San Francisco History

The Making of Market Street

by Walter J. Thompson

Sixty years ago in appearance Market street might well have been compared with a freckle-faced-tousle-haired kiddie out for a day of all-round sport and dressed accordingly—a kiddie of the Tom Sawyer sort, now splashing with gusto his bare feet in the waters of the bay, now gamboling over the rough plank sidewalks and out over the stretch of sand dunes, and now merrily chasing butterflies amid the fields of golden poppies that grew upon the slopes of Twin Peaks.

As a thoroughfare it did not possess the full confidence of the community. In fact, it was looked at askance by the solid men of the day who were making a business of building up the future metropolis. Montgomery street was their choice for a main thoroughfare, and every effort was made to perpetuate it as such. For a while it looked as though they were going to get away with their plan. But there was a deal of cunning displayed in the street map of the city as laid out by old Jasper O’Farrell, and the manner in which he had linked the various streets, as yet only to be seen on paper, with Market street was sufficient to bring that thoroughfare into prominence and make it what it has since become, the great main artery of the city’s business and traffic. For quite a while it was not a promising child of the street family. Nor did it show precociousness.

In the early sixties the only improvements on the street were east of Kearny street. To the west an effort was being made to get rid of the sand incubus with the aid of the so-called “paddies,” which were first operating under the direction of S. D. Gilmore, and later by David Hewes, who was christened “Paddy.” A channel was cleared through the sand and steam dummy and a few rattle-trap cars that seemed ready to fall apart at the least provocation as they jolted over the loosely laid rails, ran to Hayes Valley and the Mission. On the fringe of Happy Valley, where the Palace stands, were the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, the Sacred Heart School and some other scattered buildings. From Second street down to the water’s edge, which then was at about Steuart street, were a lot of lumber yards and mills and factories representing a variety of local industries, and numerous ramshackle structures labeled “Mechanics’ Exchanges,” where the toilers of the vicinity exchanged lucre for liquor. At the foot of Market street a clumsy ferry-boat owned by a man named Charles Minturn made periodical trips to the Oakland shore. It was half a dollar a trip. It wasn’t much of a prospect, was it?

Toward 1865 Market street began to perk up, and, once started, it kept right on perking. That decade between 1860 and 1870 was a marvelous one for the city of progress and development. It was a decade of golden opportunity in which the foundation stones of many enduring enterprises and substantial fortunes were laid. Those years saw the extinction of the hopes of those pioneers who had dreamed of extending the city southward along the bay shore and turning the cold shoulder of disdain upon the hills and vales stretching to the ocean beach. A band of bold speculators made one final rally in behalf of this extension and the undoing of Market street. They sought to extend Montgomery street southward past the base of Rincon Hill, where the abodes of the aristocracy were already sprouting like spring flowers. It was a failure which even a legislative enabling act could not support. The only trace left of that wild scheme is New Montgomery street, running to Howard, and there coming to an ignominious end. The legislative enabling act died of a broken heart. Market street was not to be deprived of its birthright by any such underhand methods. As the sand disappeared, leaving a broad, level tract, it looked good to the San Francisco citizen, and as he saw at the upper end, radiant in the golden Mission sunshine, the pretty Twin Peaks beckoning smilingly to him he realized that here was the thoroughfare he was seeking ready for his developing hand. It was then that Market street stepped into its own and began a career that has been spectacular and glorious. Once it began to grow there was no checking it, which no one desired to do. Buildings arose on both sides overnight, it seemed. Probably they were not of pretentious proportions, but they served well the business purposes of their owners. It was recognized from the start that the street was to be the home of business. The hum of industry at the east end had blazed the way. With the growth of Market street all the converging streets west of Kearny began to throb with the pulse of the new life and building boom took possession of them. It was all necessary, too, to accommodate the swelling population of those days of mining and industrial ferment. Market street became the pride of every San Franciscan, and the pride grew stronger with its daily growth. Toward the close of the sixties it presented more than a creditable appearance as far as Fifth street. Beyond its growth was somewhat slower. Old Yerba Buena Cemetery had been swept away and there was nothing to prevent it from linking itself and the city with Hayes Valley and the Mission in the most intimate way, and it did so, thus binding together one big neighborhood town. Its growth was along roughly hewn lines typical of the times and the people. This condition was not of long duration and the substantial samples of architecture soon came to lend an aspect of beauty to the broad street. Starting with the Palace, then the Grand Hotel, and following up with the Baldwin at Powell street, and many another handsome structure in between, the street took on a becoming metropolitan air that was almost a swagger. The swagger came, though, with the arrival of the era of skyscrapers, inaugurated by the construction of the tall Chronicle building at Kearny street, opposite where that huge sand hill had stood but a few years before. Then came the other tall ones until—well, we all look back with sighs of regret to the memory pictures of the street as it was before that fiery besom of 1906 swept down the line.

