San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco



SEPTEMBER.—For some time back a large number of vessels had left San Francisco with adventurers to the Australian gold mines, while now other vessels were bringing many of the same parties back again. A short notice on this subject may not be out of place.

Gold is perhaps the most extensively diffused metal in the world, although it is commonly found in very small particles. Every land is historically known to have had its auriferous district. California, however, stood alone in this respect, so far as it yielded large quantities of the precious metal, procured with less labor than any other country. Its gold possessions had already drawn upon it a vast population, who came hither hastily to collect the sparkling treasure, and then leave. The miners generally never contemplated a permanent residence in the country. When they had raised their “pile,” they hurried home—to the wives and families or the friends they had left in the Atlantic States or in Europe. So long as they remained in California, they were not closely attached to any one gold-bearing district, however rich it might be. More often, they were incessantly moving about and prospecting, hoping and looking for new and richer claims. When a particularly valuable district happened to be discovered, then a “rush” to it took place from all the neighboring regions, and even from places hundreds of miles distant. This restlessness has always been a peculiar feature in the character of the miner, who is naturally speculative. He works hard—harder than an Irish laborer or an English “navvie,” for perhaps one month—then he grows weary and discontented with his trifling gains, and wanders about for as long a period prospecting, poking into every odd crevice in likely rocks, sinking pits here and there, and trying the sandy bed of every stream he may see in his rambles, wistfully hoping, though seldom finding, some rich secret deposit that will repay his previous fruitless labor. When his means of living without immediately profitable and earnest work are nearly exhausted, he gets tired of this new occupation, and a supposed good claim may perhaps also be found. Then the digger sets vigorously to work once more, for another month or two, until new ennui and restlessness force him to go on the tramp again, and look about for the fanciful great gains that can alone satisfy his hopes. He chases the rainbow to find its base. The gold miner, like man in the abstract, “never is, but always to be blest.” His business is closely allied to gambling, with its rare chances of suddenly making a great fortune, or of losing time and labor, which make his capital.

Scene in the gold mines.While the miner grew thus restless, and was attracted to new placers upon the least rumor of their fancied superiority, and when idle tales arose and were circulated by the weak, indolent or unlucky, that all the best fields had already been gleaned of their rich harvest, he was naturally prepared to go farther, and to seek in other lands the wealth which he had happened somehow to miss in California. It mattered little in what place or country he made his “pile,” so that it was found. The discovery of gold in Australia, nearly a year and a half ago, had produced in that country, and subsequently over a great part of the world, a repetition of the troublous scenes which had occurred immediately after the discovery of gold in California. When, therefore, intelligence of the great quantities of the precious metal which were being found in Australia reached San Francisco, and subsequently the mining regions of California, great excitement was produced over all the country. Successive reports confirmed the first astonishing yields. Rich as the Californian placers had been esteemed, the Australian diggings appeared much to exceed them in that respect. A good story by travelling loses nothing of the marvellous. The first wonderful tidings of the Sydney diggings—including the notable hundred-weight of pure gold, were almost forgotten, when later intelligence came of the newer gold fields of Victoria—of the famous Mount Alexander region, and its districts; Forest Creek, Friar’s Creek and the rest, and also of the renowned Ballarat and Bendigo. Large numbers of the migratory and discontented miners in California now hurried to San Francisco, to depart for the newer and perhaps true Dorado, just discovered in Australia. Many adventurers from the city joined these emigrants, and set sail for Sidney and Melbourne. At the same time, great numbers of Australians, who had come to California after 1848, now took the opportunity of returning to their original homes. Some of these had wrought patiently at the mines, or lived as good citizens in various parts of the country, while others had long been the disgrace and terror of the community. The “Vigilance Committee” of San Francisco, and similar associated bodies that had been formed in other towns of California, had already driven the worst of the last class of Australians away. The news of the gold discoveries in their own country, speedily carried off the rest. The migration from California at this period was therefore not an unmingled evil, although its own mines wanted every hand that could dig a hole or feed a long-tom.

