San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco



THE population of both the State and city was largely increased in 1852. The departures by sea from San Francisco were only 23,196, while there were 66,988 arrivals. This immigration was about double the amount that had taken place in 1851. The immigrants from the Atlantic States generally crossed the Isthmus, while the greater number of European foreigners came round Cape Horn. The Germans, a most valuable and industrious class of men, and the French, perhaps by nature not quite so steady and hard-working a race, though still a useful body of citizens, were year by year arriving in large numbers, and were readily remarked among the motley population. The most untutored eye could distinguish and contrast the natural phlegm and common-sense philosophy of the fat Teuton, and the “lean and hungry look” and restless gestures of the Celt. Both races were generally “bearded like the pard,” though in this respect they were only like the commonalty of San Francisco, who pride themselves much upon hair. The people named cherished many of their old nationalities, and generally frequented their own particular boarding and eating houses and places of recreation. The English, Scotch and Irish immigrants, were also numerous, but their characteristics, although something different, were less distinguishable from those of native Americans than were the manners and customs of other foreigners. Besides these, there were always arriving numerous specimens of most other European nations,—Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Swiss, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Russians, Prussians, Dutch, Swedes, Danes, Turks, too—all visited California. Many of them went to the mines, although a considerable proportion never left San Francisco. The country and city were wide enough to hold them all, and rich enough to give them all a moderate independence in the course of a few years. A considerable number of German and French women were constantly arriving, as also many more of the sex from the Atlantic States. The female part of the population, though still numerically very far below the male portion, was increasing, perhaps faster in proportion to their previous numbers.

Upwards of twenty thousand Chinese are included in the general number of arrivals above given. Such people were becoming very numerous in San Francisco, from whence the recent immigrants from their country scattered themselves over the various mining regions of California. At one period of 1852 there were supposed to be about 27,000 Chinese in the State. A considerable number of people of “color” (par excellence) also arrived. These were probably afraid to proceed to the mines to labor beside the domineering white races, and therefore they remained to drudge, and to make much money and spend it in San Francisco, like almost every body else. Mexicans from Sonora and other provinces of Mexico, and many Chilians, and a few Peruvians from South America, were likewise continually coming and going between San Francisco and the ports of their own countries. The Chinese immigrants had their mandarins, their merchants, rich, educated and respectable men, in San Francisco; but all the Mexicans and Chilians, like the people of negro descent, were only of the commonest description. The women of all these various races were nearly all of the vilest character, and openly practised the most shameful commerce. The lewdness of fallen white females is shocking enough to witness, but it is far exceeded by the disgusting practices of these tawny visaged creatures.

The land immigration into the State was also exceedingly great this year, numbering probably about thirty thousand persons of all ages and both sexes. Among these was a large predominance of youths just entering upon the early prime of manhood. Much suffering was experienced by those who crossed the great desert, and supplies of provisions and other help were forwarded to them by the State Government of California. The steadily increasing production of gold had held out strong hopes to the adventurous of the Eastern States, and of many other portions of the world, that, after all, as great chances existed of still making a moderate, if not a large fortune, in a short period at the mines, as in the memorable years of 1848, ‘49 and ‘50.

Owing to the high prices of all kinds of provisions towards the fall of 1852, many of the older residents in the country, and a few of the later immigrants, began to turn their attention to agricultural pursuits, which promised to yield even larger profits, while they offered a pleasanter, healthier and surer occupation than gold-digging. The choicer districts of the country were thus getting gradually settled by “squatters” and pre-emptors, and some legal purchasers of land; and a beginning was made towards rendering California independent of foreign countries for supplies of food. A fair proportion of the recent immigrants remained in San Francisco, while many who had been laboring in the mines for the previous year or two with indifferent success, or who had become wearied of that kind of life, now visited the city with the view of permanently residing and entering upon some kind of business there. From the census taken this year, by authority of the Legislature, the total population of the State appeared to be 264,435, while that of the County and City of San Francisco was 36,151. These numbers were generally allowed to be too small, arising from perhaps unavoidable errors in taking the census. More particularly, the population of San Francisco was supposed to be considerably underrated, the inhabitants of some districts having been imperfectly enumerated. The census was taken towards the close of 1852, and by the end of December of that year, we think the true population of the city alone may be reasonably estimated at 42,000 persons.

