San Francisco History



We must not neglect to mention the first fire that took place during the early days of this city. A house, by the name of ''The Shades,'' used as a boarding and lodging saloon, caught fire one morning about two o'clock. An alarm was given, and it being the first fire that had happened in the city, it seemed as though every person was on hand, rendering all the assistance possible. A new building, some four feet distance from ''The Shades,'' caught fire several times; but, through the perseverance of Robert A. Parker, Dave Whaling and Tom Smith, (the owner of the property), the new building, was saved: but ''The Shades'' was entirely destroyed. The men who were so persevering in saving the new building had their hair singed and the coats on their backs were burned. The men went so far as to cover themselves with wet blankets, cutting holes in the blankets to enable them to see, while they threw water on the burning building. When the building was out of danger three loud and hearty cheers were given for ''the brave firemen.'' It was only a few days after the fire, when the rebuilding of ''The Shades'' was commenced and when completed, it was a much finer building than the one previous to the fire. In the winter of '48, most of the persons who had gone to the mines, returned to the city, and by the latter part of November there were over one hundred and sixty persons in the hotel. Bennett's house was also crowded; so much so, that the bowling alley's were used as sleeping apartments. We had to put two beds or more in a room; and, as we rented the rooms for twenty dollars per week, it made no difference to us, how many slept in them. Those who gambled, would use the beds during the day, and others would occupy them at night, so they were well taken up, night and day. I will here mention a few persons, whom you may well say, threw their money away. One man who went by the name of Dancing Billy, would station himself on the front verandah, and dance by the hour, and would only stop long enough, to treat all, who would spend their time looking at him. I know of one instance, where he gave a man fifty dollars, to play for him one hour. Another one who was known by the name of Flaxhead. This man brought down from the mines, that winter, over twenty pounds of gold dust. He was a hard drinker; but never was known to gamble, so he found it very difficult to get rid of his dust. After the winter was over, in the month of February, 1849, he made up his mind to return to the mines. He wanted to know the amount of his bill at the Hotel. He also wished me to charge him with one box of claret wine, one box of whiskey, and to cook him provisions enough to take him to the mines; also, to pay his passage to Sacramento. After taking everything out that he was in debt for there was over six pounds of dust left. I was ordered to put that away until next morning, or he would get rid of it before he left here. He had an idea that if he left the city, with any money, he would get bad luck. The next morning he purchased a pair of boots. He gave me one to put under the counter. He then asked me for his bag of dust. He emptied the dust in the boot. He put a stick through the ears of the boot, and throwing it over his shoulder, went from the City Hotel to the Parker House (the Parker House bar was then open). He would treat all who would drink with him, and would give in pay gold dust, all your conscience would take. I had a good many talks with him in regard to his throwing away his money in such a manner; but his reply would be, that there was plenty more at the mines. In the year of 1851 I went to Monterey, on business for Middleton and Joyce, to get a deed fixed up on the Union Hotel. While E. V. Joyce and myself were walking up the street, a man called after me, and on coming up, we shook hands, and he called me by name. I told him he had the advantage of me in name. He said he was the man I used to call a fool, for putting the gold dust in the boot. He then took me to the hotel and called for the best in the house, cost what it would. He informed me that he was married, and had two children. He also said he had bought a nice home, and had thirty pounds of gold dust buried in his orchard. I will mention another circumstance which took place in the winter of 1848. Major James Savage and John Murphy were stopping at the hotel, and on one rainy day, got to talking about the things that had happened at the gold mines. John Murphy was doing an extensive business with the Indians and often would take in per day from twenty to twenty-five pounds of gold dust. Major Savage found out the extensive trade, that was carried on, and tried to take from Murphy part of the trade; but found out he could do nothing with the Indians, and almost gave up every hope, and made up his mind to leave the camp and try his luck in some other place. John Murphy had a tin cup which he held in his left hand, while he would hold on his right hand a pair of blankets. The Indians would put gold dust in the cup until Murphy would say enough. He would move his hands up and down, like a balance beam on a pair of scales. A thought struck Major Savage that he could sell the blankets for half the amount of gold dust that Murphy got, and then it would pay him a very large profit. He got a tin cup made, with a small trap, so he could fasten the cup on his foot. When the laid on his back, the cup would be in such a position that his Indian customers could put in it their gold dust. His idea was only to take one half the amount in gold dust that Murphy took. When the first Indian came to his tent, the major thought it a good time to try his new experiment, so he lay on his back with the cup strapped to his foot, and he lifted his legs with such rapidity as to make the Indian believe that it would not take as much weight to balance the feet as it would his hands. He then put a pair of blankets on one foot lifting the other one high so the Indian could put in his gold dust, and when he thought he had about half the amount which Murphy generally took, he would tell the Indian to stop. The Indian thought it only took half as much to balance the legs as it did the arms, and in a very few days the Major got most of the Indian trade, and Murphy left that part of the country for better pasture. I will make mention of one more circumstance which happened in 1848. A person arrived here from the Sandwich Islands, by the name of Montgomery, who carried on the business of auctioneering, and he found it very profitable, as some goods that were brought here would not sell for any price, and he would often purchase them by private sale, and would lay them over until they were in demand. He would go for a month or more without liquor, but whenever he got started he knew no bounds, and would keep on a spree for one or two weeks. One time he rode up to the bar-room window (which was very large), and said he was going to ride through. I informed him that if he did so it would be a very dear ride. He then asked how much it would cost him. I made the figures rather high, thinking it would keep him from coming through. The price was $500. The words were hardly out of my mouth, when he threw a bag of dust through the window to me, and said, ''Weigh out your $500, and take enough out for a basket of wine,'' and before I could pick up the bag he and his horse was through the window into the bar-room. It would be impossible to relate all things that happened in '48 and '49, as persons were very extravagant in their conversation regarding gold dust, and would often lead newcomers to believe that gold dust could be picked up anywhere, even in the public streets. I know of one instance where a party, after night, placed on the ground, in a spot where he would know well where to find it, some two or three ounces of gold dust. It happened to be in front of the Parker House, and he took several strangers to show them that gold could be found in the streets. Some forty or fifty persons followed him to the spot, when he took a pan of dust from the street, and on washing it out he got nearly two ounces of gold dust; this created quite an excitement among all new-comers, who went and purchased tin pans, with which to commence gold washing. One of the party was lucky; he got about twenty cents in his first pan. There were some forty or fifty who worked hard all day; but could not obtain the color of gold. It was afterwards discovered that the parties who had the tin pans for sale, and the parties who washed out the gold dust were in partnership, and they made money by selling all the tin pans they had, for two dollars each. The same can be purchased now for ten cents each. This, they called a Yankee trick.

