From Village to Metropolis

Historical Essay

by William Issel and Robert Cherny

continued from part one

B-Graves 1850-51-left I0012427A.jpg

1850-51 view of ships abandoned in Yerba Buena Cove.

Photo: Roy D. Graves collection, Online Archive of California I0012427A

James Marshall’s discovery of gold on January 24, 1848, triggered a vast migration of profound social and economic impact. Historian Carey McWilliams captured the essence in his California: The Great Exception (1949): “The lights went on all at once” in California. San Francisco became an immediate beneficiary. Arriving gold seekers needed a landing place from which they could make the trek to the gold fields, and San Francisco had the best-developed port in the Bay Area. Miners in the mother lode needed tools and provisions, and the wharves already in place in San Francisco offered merchants a port from which to transfer goods from clipper ships to river steamers for the up-river voyage to Sacramento. Younger sons of leading Boston families sought business opportunities in a place less clogged with competition than New England and flocked to the rudimentary houses of commerce going up on Montgomery Street. Levi Strauss, a Jewish immigrant from Germany living in New York, moved his merchant business to San Francisco and took his stock of dry goods with him. Other New Yorkers, including many Irish Catholic artisans, carried only a set of tools and a hope for instant wealth.

By the summer of 1849, Yerba Buena cove had become crowded with abandoned vessels. The village consisted of a helter-skelter assembly of canvas tents, wooden shacks, and warehouses, and the population, according to one observer, “numbering perhaps 5,000, is as heterogenous as their habitations. Such a meeting of languages and jargons and of tongues the world has seldom seen. It is a modern Babel.” Bayard Taylor wrote that “of all the marvelous phases of the history of the Present, the growth of San Francisco is the one which will most tax the belief of the Future.” He found the city “an actual metropolis . . . filled with an active and enterprising people and exhibiting every mark of permanent commercial prosperity”(21)

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1850-51 view of ships abandoned in Yerba Buena Cove, further south than image just above.

Photo: Roy D. Graves collection, Online Archive of California I0012428A

Like other American cities, San Francisco experienced a dizzying rate of population turnover between 1850 and 1870, especially among blue-collar workers. For restless members of the laboring class, “moving on" was something of a vocation. Only one in ten stayed in the city for three decades, and three out of four left within eight years of arriving. But if thousands left to try their luck elsewhere, many thousands took their places. By the beginning of the Civil War, San Francisco (then the fifteenth largest city in the nation) had a population of 50,000. By the time the war ended in 1865, the city’s population had passed the 100,000 mark. By 1870, only nine cities in the nation outranked San Francisco, and of the country’s fifty largest cities San Francisco was the only one west of St. Louis.(22)

Compared with the country as a whole, San Francisco, while not quite “a modern Babel," certainly contained a diverse population. Whereas only one in ten of the U.S. population in 1850 was born overseas, half of San Francisco’s residents claimed foreign birthplaces. In 1860, the city’s population of foreign-born remained about the same, putting it in third place among Americas immigrant centers. The population also tended to have a distinctly urban and Northeastern–Middle Atlantic background. This was especially true for the city's merchants, half of whom hailed from either Massachusetts or New York.(23)

By 1860, visitors to San Francisco could find almost 3,000 Chinese and almost 2,000 Afro-Americans among the roughly 57,000 residents, but the most numerous faces on the streets were those of the immigrants from the British empire and Germany. By the end of the sixties, those born in Ireland, Germany, China, and Italy accounted for one of every three San Franciscans. San Francisco stood not only as one of the nation’s leading immigrant centers but also as a particularly Irish—and Roman Catholic—City.

Whether native-born American, Irish, or German, Catholic or Protestant, black, yellow, or white, San Francisco’s heavily male population spent its working days on or near the wharves, warehouses, countinghouses, and workshops of the waterfront district. Women steadily increased their share of the population to about 40 percent by the mid-sixties; most spent their working days in their homes. The lives of both women and men were molded by the dramatic importance of the city as the freight handler of California and mercantile headquarters of the West. Although a thorough tour of the city on the eve of the Civil War would have turned up about two dozen farms of over one hundred acres each, where families cultivated vegetables and dairy products for local consumption, the lion’s share of the city’s economic livelihood did not come from either agriculture or industry. Instead, building on pre-gold rush beginnings, San Francisco’s merchants, bankers, and real estate developers created during these years a preeminently trade- oriented urban center, complete with financial institutions and the industry necessary to serve the needs of a regional and local economy relatively isolated from the eastern United States.

San Francisco merchants expanded their trade so quickly in the four years after the discovery of gold that only three cities—New York, Boston, and New Orleans—could claim a larger share of the nation’s foreign commerce. By the time General Pierre Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and opened the Civil War, San Francisco’s harbor ranked number six in total freight handled. As California agriculture developed during the late fifties and sixties, goods for the coastal trade began to fill the holds of more ships than did goods for eastern ports, but trade with the Pacific islands and the Far East also grew. San Francisco merchants developed a near-monopoly of the Hawaiian and Philippine trade, created a respectable business with Japan, and shared the China trade with New York City.