The material improvements begun in 1851 were briskly continued during the following year. California, Sansome, and Battery streets were lined by a great many additional brick and stone buildings. Front and Davis streets were formed, and closely built upon with houses of frame. The various wharves continued to stretch eastward, as if it were intended that they should soon connect Yerba Buena Island with the mainland. The sand-hills behind supplied ample material for filling up the bay, and giving solid foundations for the increasing number of substantial stores. Every where in the business portion of the city new and handsome fire-proof edifices were rising. The lower story of these was often constructed of Chinese granite, and the upper ones of brick. The piling across the bay and the filling in were constantly going on. No sooner was a water lot piled and capped than up sprang a frame building upon it; no sooner was the hollow beneath filled than the house of wood was destroyed, and replaced by some elegant brick or granite structure.

Parrott's Granite Block.At another part of the city, Stockton street was being ornamented with many handsome brick tenements, which were intended for the private residences of some of the wealthier citizens; while over all the western and northern limits additional and much finer frame buildings, and occasionally brick ones, were being erected. Telegraph Hill continued to be seriously encroached upon by the excavating and blasting operations going on at Clark’s Point. Even more rapid progress was making towards the extreme south. Happy Valley now contained a large number of commodious and handsome habitations, chiefly of frame. Over all the city the process of grading and planking new streets was going on, so that communication between the principal districts was becoming easy. In the centre, the spirit of improvement was busily at work. The plaza indeed remained a disgrace to the authorities; but Montgomery street, and Commercial, Clay, Merchant, Washington and other cross streets, which touched it, were being rapidly covered with substantial and beautiful fire-proof buildings. At the north-west corner of Montgomery and California streets a large and imposing edifice of granite was erected. This was occupied by Adams & Co., express agents, and Page, Bacon & Co., bankers, and was the first of the superior class of private edifices which are now so numerous in many parts of the city, and particularly on Montgomery street. The stone for this building was prepared in China and put up in San Francisco by Chinese workmen. It was erected, and is owned by Mr. John Parrott. More to the south, great changes were takin place for the better. The faithful “paddy” or steam-excavator never tired. Market street was cut through from Battery to Kearny street; while the sand-hills at the adjoining ends of First and Second streets were rapidly disappearing. Bush street, that recently had been only a huge mound of sand, was levelled. California, Sacramento and other streets leading to the west, were cutting through or climbing over the obstructing eminences. Higher grades were being adopted for the streets in most of the lower quarters of the city, to which the houses were being gradually conformed.

On the whole, a vast improvement had taken place in the aspect of the town, and in the elegance and substantial comfort of the newer buildings. No longer could conflagrations, like the great fires of ‘50 and ‘51, destroy the centre and most valuable parts of the city. The fire department was organized on the most efficient scale, and included among its members many of the most respectable inhabitants. The different companies were supplied with an excellent stock of engines and other apparatus. The men were enthusiastic, bold fellows, capable of enduring the severest fatigues, and ever ready to hazard life and limb upon the least alarm of fire, when their services could be made useful. An unlimited supply of water could not be depended upon; but generally there was enough in the many artificial reservoirs formed at the intersection of the chief streets, to extinguish any ordinary conflagration. Confidence was now felt in the stability of the city and its comparative immunity from fire. Two fire insurance agencies, one for a New York and the other for a London company, were established, so that the cautious could insure their properties at reasonable rates. This was a striking sign of the improved times. Lenders upon stored goods and on real estate could now secure their advances against all hazard from fire; while the speculative owners of property were encouraged to undertake permanent and most expensive improvements.