It sounds almost incredible now, the many stories that are told of the manner in which persons would waste the gold dust in those early times; but it was the truth, nevertheless. In front of Mr. Howard's store, on Montgomery street, from the sweepings of the floor a man got over fifty dollars in one day. Another instance occurred in the City Hotel bar-room. The man who did the sweeping would save the sweepings in a barrel, until full; and on washing it out he obtained over two hundred dollars in gold dust.

In 1849, General Lane arrived on his way to Oregon, where he was appointed Governor. On his arrival, John Owens and Salem Woodsworth, who were well acquainted with him, invited him to dinner and told him to make himself at home at the hotel during his stay in the city. At this time, a club had been formed, and no persons could be elected without the consent of a majority of the members. The names of the members were as follows: William D. M. Howard, Captain Joseph Folsom, Edward Harrison, Robert A. Parker, James Layton, Salem Woodsworth, John Owens, George McDougal, Benjamin Lippincott, Mr. Stone, Sam. Haight. Dick Ciscel and William McDonald. Each day at the table there were from ten to a dozen invited guests. At this time labor was so high and provisions so difficult to obtain, that it was impossible to board them at any price. Each week there was a new president elected from the club, who found it rather an expensive business; as on taking the chair, he would always stand for the dinner and wine of that day. There was a song composed by Salem Woodsworth and James Leighton, which was always sung before meals. It commenced as follows: ''There is Whiskey in the Jar, so I O Tally O, there is Whiskey in the Jar.'' When the Governor left, he wished the members of the club ''all well,'' and thanked them very sincerely for the hospitality shown him during his stay among them; and said, ''If he was as well received on his arrival in Oregon, he would be highly gratified.'' John Owens and General Lane were old friends in the Mexican war, and it was highly entertaining to hear them relate their experience.