After a time, most of the Californians in Australia grew sick of their new country. They had perhaps found the auriferous earth in general rather richer than what it was in California but not so rich as their brilliant hopes had pictured it. At the same time, since the gold happened in general to be buried much deeper in the ground, the labor of extracting it was greater, while the water for washing purposes was often lamentably deficient. Then there was the moral contamination of working beside the convicts of Van Dieman’s Land and New South Wales, the unhealthiness of the mining country, the scarcity of proper water to drink, the privations from want of food and severity of the weather, and excessively severe labor. The Californians were farther disgusted by the imposition of a tax of seven and a half dollars per month, laid by the government upon all miners for license to work, as well as by the occasional outbreaks of national jealousy, and disputes between themselves and British subjects. On the whole, therefore, the Americans were glad to leave the country to its first inhabitants and their coming brethren from England; and so soon as the former contrived to gather the pecuniary means, and had the opportunity, they hastened back to their old quarters in California, now doubly endeared to them by their luckless absence. The reports brought by these returned emigrants before long satisfied the wavering and adventurous, that no special benefit was to be obtained by any American in leaving the rich mines of his own country for those, however promising they might appear, of another. On the contrary, all he could look for were many additional hardships, physical and moral, and severe labor ill-requited. Of late, accordingly, comparatively few adventurers have sailed from San Francisco for the Australian gold fields. This is well for California. It may just also, while on this subject, be said in passing, that other labor in Australia—from that of the rudest workman to that of the highest skilled mechanic—is only paid about one-half the rates which it commands, has always received, and probably for many years to come, will continue to receive in California. Let interested people say what they will, there is no land so well fitted for the comfortable residence of the poor and industrious man as California. Soil, climate, wages, and political, religious and domestic institutions here make his position more ennobling and agreeable than he can expect or possibly find in any other country.

This month the second (wrongfully said in the preface to be the first,) San Francisco “City Directory” was published by A. W. Morgan & Co. It was a well printed, thin octavo, of one hundred and twenty-five pages. The names were not more in number than what C. P. Kimball’s Directory of 1850 contained. These, however, in Morgan’s book were stated both alphabetically and classified into trades and professions. Some useful general information was also given in an appendix.

OCTOBER 22d.—A city ordinance was passed and approved of, granting a right of way to the “California Telegraph Company.” Some time elapsed before the company could erect posts and extend the wires through the State; and it was only late in the following year that they got into working order. By means of this telegraph, San Francisco was brought into instant communication with San José, Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville, and other towns in the interior.

NOVEMBER 2d.—Election of State, county and city officials, as well as others for the United States. The county and city returns were as follows:—

Senate.—John N. Baird, John S. Hager.
Assembly.—Samuel Flower, John Sime, Frederick A. Snyder, George H. Blake, James M. Taylor, Isaac N. Cordoza, Elcan Heydenfeldt.
County Surveyor.—W. P. Humphreys.
Public Administrator.—David T. Bagley.
District Judge.—Delos Lake.

Mayor.—C. J. Brenham.
City Marshal.—R. G. Crozier.
Recorder.—George W. Baker.
Comptroller.—R. Matheson.
Street Commissioner.—Wm. Divier.
Tax Collector.—Lewis Teal.
Treasurer.—Hamilton Bowie.
Harbor Master.—W. T. Thompson.
City Attorney.—John K. Hackett.
City Assessors.—M. D. Eyre, J. L. Anderson, J. O’Callahan.

J. P. Flint,
W.A. Dana,
T. H. Selby,
Geo. K. Gluyas,
J. P. Haven,
C. L. Case,
A. J. Bowie,
E. J. Moore.

Assistant Aldermen.
H. N. Squier,
H. R. Haste,
James De Long,
J. B. Piper,
G. W. Bryant,
Edward Byrne,
Thomas Hayes.

NOVEMBER 2d and 3d.—Great fire at the city of Sacramento, by which nearly two thousand buildings were destroyed. The conflagration extended over fifty-five blocks, and deprived seven thousand people of their usual homes. The value of the buildings and goods destroyed was differently estimated at from five to ten millions of dollars. Much distress was suffered by the inhabitants on this lamentable occasion. The people of San Francisco, bearing in mind their own great fires, and the loss and misery these had caused, held public meetings, at this time, to express sympathy and to devise measures for relieving their suffering brethren. A sum of sixteen thousand dollars was immediately collected and remitted to Sacramento for the general relief of those who had been burned out. Other subscriptions swelled the amount to thirty thousand dollars. Many medical gentlemen offered their gratuitous professional services, while the steamers bore supplies thither free of freight. Signora Biscaccianti, who had recently been performing in San Francisco, generously offered to give a concert for the benefit of the sufferers. This was largely attended, and realized the sum of seven hundred dollars, which was paid into the relief fund. Other public performers gave benefits for the sufferers at Sacramento.

NOVEMBER 9th.—While the people of San Francisco were thus nobly sympathizing with the losses of others, fire again broke out among themselves. The flames were first noticed about half-past eight o’clock on the evening of this day, in a wooden building at the corner of Merchant and Kearny streets. The fire companies speedily turned out, and succeeded after working vigorously, though under difficult circumstances, for about an hour and a half, in subduing the conflagration; although not before thirty-two buildings, all of which, excepting one or two, were of wood, had been consumed in Merchant and Clay streets. Among these was the Union Hotel. The loss was estimated at about $100,000. The new supposed fire-proof walls were severely tested on this occasion. The substantial masses of the City Hall on one side, the California Exchange on another, and on the east the brick building that faced Montgomery street, effectually prevented the flames from spreading beyond them.