In the vicinity of the city numerous brick fields had long been established. The new style of fire-proof buildings occasioned a constant demand for this material. California-made bricks are certainly much inferior to well-burned English or United States bricks, yet they are considerably cheaper, and when painted or in some way protected from the weather serve their purpose very well. Besides these extensive manufactories of brick, there were other manufactories and workshops which were being constantly formed. In the district of Happy Valley particularly,—which had been early selected for the site of such establishments,—there existed numerous flour mills and timber saw-mills, iron-foundries, marine and land steam-engine works, and steamer and other boat-building yards. In addition to these larger and more imposing establishments, there were many workshops, in various parts of the city, of upholsterers, saddle and harness makers, boot and shoe makers, carpenters, blacksmiths, painters, jewellers and other craftsmen. All manufactured articles were no longer imported direct from the distant maker; but some of the more necessary were beginning to be made on the spot from the raw material. The letter-press printers, as might have been anticipated from the character of the American people, were a numerous body; and on the many newspapers and in extensive job work found ample employment at lucrative rates.

The shops were daily assuming a more splendid appearance, while on their well loaded shelves and the neatly laid out window fronts and counters were displayed a brilliant assortment of the particular goods they dealt in. Stylishly dressed, and often lovely women were constantly seen, in fine weather, promenading the principal streets, and idling their time (which they knew not how otherwise to “kill,”) and spending somebody’s money in foolish shopping, just as is the custom with the most virtuous dames in the great cities on both sides of the Atlantic. Omnibuses and superb public carriages plied through the streets, and beautiful private equipages glittered and glided smoothly along. While the ladies dressed extravagantly, perhaps to please the other sex, perhaps only to please themselves or annoy some meaner souled or less rich sister, the gentlemen were scarcely behind them in this respect. The days of the blouse, the colored shirt and the “shocking bad hat” had fled, never, like time, to return.

The incessant immigration gave liveliness to the streets, and caused much profitable business to be done. At the same time there was a vast emigration. Not only were the usual number of departures to the Eastern States taking place; but, as we have seen, the discovery of gold in Australia was attracting many Californians to that country. The whole world seemed to be restless and morbidly excited by the cry of gold. Where it was all to end who could tell? Originally the Americas had been peopled by the same intense desire for the precious metals. Now, the portions of the New World that had been overlooked, and Australia,—a continent in itself—were being filled by gold hunters, who would assuredly in the course of time play an important part in the history of mankind. San Francisco itself possessed a share of the precious metal. Gold was found in pieces of quartz quarried from Telegraph Hill, in earth excavated in Broadway, in the sand taken from a great depth in sinking wells in Stockton street, and at various other parts of the city, in 1850. Indeed, we have seen hundreds of persons occupied in gathering it in small particles from the surface of the plaza itself; after a long continued rain. But all these deposits in the centre of the city, there is reason to believe, were scattered through the careless or mischievous behavior of parties who were either unable or too indifferent to take care of the precious metal brought by themselves or others from the well known mining regions, and some of whom doubtless felt repaid for the cost in the wonderment they excited.

Over all California, however, gold was continually being discovered in new places. It was the mineral wealth of the country that had created San Francisco, and which was the source of its continued prosperity. If this should suddenly fail, or the cry increase of other and richer gold countries, easily accessible like Australia, the city would undoubtedly receive a great shock. Thousands were already moving away, and it was only the unusually great immigration of the year that prevented their loss from being seriously felt by the city and the country at large. In the end it was found that the Australia mines were not better places for making a speedy fortune than were those of California, while the former were less salubrious and agreeable to the American personally. The emigration therefore to Australia began sensibly to slacken towards the close of this year; while gradually many of those who had gone thither early began now to return.

