which to found so great and growing a city, has been partially rectified, at an enormous expense, by taking building ground from the waters, and by lowering, and in many cases absolutely removing bodily the multitude of sand hills, by which the place is immediately surrounded. What with digging out and filling up, piling, capping and planking, grading and regrading the streets, and shifting, and rebuilding, and again rebuilding the houses, to suit the altered levels, millions upon millions of dollars have been spent. This has not been recklessly or foolishiy done, and the present magnificence and business capabilities of the city are the consequence; while future years will still more exhibit the grand result of all the money that has been sunk in municipal improvements. It would be out of place to say more of the present appearance of the city at this portion of the work; but a more particular account of it will be given towards the conclusion of “Part Second.”

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

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