San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco



MARCH 9th.—An “indignation” meeting, at which there were several thousand persons present, was held to-day on the plaza, to consider the conduct of Judge Levi Parsons, of the District Court, towards Mr. William Walker, one of the editors of the Daily Herald. It appears that for some time before this date the general public press had been endeavoring to rouse the community to a full knowledge of the increasing and alarming state of crime, and, in doing so, had taken repeated occasion to criticise severely the “masterly inactivity” of the judicature in trying and punishing criminals. This appears to have displeased Judge Parsons, and he thereupon, in an address to the grand jury, chose to style the press a “nuisance,” and insinuated that the jury might offer some presentment on the subject. The grand jury, however, did not gratify his wishes. His honor’s observations became a new text for the now offended press; and, among other unpleasant things, they began to take grave exceptions to his knowledge and application of the law as regarded grand and petit juries. The Herald, in an article headed “The Press a Nuisance,” was especially severe in its strictures. A few members of the bar next began to make some feeble movement to soothe their brother on the bench; but their affected indignation only provoked laughter and made matters worse. Judge Parsons thereupon—some days after the obnoxious article had been published, issued an order from his own court to bring before him Mr. Walker, the acknowledged or reputed author of the article in question. Mr. Walker accordingly appeared, and was duly convicted by his honor,—who was plaintiff, judge and jury in the case,—of contempt of court, fined five hundred dollars, and ordered to be kept in safe custody until the amount was paid. The offender having declined to pay the fine, refusing to recognize his honor’s jurisdiction in and summary settlement of the matter, was forthwith imprisoned for an indefinite time.

These circumstances being extensively made known, produced great excitement in the city. One and all of the press were down—to use an expressive vulgarism—upon his honor; and as the people considered that the cause of the press was substantially their own, they resolved to make a “demonstration” on the subject. An “indignation” meeting accordingly was held, as above mentioned, at which resolutions were passed approving of Walker’s conduct, and requesting Parsons to resign his judicial situation as no longer fit to hold it. A committee was then formed to transmit these resolutions to the latter. At the same time, the senators and representatives of the district were requested to propose articles of impeachment against the offending judge. The meeting next in a body,—some four thousand strong,—paid a personal visit of condolence and sympathy to Mr. Walker in prison.

Meanwhile, the matter was carried by a writ of habeas corpus into the Superior Court, by which Mr. Walker was discharged. It was held that Judge Parsons had abused his position, and that while the ordinary tribunals were open to him, if he considered that Mr. Walker had committed a libel, he had no right to cite and punish summarily that gentleman for any alleged contempt, that might be inferred from the published statements and remarks in a newspaper. The contrary doctrine would be destructive of the freedom of the press, and was opposed to the universally recognized principles of the constitution. This judgment was considered a great popular triumph. In the mean time, the question was farther discussed before the Legislature; and, on the 26th instant, a committee of the Assembly, upon the memorial of Walker, “convinced that Judge Parsons had been guilty of gross tyranny and oppression in the imprisonment of the memorialist,” recommended the impeachment of the former. The majority of a select committee, however, afterwards appointed to inquire into the charges against Parsons, having reported that these, “and the testimony given in support of them, do not show sufficient grounds for impeachment,” the matter was dropped.

At the period of which we write, the tribunals of justice were considered altogether insufficient for those dangerous times, and many of the individuals connected with them as both incapable and corrupt. The public looked chiefly to the press for advice and information as to their rights and duties, and had resolved that it should not be gagged and put down “by illegal orders, attachments, fines and imprisonments for imaginary contempts against courts which cannot be reduced much lower than they have reduced themselves.” So said the resolutions of the “indignation” meeting of the 9th instant; and this language was generally applauded.

MARCH 26th.—An act passed by the Legislature, ceding, for the period of ninety-nine years, all the right and interest which the State of California had in those parts of the city called the Beach and Water Lots, provided that twenty-five per cent. of all moneys thereafter arising in any way from the sale, or other disposition of the said property, should be paid over by the city to the State. The same act confirmed, also for ninety-nine years, all sales that had previously been made, in virtue of General Kearny’s grant to the city, by the ayuntamiento, or town or city council, or by any alcalde of the city, the last having been confirmed by the said ayuntamiento, or town or city council, and the deeds of these sales having been duly registered in the proper books of records. This was a very important act, and tended, in some great degree, to ease the minds of legal possessors of city property. Owing to certain late conflicting decisions of different judges, in regard to real estate, considerable doubt had been cast upon the titles to almost every lot of vacant ground within the municipal bounds, and squatters had been thereby mightily encouraged to invade and secure for themselves the first and best unoccupied land they saw. This led to much confusion and even bloodshed among the contending claimants, and retarded for a considerable time the permanent improvement of the city. The “Colton grants,” of recent notoriety, likewise increased the general uncertainty in regard to titles. The abovementioned act of the Legislature was therefore considered a great benefit, coming when it did, in regard to at least the “Beach and Water Lots,” about the titles to which there could be no dispute.