In our review of 1851, we had occasion to remark the general fall in the prices of merchandise, and the serious losses sustained by shippers of goods to the San Francisco market during all that year. The “good time” that had been long looked for by merchants came at last; and during the close, and generally over the greater part of this year, not only remunerating but extravagantly high prices were obtained for most goods, particularly for all kinds of provisions. Flour, that had been only eight dollars a barrel in March, by November had risen to upwards of forty dollars, with a firm market. Rice, that was usually worth only a few cents a pound, advanced, in the course of the year, to forty-five and fifty cents. The Chinese, who preferred rice to every other kind of food, suffered severely from these high prices. Butter ranged from fifty-five to seventy cents a pound, over the early and greater part of the year. Other provisions and indeed most kinds of merchandise rose in proportion. The usual reaction, though long delayed, had taken place—the scarcity followed the glut; and the fortunate holders of goods realized large profits, that compensated those who had continued in trade for the losses of the previous seasons. Late in the year, when markets, in particular articles, were at the highest, it was known that a large fleet of clipper ships was on the passage with supplies, many of which vessels were overdue; but as the stock actually on hand was very limited, and day by day was lessening in amount, which might be totally exhausted before the expected arrivals happened, consumers had to submit to necessity and pay the rates demanded. Time was every thing in such a market as San Francisco, where prices of merchandise usually fluctuated as do “fancy stocks” on the ‘Change of New York, London or Paris. A week lost or gained in the arrival of a well selected cargo might just be a fortune lost or gained to the shipper. The clipper ships, as we have already remarked, were peculiarly the consequence of such a trade and the natural creation of the needs and commerce of our city. These clippers after being hastily unloaded, were dispatched to India or China, where they either competed successfully with English ships for return cargoes to the Atlantic, or were profitably employed in bringing from the latter country many thousands of Chinese emigrants to California. Year by year, the clipper character of ship was being more adopted, until it became, commercially speaking, foolish and dangerous to freight any other kind of vessel to San Francisco.

A Street-scene on a rainy night.Cholera again visited the city in the fall of this year; though its ravages were slight. However much may be said for the general healthiness of the place, little praise can be given for the very dirty state in which the greater part was allowed to remain—and nearly the same may just be said of its condition in 1854. The streets were thickly covered with black rotten mud. These were the proper dunghills of the town, and were made a general depot for all kinds of rubbish and household sweepings, offals and filth. Sometimes the rains came and scattered the abominable stuffs, carrying part of them into the bay; at other times, the heats gradually dried them up. Rats—huge, fat, lazy things, prowled about at pleasure, and fed on the dainty garbage. The pedestrian at night, stumbling along the uneven pavements, and through streets that were only a series of quagmires, would occasionally tread on the loathsome, bloated, squeaking creatures, and start back in disgust and horror, muttering a curse or two at such a villainously unclean town. These animals abounded in such great numbers that entire sacks and barrels of flour and bread have been destroyed by them on a single night in a storehouse. They were of several varieties, each differing in color. Besides the common grey rat, there were others white, blue and black. These latter descriptions have materially decreased in numbers of late; the gray fellows, being the stronger, having, it is said, either driven away or destroyed them. Sickening stenches pervaded every quarter. Owing to the raising of the streets in the lower part of the city when establishing the grades, many of the building blocks became great hollow spaces, surrounded on the four sides by high banks of earth. In these places also, which had no drainage, every foul thing and unsightly rubbish were carelessly thrown, and soon deep pools of stagnant water collected in the midst. Beneath the houses and streets which had been formed over the bay, and which had been only partially filled up, there was accumulating a vast mass of putrid substances, from whence proceeded the most unwholesome and offensive smells. In any other place as near the tropic these things would undoubtedly have generated a pestilence; but here the cool winds from the ocean which prevail during the summer season, and which at times are so unpleasant to the shivering inhabitant, had the beneficial effect of neutralizing many of the bad effects which must otherwise have arisen from the want of cleanliness over all the city. From the dead level preserved in that part of the city which was built across the bay, it would seem impossible that a thorough drainage can ever now be had in the lower and most valuable district. This is one of the inconveniences which the indefinite extension of the town eastward has produced. Perhaps it would have been better, if instead of streets and houses, there had been constructed substantial quays and wet docks sufficient to contain all the shipping that had ever visited the harbor. Ships then would have lain in safety from the “South-easters” and the “North-easters,” which now so terribly plague and damage them when lying exposed at anchor in the tidal channel.