There are other and dearer associations connected with the street, though, then those based on cold architecture and steel and brick material which endear it to old San Franciscans. As it grew in popularity it became the center of all community celebrations and affairs of a public character. Formerly parades and all hurrah events were confined to Montgomery and Kearny street, and perhaps, to fashionable Stockton street. The neglected wastes of Market only heard the echo of the revelry and general enjoyment. Now all was changed and all scenes of this kind were shifted to the big thoroughfare. It was an ideal stage for those that were pulled off.

It is worthy of comment that before this period in the early days of the street it had been the scene of one notable affair that in point of enthusiasm was not exceeded in later years. This took place in May, 1861, when the spirit of Union patriotism spread itself in the city and a monster mass meeting was held at the gore corner of Market and Post streets. Thousands of citizens assembled and cheered the ringing words of the orators on a platform around which floated flags and banners upon which were emblazoned patriotic sentiments such as “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” and “The Union, the whole Union and nothing but the Union.” How the very ground trembled with the tread of those myriad feet and the air reverberated with the rousing shouts of approval of the declaration in favor of undivided adherence to the Union! How the shade of the spirit of rebellion was exorcized by the blare of the brass band and the measure of inspiring patriotic airs! This was Market street’s first celebration, and Montgomery street did not lay claim to it, even though it were on its line. It was a celebration that was not excelled as to enthusiasm by that other never-to-be-forgotten event of nearly twenty years ago when the city threw open its arms and in the broad expanse of Market street embraced her gallant soldier boys when they came marching home from their campaigning in the far-off islands of the sea where gallant Dewey had covered himself with immortal glory in Manila bay.

It was a gala day, too, when the first Fourth of July parade turned out of Montgomery street and spread in splendor on the wide thoroughfare. Oh, yes, the street was proud of that event and so were those who saw it—just as proud as when upon another occasion the first bright blue horse car drawn by two horses sped adown the newly laid rails from Valencia street to the front. From that time Market street figured in all of the plans of grand marshals of parades and the managers of pageants and street celebrations in a most conspicuous manner. It became the place of formation of divisions and the assembling districts of feature units. Those were the days of parades. Holidays and any time of rejoicing were signalized by an outpouring of uniformed and gayly bedecked marchers. Every holiday had its parade. The Fourth of July parades of those times were something worth seeing for their wealth of color and eye-pleasing features. Even exuberant youth would forget firecrackers and fireworks to follow that picturesque pageant along its line of march. Who could resist the attractiveness of those glittering military accoutrements, the bright uniforms of the firemen and the many civic societies, the picturesque floats and the bands of music galore? Then there was the 17th of March, when Hibernian green would cast a cheerful verdant glow over Market street like a mantle as the long lines of paraders in regalia and with banners and flags flying free to the breeze swept along the street while the wooden sidewalks were thronged with admirers. And the political parades, the blazing torches, the illuminated transparencies, the sputtering Roman candles, the screaming rockets that mingled with the stars, the blazing redfire that chased shadows of the night over the tops of the buildings and the hoarse cheers of enthusiastic thousands—all these things Market street saw and claimed as its own.