An act was passed by the Legislature on the 1st of May following, by which the right of the State to these lots was for ever relinquished to the city, provided only that the latter should confirm the grants of all lots within certain specified limits originally made by justices of the peace. As this provision was intended to sanction some of the obnoxious “Colton grants,” the common council did not consider it for the interest of the city to accept the State’s relinquishment upon such terms, and accordingly the last-mentioned act became inoperative. The boards of aldermen, however, who happened, it might be said, to be somewhat accidentally in office during 1852, attempted to force the provisions of this most obnoxious act upon the citizens, but were successfully opposed by the veto of Mayor Harris and the general cry of public indignation. The act itself was, on the 12th of March, 1852, repealed by the Legislature, just in time to prevent some of the usual jobbery.

APRIL 15th.—Act passed by the Legislature to re-incorporate San Francisco. The limits were enlarged, and the city was thereafter to be bounded as follows:—“On the south, by a line parallel with Clay street, two and a half miles distant, in a southerly direction, from the centre of Portsmouth Square; on the west, by a line parallel with Kearny street, two miles distant, in a westerly direction, from the centre of Portsmouth Square. Its northern and eastern boundaries shall be co-incident with those of the county of San Francisco.” As a copy of this act, which is the existing charter of the city, is given in the Appendix, it is unnecessary here to particularize its provisions. Nearly the same variety and number of municipal officers are appointed to be chosen annually under it as under the charter, already noticed, of 1850, and which latter act was declared to be now repealed.

APRIL 28th.—The first election of municipal officers under the amended city charter took place to-day. Considerable excitement had been manifested by the candidates and their friends, and several torch-light meetings and processions, with other popular demonstrations, had been going on for some time previous. The total number of votes polled was nearly six thousand. The parties elected were as follows:—

Mayor.—Charles J. Brenham.
Recorder.—R. H. Waller.
Comptroller.—George A. Hudson.
Treasurer.—R. H. Sinton.
Marshall.—Robert G. Crozier.
Tax Collector.—Thos. D. Greene.
City Attorney.—Frank M. Pixley.
Street Commissioner.—Wm. Divier.
Recorder’s Clerk.—Jas. G. Pearson.
County Judge.—Wm. H. Clark.
Public Adminstrator.—David T. Bagley.
City Assessors.—W. C. Norris, George Frank Lemon.

E. L. Morgan,
C. L. Ross,
A. C. Labatt,
C. M. K. Paulison,
Ralph Dorr,
James Grant,
George Endicott,
William Greene.

Assistant Aldermen.
Henry A. Meiggs,
W. W. Parker,
T. H. Selby,
W. D. Connell,
Jos. Galloway,
J. F. Atwill,
Jas. Graves,
Q. S. Sparks.

APRIL 29th.—Act passed by the Legislature to fund the debt of the State. Bonds to the extent of $700,000 to be issued by the treasurer, in lieu of scrip or other obligations of indebtedness held by parties against the State. One-half of the sum mentioned is declared payable in New York upon the first day of March, 1855, and the other half, also in the city named, upon the first day of March, 1861. Interest (payable either in New York or at the office of the treasurer) to run upon the bonds at the rate of seven per cent. per annum. Henceforward all State taxes to be paid only in the legal currency of the United States, or in gold dust at the rate of sixteen dollars an ounce, excepting as mentioned in the act. Various declarations are also made for providing the interest, and as to the formation of a sinking fund to redeem the bonds, for payment of the principal and interest of which are pledged “the faith and credit of the State of California.”

APRIL 30th.—Act passed by the Legislature establishing a State Marine Hospital at San Francisco; and, on 1st May, another act passed to provide a revenue for the same. As both of these acts were amended in the succeeding session, they will be noticed among the events of 1852.

