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San Francisco in 1856

Following the cleanup of crime by the 1856 Committee of Vigilance came a stimulating improvement in business and prospects, and it was on June 11, 1856, that the City and County of San Francisco was formed, and a new county called "San Mateo" was created out of the remainder of the old County of San Francisco.

What a strange town was that, the San Francisco of 1856, its 30,000 people in speedy transition from a city of tents and shacks to one of brick and stone buildings, architecturally on a par with those of Atlantic seaboard cities, and its flimsy wooden and more pretentious sheet iron buildings filling in the spaces in between. The idea of permanency had come to prosperous Argonauts, and some of the three-story brick and granite buildings, then erected endure to this day, having survived all of San Francisco's trembling troubles, redevelopment and devastating fires. A visitor to 1856 San Francisco could pass down Montgomery Street and pause at the northwest corner of California Street in front of the granite building erected in 1852, which so long was the headquarters of Wells Fargo & Co.'s Express and the Union Club, and stop again at the corner of Washington Street to look upon the "Montgomery Block," built in 1853, and in which at different periods many of San Francisco's most noted men have had their offices, and where that part of the valuable Sutro Library which escaped the disaster of 1906, was housed. [Despite its history, the "Monkey Block" was demolished in the late 1950s to make way for the Transamerica Pyramid.]

The traveler to 1856 would have ample selection from almost sixty hotels. Through the association of their names, these appealed for patronage. Among them were: Brooklyn, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Germania, Isthmus, Keystone, Louisiana, Mobile Exchange, New Texas, Queen City, St. Charles, St. Nicholas, Tamany Hall, United States and Western. The American then stood on Montgomery Street, on the site in later years occupied by the Nevada Bank Building that was destroyed in 1906. The Globe, kept by J.P. Schaefer, was at the corner of Dupont (Grant Ave.) and Jackson streets. Isaac Hillman kept "Hillman's Temperance House" at 80 and 82 Davis Street in 1856. The International at Jackson and Kearny for a generation was a profitable investment. Parish & Wood conducted the Niantic, built on the hull of that old ship, on the corner of Clay and Sansome. "The Tehama House," kept by George W. Frink, and noted in political annals, occupied the present site of the Bank of California. The Oriental of A. Richardson was at the corner of Bush and Battery, while a block away, at Bush and Sansome, Joseph Rasette presided over the equally noted "Rasette House," which, in later years, gave place to the sumptuous Cosmopolitan of the '60s. The St. Francis, of the earlier period was at the corner of Grant Ave. and Clay. It was not associated with its later namesake at Union Square.

Photograph of the What Cheer HouseOn the corner of Sacramento and Leidesdorff, R.B. Woodward ran the "What Cheer House," where he accumulated the money that made possible San Francisco's most famous public resort, "Woodward's Gardens," out on Mission Street at the corner of Fourteenth. Gen. Grant, then an ex-Army lieutenant, once stayed at the "What Cheer House."

These old-time hotel operators well understood the art of advertising. The "ad" on the wall of the Rail Road House, a four- story brick building on Sacramento Street, extending through to Commercial and near Front Street, said "A first-class hotel; fire proof; water and all modern improvements in every story; situated centrally, and near the landings. The cheapest and best house on the Pacific, and capable of accommodating two hundred persons at one time. Single and double rooms, and the best of beds and bedding, always clean." The beautiful little locomotive on the weathervane over the tower of the building was the first one in California, and was a harbinger of the hoped for time when the city should be lined by rail with "the States."

The year 1856 found spaces between the numerous hills designated by names of which are long since forgotten. Out back of the Rassette House in the neighborhood of Mission and First streets was "Happy Valley," built up with pretty little homes, a school and church, and where Peter Donahue, at First and Mission, has his brass and irons works, and laid the foundation for the Union Iron Works. With James and Michael Donahue, in 1849, Peter had established the first iron foundry in California. It was also there that the gas works were located.

A little farther on, and between First and Third, Folsom and Bryant streets, was "Pleasant Valley." Between Powell and Mason, opening down toward North Beach, was "Spring Valley." Out among the sand hills, at the present corner of Market and Powell streets, was "St. Ann's Valley," and on its slope, where the Emporium now stands at Fifth and Market streets, Father Maraschi, S.J., had built his little wooden church and one small school room, from which humble beginning the great church and University of St. Ignatius has grown. Perhaps an idea of the surroundings may be gathered in the story about the good Father employing a man for nearly two weeks to dig a depression in the sand hill back of his school, so the boys coming from Mission Street might more easily reach the classroom. The trade winds of summer did not approve of the work, and in an afternoon filled up the depression with sand. The boys climbed up and slid down it as before.

Out beyond the western limits of the surveyed city, beyond Larkin street, the furthest bound in that direction was "Washwoman's Lake" or "Washwoman's Lagoon," around which much of the city's laundering was done, and beside which the white sheets and pillow slips of ocean steamers dried in the westerly winds.

Map of Yerba Buena CemeteryOn the triangular block bounded by McAllister, Market and Larkin streets, out in the sand hills was Yerba Buena Cemetery. Its ample space had been nearly filled by victims of a cholera outbreak.

Two years earlier, Lone Mountain Cemetery, known as Laurel Hill, had been impressively dedicated. It was then a day's journey distant from the city, and no one dreamed the homes of the living would ever approach it.