Crime, during 1852, was perhaps not sensibly diminished; but in the increasing importance of other matters of public discussion, lower-class criminals were tolerated, or less pursued. Legalized robberies, in the shape of “Peter Smith” purchases, more occupied the attention of the citizens. It would be unjust to individuals and to human nature, to challenge every public officer in San Francisco with gross peculation and corruption in office; yet it was confessed on all sides that almost every citizen, who had a chance of preying upon the corporation means, unhesitatingly and shamefully took advantage of his position. His brother harpies kept him in countenance. This gave rise to a general opinion that the city never could possibly obtain a pure and good government until the bone of contention among rival candidates for office,—its property, to wit,—was all exhausted, squandered, stolen or gifted away. When that perhaps happy day came,—as its advent seemed close at hand,—the “fathers” and salaried servants of the city might possibly work only for the common good, and not chiefly for their own. Had matters been prudently and patriotically managed, San Francisco might, at this day, have been the richest city, of its size, in the world. As the case stands, it is one of the poorest, as certainly its inhabitants are perhaps the most heavily taxed of any community for a feeble and inefficient government. This is chiefly to be attributed to the people themselves. Incapable, weak and corrupt officials are blamable, but the people who choose them, and of whom they are part, are perhaps much more in fault. Where the mass think, and talk, and act, without any particular regard to high moral principle, it can scarcely be expected that their chosen representatives should differ materially from them. When even a man of severe probity and high talent is elected to an office of trust, he finds often insuperable difficulties in his way, from the want of co-operation, and the carelessness or corruption of his own constituents. The most righteous judge can do little good on the bench when interested witnesses disguise the truth, and juries will return verdicts in defiance of it.

However, in spite of local jobbery and mismanagement, enormous municipal expenses, and iniquity every where, the city grew in size, beauty and importance. Its admirable maritime position, and chiefly the determined energy and perseverance of its people, who believed in its glorious future, and found their own interest in the work, were raising it year by year to still more remarkable grandeur. Many of the citizens were opulent, while none needed to be in poverty. Intemperance and dissipation alone could squander the enormous wages of the most inferior laborers and the large profits of capital in every kind of business. Then, as now, no healthy man of ordinary strength need want lucrative and honest employment of some kind or other. As for the sick and weak, San Francisco is indeed not a place for them, although hospitals and occasional private charities may serve to alleviate for a time their hapless situation. San Francisco is a place for work—real, useful, hard work. If any man can give that—it may sometimes be with the head, but oftener with the hand, he is sure, not merely of subsistence, but of a competence, and indeed a fortune in the long run. If lazy, or incapable of such work, the sooner the useless thing takes his departure, the better for himself and the place.

No important change had occurred in the social or moral condition of San Francisco during 1852. The characteristics of the people which were noticed in our review of the previous year, still existed. The old dizzy round of business and pleasure continued. There were now only more people, greater wealth, finer houses, more shops and stores, more work, trade and profits, more places of dissipation and amusement, more tippling and swearing, more drunkenness and personal outrages, nearly as much public gambling and more private play. There were also a few more modest women, and many more of another class; more benevolent institutions and orphans’ asylums; more fire companies, military companies, and masonic lodges. Likewise there were more newspapers, that discoursed eloquently, ever railing “in good set terms” against corruption in high places, but which not being supported by the sincere feeling of a pure and honest people, made no such irresistible body of public opinion as they sometimes do in other countries. Then there were more churches, more moral teachers and religious publications, more Sabbath and day schools; and, too, more of every thing that was beautiful and bad, more vice, debauchery and folly, and perhaps also a little more real religion, and sometimes a deal of outward decency. The moral sepulchre was occasionally receiving a fresh coat of paint. It should not be forgotten, at the same time, that with the increase of population, there was also an increase of occasional charities and high-minded liberal deeds. These things are done in secret, or they lose their noble character. The public generally know not of them. However much the sordid pursuit of wealth may cloud the true friendships and generous actions of many of the San Franciscans, the native worth of heroic and pure souls will at times shine through all. As kings reigned before Agamemnon, so there are here great and worthy, honest and true men, as well as there have been elsewhere. Their exact number cannot be counted, but the student of human nature, according to his temperament and means of information, may hazard an estimate on the subject.

