San Francisco History

The Evolution of Portsmouth Square

by Walter J. Thompson

The formal christening of Portsmouth square took place July 8, 1846. Prior to that time it had figured only as a plaza, but it was the center of activity in the little town of Yerba Buena, which consisted of about fifty houses between the base of Telegraph Hill and Happy Valley. The christening did not effect much of a change. A boy may be named Alexander Augustus, but if he has been dubbed “Reany,” that’s what he’s going to be called when familiar conversation is in order. And a plaza is a plaza, anyhow.

On that July in ‘46 Captain Montgomery of the United States sloop-of-war Portsmouth came ashore with his officers and men in holiday regalia and hoisted the Stars and Stripes in the plaza, while everyone stood around and admired the performance, and a salute of twenty-one guns was fired from the warship. To add to the joyousness of things, Captain Montgomery graciously permitted his name to be used as the title for the strip of beach which from that day became a regular street.

Six months later the name of the town was changed to San Francisco.

After the adventure of the christening, the days came and went in much the same monotonous manner they had before. The summer sun threw its mellow haze over the rather bleak-looking square with the flagpole in the center, and the winter rains brought little rivulets from the hill slope across its area, making long, snake-like ruts in the places whereon the townsfolk had lounged or strolled, dreaming of everything but the avalanche of progress that was soon to overwhelm them.

Suddenly loomed up the shadow of gringo. Offshore the shadow of the sails of the gringo hosts flecked the ocean for thousands of miles. From the south and east came the rumors of long miles of shadows of myriad prairie schooners throwing black bars against the glorious red field of the Western sun. The gold rush was on and the plaza was roused from its sloth to undergo a career of wild adventure and romantic-doings.

In the new town and under the new conditions the plaza was the hub of the community wheel. From it radiated learning, justice and entertainment, all of a rough-and-ready sort maybe, but of sufficient substance and merit to make an impression. It was equipped with an adobe custom-house and a school structure. The latter, it is true, had not been a hilarious success owing to a scarcity of scholars and the lack of a “hookey” officer. Later this schoolhouse became an overwhelming success as a post-office on steamer day. Now it was to be transformed into a temple of justice “a la Almond,” that being the name of the Judge who first opened a Court of First Instance. Judge William B. Almond only tried civil cases, but, there were actions galore in litigation between the owners and masters of the hundreds of ships in the harbor and their passengers and crews in which broken contracts were involved. As a dispenser of equity Judge Almond made a record for himself at the expense of many attorneys who sought to make records for themselves. Seated upon a rickety old chair, with his feet perched higher than his head against a mantel-piece, the Judge would manicure his finger nails with a jackknife while he heard testimony.

“Tell what you know in as few words and as quickly as possible,” was his admonition to witnesses, at the same time cautioning attorneys not to interfere. Both sides having been heard, usually in half an hour, the Court would render judgment like the pop of a pistol. In vain would attorneys ask a chance to sum up the law in the case.

“Wholly unnecessary,” the Court would say, “Next case.”

“But,” attorneys would protest, “what are we here for?”

“Hanged if I know,” the Judge would reply. And clients, too, would wonder why they had hired an attorney. So they called it justice a la Almond. But indignant as lawyers might wax, they could seldom find a flaw in the Court’s decisions. The Judge had a quick discernment and a clear judgement.

Entertainment in the vicinity of the plaza was of varied and exhilarating brands. There was tragedy, there was comedy, there was a high order of patriotism and public spirit in it all. One of its tragical chapters was a hanging that took place, like that of Danny Deever, early in the morning, only the star performer did not have Danny’s chance to see the sun rise. It was in the leafy month of June, 1851—the 14th—and the party strangled was one Jenkins, otherwise John. Jenkins, who was known as a “Sydney duck,” had ambled into a store one day, and, picking up a small safe, well loaded with coin, departed with it under his arm. He ran to the waterfront and sought to escape in a rowboat. Pursuit was too keen, and, like Tom the Piper’s son, John was nabbed, but not before he had thrown the safe overboard. It was fished up, however, and the Vigilance Committee of ‘51, being then in session, judgement was passed upon him.

At 2 A.M. John Jenkins’ soul went whimpering over the heads of a long line of men hauling on a stout rope and an assemblage of his fellow citizens shivering in the cool night air, who had come to see the show. At the same time John Jenkins’ body was “swingin black agin” the end of the adobe Custom-house from the other end of the stout rope, which was slung over a beam.

Patriotism went up to 120 degrees or more every Fourth of July in the plaza, beginning with 1850. That occasion was a kind of doubleheader. Not only did the American Eagle scream from the platform where the flower of the flock of local orators assembled, but the citizens were called upon to participate in another ceremony that of dedicating a new Liberty Pole in place of the one Captain Montgomery had used in his flag-raising ceremony. It was a magnificent flagstaff, straight as an arrow, 111 feet in height, and was presented to the city by the representatives of the citizens of Portland, Or. The gift was accepted by Mayor J. W. Geary, and the whole town cheered while a brand new star-spangled banner glided up to the tapering top of the new pole.