MAY 1st.—Act passed by the Legislature, “to authorize the funding of the floating debt of the city of San Francisco, and to provide for the payment of the same.” Peculiar circumstances, such as the necessity of grading and improving the public streets, building certain wharves, the purchase of expensive premises for corporate purposes, the monstrous salaries claimed by the boards of aldermen and other municipal authorities, the heavy outlay attending the hospital, fire and police departments, contingent expenses to a very large amount, printing, (—$41,905 20 for only nineteen months!—) surveying and numberless other charges, had involved the city in an enormous gross amount of indebtedness. By the Comptroller’s Report, the total expenditure of the city from the 1st August, 1849, to the 30th November, 1850, was $1,450,122 57; and in the three following months a farther expenditure was created of $562,617 53. In the space of nineteen months, therefore, the total expenditure was upwards of two millions of dollars. But as neither the property of the city, which had already been sold to a great extent, nor its ordinary revenues, were adequate to defray this immense sum, the municipal authorities had been for a considerable period obliged to issue scrip, in immediate satisfaction or acknowledgment of the corporation debts. This scrip, as the city got farther involved and could only make payment of its new obligations in the same kind of paper, soon became much depreciated, and was literally in common sale at from fifty to seventy per cent. discount. Meanwhile, nobody would do any business for the city on the same terms as they would for other parties, so long as they were to be paid in this depreciated scrip. The natural consequence was that the municipal officers had just virtually to pay, or rather give their promise to pay, twice or thrice the amounts they would have needed to lay out, if the city had been solvent, with cash in hand to meet all obligations. This circumstance therefore still farther added to the enormous weight of debt.

Truly the city seems to have been long considered fair game for every one who had spirit, skill, and corruption enough to prey upon its means. The officials complained that their salaries were paid in depreciated scrip. That was true, and hard enough upon many; but, on the other hand, certain leading office-holders made a fine thing of this same depreciation. They contrived to purchase vast quantities of corporation paper at one-third of its nominal value, which they turned over, in their several departments, to the city at par. In various ways they trafficked in this scrip, and always to their own great advantage. The tax-collector, for instance, refused to receive scrip in payment of license duties and other city taxes, on one ground or other, that it was not yet due, and the like, while instead of paying into the city treasurer the cash which was actually received, he only handed over his own comparatively worthless paper, purchased with the city’s cash for that express purpose. The comptroller and treasurer were likewise parties concerned in this species of speculation. Considerable fortunes were thus gained by sundry officials, who could “finesse,” and make money in any state of the corporation exchequer. Doubtless they quietly and gaily said to themselves, as the public thought, that “it was an ill-wind that blew nobody good.” In those days—so recent, yet in the history of San Francisco so virtually remote—jobbing and peculation were rank, and seemed the rule in the city government. Public honesty and conscientious attention to the interests of the community were solitary exceptions. To such an extent did nefarious speculations in city paper prevail among people high in office, that the Legislature was at last compelled to interfere, and declare it a penal offence for any municipal officer to buy scrip or to traffic in it in any manner of way.

Meanwhile the scrip was bearing interest at the rate of three per cent. per month! On the 1st day of March, 1851, the total liabilities of the city were $1,099,557 56. At this time, the whole corporation property, if forced to a public sale, would not have brought one-third of that amount; while, if interest were to continue to run on the debt at the heavy rate just mentioned, the ordinary revenues would have fallen lamentably short of meeting it, after defraying the current expenses. In these circumstances, the act above mentioned was passed by the Legislature.

By this act certain commissioners were appointed to manage the proposed “funded debt,” who were empowered to issue stock, bearing interest at the rate of ten per cent. per annum, payable half-yearly, in lieu of scrip to a similar amount, which might be presented by holders of the same within a specified time. This funded debt was to be redeemed wholly within twenty years, and particular obligations were laid on the city that the sums necessary to be raised to pay the half-yearly interest, and ultimately the principal, should be solely applied to these purposes. Fifty thousand dollars, over and above the amount required to pay the interest on the stock, were to be levied annually, which sum was to be made use of by the commissioners, under certain restrictions, in buying up, and so gradually reducing the amount of the city liabilities. As the stock thus created was considered to be an undoubted security for the amounts it represented, which the old scrip was not, and as the former soon bore a higher market value than such scrip, the holders of the latter generally took occasion to convert their floating into the funded debt. The small amount of scrip never presented for conversion into stock within the specified time, and which was chiefly held by parties at a distance, was subsequently paid in full by the city. In 1852, a great financial operation of a similar nature took place, by which the then floating debt of the county of San Francisco was converted into a seven per cent. stock. This will be more particularly noticed in its chronological order.

Fire of May 4th, 1851.MAY 4th—The anniversary of the second great fire was signalized by the fifth, the ravages of which perhaps exceeded, in gross amount, those of all the fires together that had previously taken place in the city. For eight months the inhabitants had enjoyed comparative immunity from conflagration. Although single houses had caught fire, and been consumed, it was not believed that such a dreadful calamity could come as that which now happened. A considerable number of buildings, which were supposed fire-proog had been erected in the course of the preceding year, the solid walls of which, it was thought, would afford protection from the indefinite spreading of the flames, when fire should unhappily break out in any particular building. But all calculations and hopes on this subject were mocked and broken. The brick walls that had been so confidently relied upon crumbled in pieces before the furious flames; the thick iron shutters grew red hot and warped, and only increased the danger and insured final destruction to every thing within them. Men went for shelter into these fancied fire-proof brick and iron-bound structures, and when they sought to come forth again, to escape the heated air that was destroying them as by a close fire, they found, O horror! that the metal shutters and doors had expanded by the heat, and could not be opened! So, in these huge, sealed furnaces, several perished miserably. Many more persons lost their lives in other portions of the burned district, partly by the flames, and partly by the tottering walls falling on and crushing them.