This month was a disastrous one to many places in the State. Not only had Sacramento been nearly altogether destroyed, while San Francisco had sustained much loss, but Marysville, San Diego, and other towns and agricultural districts had been severely scourged by fire. It was estimated that the total losses which had fallen on the State from fire alone during the previous three years amounted to sixty-six millions of dollars.

NOVEMBER 21st.—Intelligence received of the death of Daniel Webster. The flags of the shipping, and others on shore, were hung at half mast, minute guns were fired during the day, and the city generally presented the appearance of sincere mourning for the loss of a “leader in Israel.” The common council passed resolutions of honor to the deceased statesman; and it was afterwards proposed by the boards of aldermen that funeral solemnities on a great scale should be performed by the city, as had recently been done in the case of the death of Henry Clay. This proposal, however, through motives of economy, and partly perhaps on account of the rainy season having commenced, was ultimately negatived. It mattered naught to the illustrious dead. His fame here will live for ever, as on the Atlantic shore.

NOVEMBER 23d.—The waters of Lake La Mercede, in the vicinity of the city, and which cover several hundred acres, sank about thirty feet. Shortly before midnight of this day, a shock like that of an earthquake was felt by parties residing near the place; and the following morning it was discovered that a great channel between the lake and the sea had been opened, through a broad and high sand bank, during the night, by which the waters had found a way and been discharged. It was supposed by some, either that the bed of the lake had been suddenly uplifted, by volcanic agency, whereby the raised waters scooped through the yielding bank the channel just mentioned, and that afterwards the bed of the lake had fallen to its former level, or else that a great sinking of the bank itself had taken place (supposed to have been produced by subterranean causes), owing to which depression, the water had heen drawn off to the extent mentioned. The most probable conjecture is, that the excessive rains of the season had simply forced open a passage through the broad and loose sand-bank from the lake to the ocean. Formerly the lake had no visible outlet whatever; and its waters had insensibly been kept about the same level by means of evaporation, or by concealed underground communications with the sea.

DECEMBER.—” City Directories” seem to be lucrative properties. We have already noticed that of A. W. Morgan & Co., which appeared in September of this year. Another was published this month by James A. Parker. This was a much superior publication to either Kimball’s or Morgan’s. It was an octavo volume of one hundred and forty-six pages, and was well printed. The names were about nine thousand in number, being considerably more than double those contained in either of its forerunners. There was prefixed a creditable sketch of the rise and progress of the city, and the volume contained an appendix of miscellaneous useful information. Such publications in every place become curious and interesting after the lapse of a few years. Especially this will be the case in a rapidly increasing community like San Francisco. To the patient student of the social and personal, as well as the material history of our city, and to the future antiquarian, these little works will be inestimable.

DECEMBER 6th.—The election for chief and assistant engineers to the firemen is yearly becoming of more importance. That spirited body of men, who, without fee or reward, save the gratitude of the people, are ever ready to peril life and limb to save the persons and properties of the citizens, had become a numerous and influential association. Their annual election of officers took place this day, when George H. Hossefros was chosen chief engineer, and Charles P. Duane, A. R. Simons, and Edward A. Ebbets, assistant engineers.

DECEMBER 10th.—José Forni—or Forner, as he described himself in his first confession—a Spaniard, was hanged upon Russian Hill, for the murder of José Rodriguez, a Mexican, in Happy Valley. This was the only legal execution that had taken place in San Francisco, where so many crimes deserving the punishment of death had been committed. The prisoner confessed having killed the deceased, but to the last maintained that the act was done only in self-defence. This, however, was not established by evidence. The gallows had been originally erected upon the summit of the hill; but just before the execution, it was removed about one hundred yards towards the west, so that it was not visible from the principal portions of the city. A very large crowd,—variously estimated at from six to ten thousand people,—gathered round the place of execution, at least one-fourth of whom seemed to be youths, women and children.

DECEMBER 17th.—A furious gale from the S. S. E., accompanied by excessive rains. Considerable damage was sustained by some of the more slimly constructed houses, while the shipping suffered severely. The losses of both were estimated at $200,000. Early in the previous month, a severe “Norther” had threatened much damage to the shipping, and carried away the outer portion of one of the smaller wharves. The want of docks, or of breakwaters, upon the north and south sides of the harbor, is felt more and more as the old sheltered cove gets gradually covered with streets and houses by the extension of the water front of the town.

The storm, first above noticed, seriously affected the rivers of the interior, which rose to an unusual height, and inundated most of the towns on their banks. The levee at Sacramento was burst through by the pressure of the flood, and nearly the whole of that unfortunate city, which so recently had been half destroyed by fire, was submerged to a depth of from five to ten feet. Marysville and Stockton were equally flooded. Many substantially built houses were undermined at all these places by the waters, and fell; whereby much valuable property was destroyed. All communication was cut off from the mining quarters, and great distress was suffered there by the enormous prices of provisions, particularly of flour, and the difficulty, or impossibility of keeping open a connection with the towns for supplies.

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

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