As we have been writing of the living, I think I will now devote a short space to those who have departed and gone to their long home: In the latter part of the year 1847, Mr. Douglas Factor, in the Hudson Bay Company and Mr. David McLaughlin arrived in a brig from Oregon, for the purpose of settling up all their business in California. They had a house and four fifty vara lots, located on what are now called Montgomery, Sacramento and Clay streets. The house was occupied at that time by Mrs. Ray, (a sister of David McLaughlin), and Mr. Alexander Fobes. This property was sold to Frank Mellis and Mr. William M. D. Howard. After the settlement of their business, they removed the remains of Mr. Ray, who had been buried on their property; and in company with Mrs. Ray and family went to Oregon. The first Protestant who died in this city, that I remember, was a young man, by the name of Richardson, who was clerking for Mr. Howard. He was a native of Boston. At the time of his death there was no public burying ground; consequently, Robert A. Parker allowed him to be buried on a fifty vara lot, which he owned at North Beach. This lot was afterwards used as a public cemetery. The next person that died, was a man by the name of Adams, who boarded at the hotel. He came to this city from Valparaiso. He had arrived from the mines in the summer of 1848. He was one of the first who had gone to the mines, and he had been very lucky in regard to money; but he lost his health. At the time of his death, he had over ninety ounces of gold dust; and as Leavensworth was then Alcalda, I gave him the bag of dust, and he paid the bills of the physician and hotel keeper, and had him decently buried. The next person that died, was a man by the name of McDonald, whose funeral and other expenses were paid by George McDougal. George had a fifty vara lot given him for this purpose. The next one, was an Englishman, from Truro, Cornwall, by the name of Bastard. He was a lawyer by profession. His effects were taken charge of by Captain Thomas, a native of the same place, and Mr. Falconor, who was then head clerk for Starkey and Janine. In the latter part of 1849, there was another death. The man was a stranger, who had neither money nor property, and when I informed Leavensworth of his death, he asked me many questions in regard to the man's means; then informed me that there was no money in the treasury for the purpose of burying the poor, and that I would have to pay the funeral expenses myself. I told him he undertook to bury the rich, and I should insist on his burying the poor, as well. I called two of the stewards to bring down the dead man, and put him in Leavensworth's office. When he found out that I was determined, he agreed with me, to give the man a decent burial. The man's name was Willey, he was a carpenter by trade. He came here from the Sandwich Islands, and was not able to work. In the early part of '49 I found it very difficult to get stewards or cooks, for, as fast as they could obtain money enough, they would be off for the mines. It was so difficult to keep help, that I wanted to give up the boarding department entirely. An Englishman arrived from the Sandwich Islands, who had with him twelve Chinamen, whom he could engage to work in the hotel. He made a proposition for himself and Chinamen, at the rate of twelve hundred dollars per month, for as he could speak their language, he would be able to obtain them for that amount; but, even with them, I could only make a bargain a month at a time. I think this must have been the first importation of Chinese to California. At that time I felt very much pleased that I was able to obtain Chinamen. They remained with me about three months, and they did very well and gave general satisfaction.

There are many persons who claim to have started the first brewery in this city; but Francis G. Owen is the only one who can claim that honor. He built, what would be called now a small brewery, on the corner of Pacific and Dupont streets. Mr. Owens arrived in this country in 1845. He came to Yerba Buena, and purchased a fifty vara lot, and then returned to Sutter's Fort and remained their until the early part of 1846. He came from the same town as Captain Sutter, and brought him news of his wife and family. Captain Sutter sent for his family, and they arrived in this country in the year 1850. Owens left this country for his native place, in 1852, and I have been informed, that soon after his arrival at home he died. He built, while here, an adobe house, on a fifty vara lot, that was then called ''The Points.'' This property was sold in '47, to Alfred J. Ellis. This was the property where the Russian sailor lost his life in the well.