San Francisco after the fire of May 4th, 1851.The fire began a few minutes past eleven o’clock on the night of Saturday, the 3d of May, in a paint, or upholstery store, on the south side of the plaza. As particular care seems to have been observed in this establishment to extinguish all lights and fires, the sad work was likely commenced by an incendiary. The wind blowing strongly from the north-west, the conflagration proceeded in the direction of Kearny street, and soon swept before it all of the houses on some entire blocks. Then the breeze suddenly shifted, and blew from the south, carrying the fire backwards to the north and east. In a few hours the whole business part of the city was one entire mass of flame! The wind that would have been considered high, though no fire had existed, was now raised to a hurricane by the action of the flames, that greedily sucked in the fresh air. The hollows beneath the planked streets were like great blow-pipes, that stirred the fire to fearful activity. Through such strange channels, too, which themselves became as dry and inflammable as tinder, the flames were communicated from street to street, and in an amazingly short time the whole surface, over a wide region, glowed, crackled, and blazed, one immense fiery field. The reflection from the sky of this terrific conflagration was said to have been visible at Monterey, nearly a hundred miles off! where it filled the superstitious and timid with dismay and irrepressible terror. On all sides in the doomed city there was heard the fierce roar, as of many storms, that drowned the shouts of men and the shrieks of women. The firemen plied their engines vigorously, and sent showers of water on the wild flames, that only served to increase their fury. As the solid stream of some lofty cataract is scattered into spray and thin mist long before it reaches the earth in the chasm beneath, so were the jets from the fire-engines dissipated into clouds of mere steam which never fell upon or could not extinguish the hot centre of the resistless element. Houses were blown up, but the fire leaped lightly across the gaps, and pursued its terrible course. It ran along the planked streets, and from block to block, almost as if they were but a train of gunpowder. The short space of ten hours, from the commencement of the fire, saw from fifteen hundred to two thousand houses completely ruined. In the end, the absolute want of further fuel to consume was the chief cause of the conflagration ceasing. Eighteen entire squares, with portions of five or six others, were devastated, and, with fewer, than twenty exceptions, all the houses and property of every description were totally destroyed. Only five of the brick buildings on Montgomery street escaped destruction, and ten or twelve in other localities. The burned district extended about three-fourths of a mile from north to south, and one-third of a mile from east to west. In this space was comprehended the most valuable part of the city, and where the most precious goods and merchandise were stored. All was destroyed! The damage was moderately estimated at from ten to twelve millions of dollars.

In this conflagration some of the old store-ships that had been hauled high upon the beach, and gradually closed in by the streets growing over the bay, were consumed. Of these was the old “Niantic.” This vessel had long lain fixed at the corner of Clay and Sansome streets, where the hotel, which bears its name, was afterwards erected. The “Apollo” and “General Harrison” were also burned. Among the incidents of the fire, it may be mentioned that Dewitt & Harrison saved their warehouse by using vinegar in the absence of water, eighty thousand gallons of the former fluid having been employed by them in protecting the building. By breaking up the wharves, and so cutting off the connection with the burning masses, the immense amount of valuable shipping in the harbor was saved, which at one time was in the most imminent peril.

San Francisco had never before suffered so severe a blow, and doubts were entertained by the ignorant that she could possibly recover from its effects. Such doubts were vain. The bay was still there, and the people were also there; the placers of the State were not yet exhausted, and its soil was as fertile and inviting as ever. The frightful calamity, no doubt, would retard the triumphant progress of the city—but only for a time. Sour, pseudo-religious folk on the shores of the Atlantic, might mutter of Sodom and Gomorrah, and prate the idlest nonsense, while envious speculators in cities of California itself, that would fain rival the glories of its grand port, might preach till doomsday of the continual strong winds that prevailed in the latter place, and which were certain, so they said, among thousands of wooden houses, to fan the veriest spark into a conflagration, again and again. The citizens of San Francisco were content only to curse and vow vengeance on the incendiaries that kindled the fire, and resolved to be better prepared in future to resist its spreading ravages. After the first short burst of sorrow, the ruined inhabitants, many of whom had been burned out time after time by the successive fires, began again, like the often persecuted spider with its new web, to create still another town and another fortune. While the city lay one vast black and still smoking tract, preparations were made to erect new buildings. These were generally at first formed of wood, low in height, limited in extent, and slightly constructed; but, before long, such rough, slim, temporary structures, began to give place to the present magnificent buildings that decorate our streets. But one other great fire was to come.

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

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