There was a plank road to the Mission that was the boulevard of the town in 1852-53, the first established public drive and public promenade. Winding among the sand hills from Mission or Howard streets, the road then boasted its four horse omnibus line and its two toll gates. On every pleasant day, from morning to night, it was thronged with men of fashion and women of pleasure, idlers, gamblers and babies. Here San Francisco took the air. For a time it was the resort of San Francisco, the same as Market Street of the present now serves. Out in the country, "two miles southwest of San Francisco," stood the landmark Mission Dolores, at what is now Sixteenth and Dolores streets. Around it clustered adobe houses and a little settlement, which was connected with the the city of San Francisco by plank roads on Mission and Folsom streets, crossing marshy stretches and passing intervening sand hills. Half hourly 'buses traversed these roads between Portsmouth Plaza and the Mansion House, which had been established in an outlying building of the old Mission.

Early photograph of South ParkOver near South Beach, on the block bounded by Third, Second, Bryant and Brannan streets, George Gordon had located South Park on the "only level spot of equal area free from sand within the city limits." A public garden 75 by 550 feet, had been laid out in the center, "surrounded by ornamental iron railing," around which ran avenues forty feet wide. Bordering these avenues two story brick houses were being erected. The brick for each was made from the clay excavated from its basement. An old announcement said: "Water is obtainable at a depth of 25 feet. The general situation of South Park is one of great beauty and salubrity. Omnibus lines run to it every ten minutes."

That statement of water at a depth of 25 feet was not without its charm to old settlers, who still obtained water peddled around town in carts at twenty-five cents a bucket. Wells and windmills were not uncommon in different parts of the city, while artesian wells were also utilized. At the San Francisco Steam Sugar Refinery, on the corner of Harrison at Eighth street, two artesian wells discharged 70,000 gallons of water daily five feet above the surface of the ground. A writer in 1856 said: "The want of an abundant supply of pure, soft water for household purposes, to say nothing of its importance in other respects, is certainly a serious evil in this city. Nothing speaks so convincingly of the purity of the atmosphere of this locality as the absence of anything like pestilential diseases, notwithstanding the accumulations of filth and garbage in the numerous courts of the city and the horrible state of many of the slips and docks. Very much of this filth is justly chargeable to the scarcity of water, which, purchased by the bucket, is too expensive to be used except for the indispensable purposes of drinking, cooking and very slight lavations. The organizations formed with a view to meet this requirement seem to be too much embarrassed with objects of private speculation to subserve adequately the necessities of the public, in this most vital matter. Steps should be taken at an early day to make such provision as is required, and to retain a proper control over it in the hands of the people." The San Francisco Water Works was organized in June 1857 to supply water to the town from Lobos Creek, out near the Presidio. It was later absorbed by the Spring Valley Water Works, which was incorporated in June 1858. Spring Valley Water Works was bought by the city in the 1930s.

The Civic Center of 1856 San Francisco was Portsmouth Square, or, as it was more generally known, "The Plaza." Facing it, on Kearny Street, stood City Hall.

Photo of City Hall at Portsmouth SquareThis had originally been the Jenny Lind Theatre, built by Thomas Maguire, with a seating capacity of two thousand. In 1852 the municipality purchased it, and altering the interior for city uses, occupied it until the completion of the building at McAllister and Larkin streets in the 1870s. Later it was the site of the Hall of Justice, and in the 1960s the lot was sold and a Holiday Inn was built. When the Board of Supervisors had refused to pay the city's gas bills, and the gas company had removed all the lanterns from the gas lights on the streets, and turned off the gas to City Hall, the supervisors each with a candle brought from home, stumbled up the narrow stairs of that old City Hall to their meeting room to discuss the lighting situation.

All the 'buses left the Plaza for North Beach, South Beach, Mission Dolores and the Presidio, while from the same corner stages for points down the peninsula, and later the overland stages, made their departure. Around the sides of the Plaza, the useful and well patronized hacks stood in solid line when their services were not required.

Around the Plaza the gambling saloons of the earlier days had been chiefly located. The "El Dorado," one of the most noted of these, was converted into the Hall of Records. The leading retail stores were near, and numerous churches were not far distant.

Across the Plaza, at 15 Brenham Place, stood the engine house of Monumental Six. The first Great Fire, December 24, 1849, caused a volunteer fire department to come into existence. Companies had been formed, as in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities. Broderick Company hand-drawn fire apparatusThose who had belonged to fire companies in those cities formed the nucleus of these local companies, which became rallying places for former citizens of Eastern cities. Active and honorary memberships in these companies was a coveted honor. Company pride caused much rivalry. Rosters of these old fire companies contain the names of many men who became noted in our city's annals.

No city, in its infancy, gathered within its confines so heterogeneous a population as did our own. From all parts of the world young men had come, lured by reports of nearby abundant gold fields.

Social conditions in San Francisco has become well established by 1856. The exuberance of youthful endeavor had settled down to a more sedate maturity. Business houses had been established, some of which continued into the late twentieth century. The churches and schools of had been growing and the comradeship of struggle had promoted the fraternal organizations such as the Native Sons and the Society of California Pioneers. drawing of Mechanics' Fair in San FranciscoThere was also the extraordinary success of the first industrial fair of the Mechanics' Institute on September 8, 1857, in a pavilion especially built for the purpose on the site afterwards used by the Lick House on Montgomery at Post streets until it was destroyed in 1906. It was the first presentation of the industries and natural products of California, and the residents of the state awoke to the great variety and immense abundance of the resources of the state. The exhibit proved so popular that it was extended to four weeks; the forerunner of the Mid-Winter Fair of 1894.

The distance separating San Francisco from "the States" created local business conditions and customs, such as "Steamer Day" that time has abolished.

San Francisco News Letter
September 1925

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