The first pioneer hall in the city, was on the lot, corner of Washington and Kearny streets. It was on the second floor of the Belle Union Theatre building. The pioneers rented it from Richard Ross. The first miners bank that was started in this city, was in the early part of 1849, over a house known as ''The Verandah'' The proprietor of the house was Joseph Clemens, who is now a Searcher of Records in this city. At ''The Verandah'' there was a man employed at fifty dollars per night, who played at one time five different musical instruments. He was a complete band by himself. In '49, Dave Broderick and Fred. Kohler arrived. They carried on an assayers office, which was the first one started here. The office and works were on Clay street, opposite Portsmouth Square, in one of the wings of the City Hotel building; they also coined fifty dollar slugs and ten and five dollar pieces for the Miners' Bank, which was run by John Thompson, (who found most of the capital) Sam. Haight and Stephen Wright. They lent the money on the best of security, at the rate of ten per cent per month, and many times over that. This extravagant charge for interest usually broke all who had connection with the bank. I have known many a gambler to pay for the loan of money, as high as ten per cent interest per hour. I have loaned it myself to many at that rate. When they borrowed the money, they would have to pay the interest until the capital, with interest was left in the bar-room, and then the interest would stop. I have often read in the newspapers, about the hounds in San Francisco, but the true history, I have never seen in print. At first, the merchants of San Francisco tried every way to protect the captains and to keep the sailors from leaving the ships. The merchants raised a company of ten persons, and signed a paper, in which they promised to pay them twenty-five dollars for every runaway sailor they brought back. These men were called the Regulators. This paper was signed by Edward Harrison, W. D. M. Howard, James Layton, Captain Folsom Robert A. Parker, and many others. The only purpose for which this company was formed, was for the protection of captains of vessels, as the sailors would run away every chance they got, and the Regulators were found to be of great service, both by the shipping and city. They were not called regulators very long, however, as they took a new name, and were known as ''The Hounds.'' Some very desperate characters joined the company, most of whom have been hung in this country for murder and other depredations, which they had committed. I will mention some of the leading characters: Captain Roberts, Jacob Powers, Tom Edwards, (who to my certain knowledge, has murdered three men in this city), a man named Curley and four others from Sydney, named Red Davis, Curley Billy, Sam Terry and Barney Ray. Soon after these men joined the company, I would see them pass the hotel very often with a quantity of clothing. In conversation with one of them, he said they had taken the clothing as confiscated goods, as the Mexicans would not pay them their share for keeping the town in good order. There were many Mexicans and other foreigners who lived in tents on Sacramento street, between Kearny and Montgomery. They complained very much of the brutal usage they received from these hounds. They would first demand money, and if they had none, they would take whatever goods they could lay their hands on. They made many complaints to the Hon. T. M. Leavensworth, who was then Alcalda of the city. He did all he could by talking to them, to stop such proceedings, and would have punished them, if he could have had the support of the city; but he found they were too many and too strong to undertake it alone.

In the year of 1849, there was a party undertook to take charge of the city, and demanded from T. M. Leavensworth, then Alcalda, all books and documents that belonged to the city; but Leavensworth refused to deliver them up, until there was another person elected by order of the Governor to supply his place; but Lieutenant Norton was at the head of the party, and with several men from his company, went to the Alcalda's office and took possession of all the effects contained in the office, and removed books and documents to the school-house at Portsmouth Square; and for a short time Lieutenant Norton and Peer Lee did all the business of the office. But it was only for a few days; as the citizens demanded them to return all books and documents to Leavensworth, at the Alcalda's office. There was one book containing a record of deeds missing, which has never been heard from, to my knowledge, at least. One evening the party with fife and drum went to Leavensworth's office with a rope, with the full intention of hanging him, if they could get hold of him. I found out by one of the party what they intended to do; and when I ascertained that their intentions were of so serious a nature, I went out of the back door of the hotel, locked the front door, and got Leavensworth in the hotel. I then went around and asked them what was the matter. They were just in the act of bursting the door of the office open. I told them if they would come into the hotel, I would treat them all. This stopped any further disturbance; but I made Leavensworth foot the bills for all expenses.