Later came the pageant period. There was the magnificent parade in honor of General U. S. Grant in 1879. Market street was wild with joy that evening. Then there was the great gathering of Knights Templar in 1883 and three years later came the great encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic when the veterans, whose ranks had not yet been thinned by the hand of death marched by thousands over the white basalt rocks and the strips of broad crossing stones through a cityfull of enthusiastic admirers who cheered again and again for those battle heroes and for General Sherman, General Logan and many other commanders of note that were with them. On all of those occasions Market street were spanned by triumphal arches, through which the paraders passed and around which the populace rallied to cheer them to the last gasp. Six U. S. presidents has Market street smiled upon as they rode in carriages along its length—Grant, Hayes, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft—and on each occasion has its buildings been ablaze with decorations. Another adjunct to Market street which San Franciscans will always remember was the famous sand lot where Denis Kearney carried on his “Chinese Must Go” campaign and upon the Fourth of July the city provided a pyrotechnical display which was admired by the populace gathered on the high sand hill at Eighth street. When the industrious sand paddies swept away this grand stand the fireworks moved from Market street forever. Market street was not proud of its sand lot. There wasn’t anything promising or uplifting about it and every one sympathized with the street and felt better when the City Hall was completed and Marshall square was an exhibit in its place.

Through all of its development and up to the time of the big fire Market street, however, maintained a rather anomalous position as a thoroughfare. It was a condition forced upon it by the peculiar distribution of the city’s population and it caused no hard feelings. With the solving of the slope-climbing problem by the introduction of cable cars the growth of the city was hillward and California street and other eminences became dotted with homes and divided into fashionable districts. At the same time a large part of the community was settling on the level land south of Market street. It was close to the hives of industry where they were employed, and as their number increased at a more rapid rate than did those hillites the district soon became congested. Small streets were cut through the large blocks and the homes multiplied. And they were real homes, for the dwellers there were thrifty and nearly every one owned his own residence. Of course, they shared the community regard for Market street and insisted upon enjoying their share of it. So when the fashionable hillites appropriated the north side of Market street as a promenade offshoot from Kearny street, the flatters filed a homestead claim upon the south side. The dividing line was the car track in the center, and then the blue horse cars retired in favor of the vari-colored cale cars the district of the flatters was facetiously referred to as “south of the slot.” And the flatters enjoyed the distinction. The difference between the two sides of the street was marked. The large stores were all on the north side and of an afternoon the gay shopping throngs and the matinee butterflies gave a gorgeous appearance to that side which threw a shade over the south side. But on Saturday nights, when the south-of-the-slotters turned out for their shopping and their amusement, they gave an invigorating holiday or gala night appearance to their side, which was quite as gorgeous, if not in costumes and glad duds, at least in joyousness of demeanor and general happiness of aspect. And the dimes and quarters were spent as freely as were the dollars and gold pieces across the way. Through it all there was no clannishness or rivalry of classes. The crowds crossed and recrossed the street and mingled in a happy state of neighborliness.

These conditions prevailed almost to the time of the holocaust. But they now rest with the memories of the grand parades and pageants of the gold old days that we love to dream of and half wish back again. Looking on the Market street of today, the rejuvenated and rebuilt Market street, one can hardly wish that, though with its fine new buildings, its surge of business life, its path of gold and its scintillating thousands of gleaming lights, it is far different from the old Market street, but the San Franciscan of old, though he shudders at the threatened eight-rail steel track belt for its surface and multipiled trolley caravans, cannot do otherwise than rejoice with the energetic later generation responsible for the metamorphosis and swell with pride over its abounding magnificence and glory, which give promise of being enhanced in the near future a thousandfold.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 18 February 1917. 26.

Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License