Residents of a few years’ standing—the landmarks, by turns, of the ancient village, town and city, began now to disappear. These perhaps had made a fortune, and sown their “wild oats” in the place. They now retired to the Atlantic States or Europe,—to home, in short,—to enjoy their gains at ease, astonish quiet neighbors with their wondrous tales, speculate on the future of San Francisco, and become disgusted and ennuied with the slowness, tameness, decorum and insipidity of the conventional mode of existence they were leading. New faces and new names were rising into importance, in place of the earliest pioneers and the “forty-niners.” The majority, however, of the first settlers had faith in the place; they relished its excitements as well of business as of pleasure; they had no family or fond ties elsewhere, or these had been long rudely broken; and so they adhered to San Francisco. Many of these persons had waxed very rich, in spite of themselves, by the sudden rise in the value of real estate, or by some unexpected circumstance, while others, after expending a world of ingenuity, wickedness and hard work, remained almost as poor as when, hopeful and daring, they landed in the ship’s boat at Clark’s Point, or when the tide was high, at the first rude wharf that ran a short distance out from the beach at Montgomery street. There is a fascination in even the loose, unsettled kind of life at San Francisco. Of many who have left the city, after a residence of years, and when they have accumulated a handsome fortune, a considerable number have gladly returned. For many months, perhaps for even a year or two, the immigrant thinks he can never worthily or rationally enjoy existence in such a place; so he determines to make a fortune as soon as possible, and decamp for ever. But fortunes are now made more slowly, and the old citizen—a few years here make one old in sensation, thought and experience—changes his sentiments, and he begins to like the town and people for their own sake. The vices and follies, the general mode of living, that frightened and shocked him at first, seem natural to the climate, and, after all, are by no means so very disagreeable. If he returned to settle in ultra or pseudo-civilized and quiet States, he would surely feel himself but a “used-up” man; so he continues where he made has money, still to feel, speculate and enjoy, to work and contend with real men, in their keenest and strongest characters.

It may be thought by some that we have said many over-harsh things in this and other chapters of this work, regarding our fellow citizens. We cannot help that, for the occasions seem to justify the language used. If unmingled praise, or hesitating censure were adopted when talking of San Francisco, people elsewhere would not believe the tale, while those here would only laugh in their sleeve at the decent hypocrisy and cant of the writer. Better proclaim the worst at once; and then let who will find explanations, excuses and palliations. These will be readily advanced by the wiser portion of mankind, who know the temptations that beset poor human nature, and how often it falls when fatal opportunity offers. Let it be always understood that we describe the place as at particular periods, and not what we think will be its grand coming destiny. San Francisco was, at the times of which we have discoursed, and it still is, in a state of moral ferment. When the ebullition ceases, though years may elapse before that happens, the natural qualities of its adventurous and clever people will be more clearly and generously developed. The scum and froth of its strange mixture of peoples, of its many scoundrels, rowdies and great men, loose women, sharpers and few honest folk, are still nearly all that is visible. The current of its daily life is muddied and deified by the wild effervescence of these unruly spirits. It may be said that nearly all came to the city only as devout worshippers of mammon; scarcely one, to find a home, which might unjustly have been denied him elsewhere. In order to accumulate the greatest heap of gold in the shortest possible time, schemes and actions had often to be resorted to, which nice honor could not justify nor strict honesty adopt. In the scramble for wealth, few had consciences much purer than their neighbors; few hands were much cleaner. Some were found out and victimized; others were wise and provoked not discussion. The few lamented, and the wise and good hoped and foresaw better things. Time, and a sounder public opinion, will cure most of the evils we have alluded to, leaving the undoubted talent, shrewdness, capacity for hard, practical work, and the original honesty, honor and high liberal spirit of the people free to show themselves. Cities, like men, have their birth, growth and maturer years. Some are born Titans, and from the beginning promise to be mighty in their deeds, however wilful and destructive. Few spring into being full armed, wise and sedate as Minerva. San Francisco, while it can show so many enduring marvels for its few years, has also wasted much of its means in “riotous living;“ but its young hot blood will cool by and by. Then ripened years and wisdom will subdue its foolish levities and more disgraceful vices. Meanwhile, let us treat the noble city kindly, just as we deal with the beautiful woman that offends us—look upon her face and forget her follies. We pardon the careless, extravagant, yet high spirited youth, who lavishes his substance in wild pleasure, when he stops short and vows repentance; nay, even though he break out again and again, we cannot seriously feel offended with the charming gallant, so only that he hurts nobody but himself. Let us view San Francisco in something of the same gentle and forgiving, if not sympathizing spirit.

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

Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License