At this time there were very few persons living in the city, and the Mexicans who were here, was so scared, that they were afraid to protect themselves. Some few days after this, the Hounds made a demand for money from the Mexicans, again; and when they would not pay them anything, they commenced shooting, and two Mexicans were badly wounded. John McDougal, who saw the transaction, called on some person, who was standing by for assistance, and he made two prisoners. The Hounds found out that McDougal meant business, so they made themselves scarce, and on the next day, a vigilance committee was formed, for the protection of the city, and all who could be found belonging to the Hounds were arrested and brought to trial before Senators' Gwin, Geary and T. M. Leavensworth. Those who were not caught left the city. Mr. McDougal was afterwards Governor of the State of California.

The Parker House was progressing rapidly, as we employed all the carpenters we could possibly get, and we had every hope of getting the offices in the front part ready for occupancy, as they were all spoken for. The doors and windows were all made and fitted, and the painter was ready to put in the window glass, when to our great surprise we found out that all the glass was too small and we could not obtain any glass in the city large enough. We were puzzled to know what to do. We first thought of making the sash over to fit the glass; but that would be a great expense; so we came to the conclusion that we would send by Captain Newell to the Islands for glass. He made a fast trip and returned to San Francisco again in thirty-six days. The first room finished, was an office for H. M. Naglee and Richard Sinton. These gentlemen carried on an exchange business and land office.

The next office was for Robert A. Parker, and the other one was for Dr. Perry, who arrived here in Stevenson's Regiment, as head surgeon of the regiment. The three parties mentioned, were in the front of the house, on the first floor. On the second floor, was John Owens; in the next office, was the firm of McAllister, Turk and Libbett, who carried on the law business; next came Judge Sutterly; then Dr. Geary, who came here from Chili; in the next room was the Doctor of the port, whose name was Rogers. He came here from the city of New York. There were several rooms on the second floor, which were occupied by transient travellers, as sleeping rooms. The third floor was used for sleeping rooms; the billiard and liquor room was on the first floor. The main difficulty we met with, was the lack of lumber, and there was no way of getting it at any price. The ''Mallakadale'' was expected from Santa Cruz with a cargo of lumber, for Messrs. Wright and Owen. Cross and Hobsen had bargained with them for a certain amount, as they were fixing the Old Mill House, on Clay street, for a store. When the vessel arrived, she had not half a cargo; but brought all she could possibly obtain, and I found out that my chance to get lumber were rather slim. I therefore got Parker to see Mr. Wright; and he promised that if there was any to spare, we should have it, at the rate of a dollar per foot. I learned from a carpenter, working for Mr. Cross, that there was not enough inch boards for their own use. John Owens and myself were great friends, and as he had no interest in the lumber, he thought the only way in which I could obtain it, would be to send a team down to the vessel for two thousand feet, and to cut the lumber up as fast as it arrived, and put it in the building as soon as possible, as it would then be of no value to them. I was acquainted with the captain of the vessel, and he informed me that if I sent a written order that he would deliver the lumber, as he had had no orders to the contrary. The name of the teamster who took the order was John Bibelow. I sent for two thousand feet of inch boards. When the captain of the vessel handed Mr. Wright the order, he got so out of temper with John Owens and myself, that I did not know but a war would ensue. The next morning, bright and early, he sent his bill in for two thousand feet of lumber, stolen, at one dollar per foot. The bill called for two thousand dollars, which was to be paid in gold dust. I was very willing to pay the amount required, and would have been glad to have more at the same very low figures. A short time after this, two cargoes, arrived in this city from Oregon, consisting of assorted lumber. One cargo was for Mr. William D. M. Howard; the other was sold out in small quantities to any person who wanted it. None was sold for less than fifty cents per foot. The next difficulty that assailed us in regard to the Parker House, arose through the sickness of Stephen Harris; and it was a difficult job to find any person to take charge of the building; but, as luck would have it, their arrived from Valparaiso a master carpenter, who undertook the building of Howard's warehouse; and the finishing of the Parker House. He received for his services per day, twenty dollars from Mr. Howard, and twenty dollars from Robert A. Parker. In those days it was well worth the money, as he put things through pretty lively. He would go from one building to another several times a day, and he soon got the Parker House finished. Carpenter work in those days was very different from what it is now, as everything had to be done by hand. At the opening of the Parker House I made up my mind to have nothing to do with the boarding; so we rented that department to a man by the name of Crane. He paid his rent by boarding the barkeepers in the Parker House. He soon sold out to a person, by the name of Isaac M. Hall. I found it very difficult to keep up the boarding department in the City Hotel, and would have failed entirely had it not been for the fact that I was personally acquainted with the captains of vessels, and consequently had an opportunity of procuring from them a portion of what they had for the use of their ships. Although they were charging me enormous prices, I still considered that they were doing me a great favor by letting me have such provisions, as I really needed them and could not well do without.