But all this was nothing to the cheering that swept like a tornado over the plaza in the following October, when, on the 29th, was celebrated the first natal day of California as a State. Oh, that was an occasion when the old plaza had a right to glow with enthusiasm and ardor. It was a day set apart for a procession of the various public bodies and inhabitants of the city. There were no spectators. Every one was in the parade, even the Chinese being allowed to get in with their picturesque paraphernalia and “whoopee alle same ‘Melicanman.”

Judge Nathaniel Bennett stirred the enthusiasm to a higher pitch by his oration, and a special ode, written for the occasion by Mrs. Wills, was sung by a big choir. The air, resounded with the popping of small guns and the booming of big guns. Flags flaunted on the breeze from all sides, and the throng on the plaza could catch glimpses of the bunting-bedecked vessels in the bay. Far into the night as the gayety kept up, bonfires and fireworks blazing not only on the plaza, but on Telegraph Hill, Rincon Point and the islands of the bay.

Similar celebrations were carried out on the plaza through many Independence days of the fifties, and other notable gatherings were held there when either momentous questions of public policy or action were discussed and decided and when eloquent words were spoken in behalf of the worth of some respected and popular member of the community whose earthly activities were at a standstill forever. But through several years, while the plaza was looked upon as the only place for public ceremonies, no one seemed to care a rap how it looked. In appearance it resembled nothing more than a big neglected vacant lot. A statue of Eureka with her bear cub had been erected close to the Liberty Pole, but flower or tree there was not one. San Franciscans of the early fifties were not strong on ornamentation of any kind. Buildings were of the homeliest aspect, and outside of certain circles, sartorial equipment was of the plainest. The appreciation of things beautiful was not dead, but was held in the background as inappropriate to existing conditions. It was duly brought out when the city began to assure a substantial aspect. Then did Portsmouth square come into its share of attention. Then did some one plant trees and shrubs and sow grass and lay out winding paths upon its bare surface. Then did some one erect a handsome iron fence about it, with swinging gates at the corners, like the entrance to Lord Lovell’s castle. Through the sixties and seventies the plaza looked as fair and blooming as a maiden at a May festival. Brightly shone the sun over its greenery, its flower-bordered walks, its central fountain and the gilded spear tops on the black iron fence. Cheerfulness and joyous life were its neighbors. On Washington street were rows of pretty shops and brilliantly lighted cafes, and on Kearny street there were more shops and more lights. Of an afternoon, the Exempt Firemen would sit at the entrance to Monumental Engine house on Brenham place and glaze admiringly over the vista of verdancy to the big bell tower on the City Hall or else stroll around the square swapping gossip and jokes with the string of ruddy-faced, genial hackmen who surrounded the plaza with their shiny black carriages, awaiting calls for funerals or weddings. It was not much of a lounging place for Cupid’s votaries, but couples strayed through it, coming from various parts of the city to visit Peter Job’s or some other of the ice cream boudoirs on Washington street. Fashion and beauty were to be seen in that neighborhood in those days, and the old plaza held its head higher than ever, as it had a right to do.

Then came the blight. Some said it was the Chinese. But, anyhow, the character of the neighborhood was changed overnight. No more did gay parties stroll down that way by day and evening. One by one the bright lights began to fade, and such gleams as were left were dim and smoky. Even the children, who once loved to dance through the pleasure ground, seemed to have been suddenly transported. Strange lettering appeared on signs over new industries—lettering that looked like the labels on packs of firecrackers; strange voices spoke in a jargon that was not understandable; there was no ring or vim in the shuffling footsteps on the pave; faces were cadaverous and yellow, and—well, maybe it was the Chinese after all. Frankly, it was rough on the old plaza. Soon it became shabby genteel; then it became a regular down-and-outer. Its fence rusted, its shrubs were trodden down by careless feet; the gates hung awry; the fountain water wasn’t fit to drink; loungers, unshaven and unshorn rubbed the green paint off its benches; the hackmen looked gloomy and discouraged, and the Exempt Firemen glared aloft as they hurried past it to some Kearny-street exchange to drown their disgust in libations. Shabby and bedraggled, the old plaza had become the companion of the outcast and the degraded ones of the city. Even the Fourth of July parades avoided it by turning into California street.

So the catastrophe of 1906 found the place, and out of the fire and smoke it emerged phoenix-like purified a bit, if not rejuvenated, in the days of distress it served nobly as a refuge for homeless ones, and even as a temporary burial place for victims of disaster. And today, if there are no traces of its former grandeur about it, Portsmouth square tries to maintain a staid and respectable front, handicapped as it is, and probably ever will be, by the environment of the floating population which has fastened itself upon the district. If the statue of Eureka has disappeared, there still stands the monument dedicated to the gentle and gifted soul who once, before he became famous and a Tusitaia of the South seas, sat upon its benches and studied human nature at close range and dreamed his wonderful romances. Upon that monument is a scrap of Stevensonian philosophy well chosen for the study of those who frequent the spot:

“To be honest, to be kind, to earn a little, to spend a little less,” etc.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 29 October 1916. 28.

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