By every vessel that left for Oregon I would send for such articles as butter, onions, pickled tripe, hams, bacon, eggs or anything I could obtain in the way of provisions in the Oregon market. Fresh meats, such as beef and mutton were very reasonable, much cheaper than they are now; pork was very dear. I will name the highest prices I had to pay at that time when purchasing provisions in the city: onions were one dollar per pound; potatoes, seventy five cents per pound; fresh butter, one dollar and fifty cents per pound; eggs, I once paid nine dollars a dozen for, but the common price was six dollars per dozen; for a small roasting pig, I twice paid fifteen dollars; the common price was ten dollars. An old gentleman by the name of Herman, supplied the hotel with vegetables, such as lettuce, cabbage, turnips, radishes, carrots and other small articles for the use of the table. These he brought daily; I had to pay him from fifteen to twenty dollars per day. Such articles as tea, coffee, sugar, spices, etc., were very reasonable, and there were plenty in the market. Another item of considerable expense to me, was the hiring of two hunters and a whale boat to go off up the creeks after game; they would make two trips per week, and were usually very successful. If I had been compelled to purchase in this city every thing I needed in the way of provisions for the table, I would have lost every day, at least, one hundred dollars. Had it not been for the large amount of wine that was generally consumed at the dinner-table, I could never have stood the loses made in the boarding department. Many times it has taken over a thousand dollars worth of wine for one dinner-table; but when I obtained my provisions from Oregon it would be less by one-half than the California prices.

At the opening of the Parker House, there was a grand ball given, followed by a bountiful supper, which was free to all. In expectation of this event, I had been saving a great many delicacies, which could not be obtained except from foreign ports. The invitations were general in those days, there was no distinction as regards persons, Jack was considered as good as his master. After this event the Parker House was in full blast. There were two billiard-rooms, with two tables in each room. There were two bar-rooms. One billiard-room was in the second story, one on the first floor, and one in the cellar. There was a large amount of liquors, wines, and other things on hand, sufficient nowadays to fit out a wholesale establishment. The lower floor, called the billiard-room, was short-lived, as Mr. Parker had an offer of ten thousand dollars per month for the gambling privileges alone. In this room there were seven gambling tables: three for faro, two for monte, and one for rolette; the other was used for general purposes, and these tables made a good business for the bar. The dealer of the table would always treat all at his table, usually, every hour, and if he had a good game, oftener. There was another gambling room back of the bar, which paid three thousand five hundred dollars per month. On the second floor, there were three rooms, which rented for three thousand five hundred dollars per month. There were two other rooms hired for gambling purposes. These were private, and were only engaged for the game of poker. In these rooms the biggest bet I know of, was a one thousand dollar blind. The extravagant rents paid for the the use of these rooms, will show how I was enabled to pay one dollar per foot for lumber. These monte banks generally had in coin on their tables from ten to twenty-five thousand dollars. These large amounts, were for the purpose of keeping any person from tapping their banks. The dealers would usually have no percentage on anything of that kind. I know of one person, who said they had in their bank over forty thousand dollars in gold and silver coin. In the Fall of 1849, Robert A. Parker, through his generosity in helping others, got into trouble about money matters. If he could then have obtained money at a fair rate of interest, he might have saved himself, but one misfortune followed another, until he failed entirely in business.

Source: Brown, John H. Reminiscences and Incidents of "The Early Days" of San Francisco. 1886: San Francisco, CA. Reprinted, 1933: San Francisco.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


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