San Francisco merchants eagerly sought public support for the promotion of the city’s commercial success. The subsidy granted the Pacific Mail Steamship line in 1846 set an important precedent. The Chamber of Commerce, organized in 1849, actively pursued similar government aid. When the Tariff Act of 1861 reduced the duty-free warehousing privilege from three years to three months, the Chamber bristled at the potential injury to San Francisco’s economy. “San Francisco, occupying a peculiar and commanding geographical position,” the Chamber pointed out, “is engaged in opening upon the Pacific, a new and boundless field for American commerce. . . . Congress should, so far as the Constitution permits, make sure special provision for them as circumstances might demand.” Because Victoria, British Columbia, operated as a free port, the Chamber feared that “with unwise restrictions upon the Commerce of San Francisco, Victoria may, by the aid of English capital,” take over as “the grand distributing depot of the Pacific.” San Francisco’s Milton S. Latham, former congressman, collector of the port, and Democratic member of the Senate in 1861 (he was later to become manager of the London and San Francisco Bank), worked with the Chamber of Commerce on behalf of a warehouse bill designed to counter this danger to the city’s trade.(25)

Compared with commerce, banking, and real estate, manufacturing played a minor role in the local economy. True, the city ranked number nine in the value of manufactured goods produced in 1860, with over two hundred manufacturing establishments, but 52 percent of all manufacturing was related to the refining of gold and other metals. Also, the value of the manufactured goods reflected the fact that wages in San Francisco were almost three times higher than in the Middle Atlantic region. The city showed no signs of a large industrial sector, and only 1.6 per thousand of the city’s population worked in industry compared with 5 per thousand for the country as a whole.

San Francisco’s economy developed according to a pattern of decidedly uneven prosperity. During the decade of the fifties, the local economy experienced four separate cycles of boom and bust, related more to a local oversupply of goods than to national economic patterns. The infant trade unions of the city tended to collapse during hard times, and during the prosperous years inflated wages and the high turnover of laborers kept opposition to employers at a minimum. Chamber of Commerce efforts to bring stability and efficiency into the market had only minimal success, and efforts to lure larger numbers of immigrants to the city in order to keep down labor costs proved only a bit more successful.(26)

The two decades after the discovery of gold witnessed the transformation of San Francisco from a staging area for the gold fields to a commercial city, which, except for its fogs, gusty winds, and sandy hills, possessed all the social characteristics of its eastern and midwestern counterparts. The city’s share of single men living in hotels near their places of business declined, and the numbers of families, women, and children gradually increased. By 1865, residential neighborhoods could be clearly distinguished from the central business district. The city's working-class majority divided itself into a transient and unmarried group, who filled boardinghouses along the northern and southern waterfront, and a more permanent family sector. The general direction of working-class residential development, whether of bachelors or of families, was into the flat land south of Market Street. Merchants, who had lived intermixed with their employees in the early years, gradually sought respectability by segregating themselves by moving northwest of Market Street or by ensconcing themselves in exclusive South Park (modeled after similar enclaves in London) or by building imposing showplace houses on Rincon Hill.

Respectability turned out to be neither as easily achieved as the widely publicized success stories promised nor as elusive as it might have been in the West Country of Ireland, the small towns of Bavaria, or the mines and mills of Wales and England. White males born in the United States possessed a decided advantage in San Francisco, as they did throughout the country. Considerably less than half of the population, they filled three out of four of the high-status merchant positions. At the other extreme, Chinese residents lived under segregated conditions, which resulted in their being regarded as “the lowest order in the city.” Between these extremes, San Franciscans sorted themselves into class, ethnic, and regional groupings that transcended occupational classifications and contributed to the creation of the complex social mosaic. The Irish immigrants and their children, though heavily dependent on laboring jobs, made slow but steady gains in white-collar positions and property ownership but lagged behind Germans and the native-born. The small Afro-American population, though not squeezed as a group into segregated quarters, almost always worked in the service sector of the economy. Germans, very numerous in middle- and lower-status merchant firms, improved their fortunes steadily. German Jews, estimated to be well over half the German population, frequently made “spectacular” improvements.(27)

As planked sidewalks and streetcars replaced muddy lanes and mounted adventurers, San Francisco’s social structure assumed a shape similar to that of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Brooklyn. Fewer than 5 percent of the male labor force of the city owned between 75 and 80 percent of personal and real property in the fifties. Six of every ten very wealthy men came from the merchant class, and four of every five were born in the United States. (By contrast, half the city’s population had been born overseas.) Despite the high rate of business failure due to the ups and downs of the economy and despite the tendency of large numbers of merchants to stay only a few years, a permanent core of settled wealthy Protestant merchants developed during the fifties and sixties. Catholic and Jewish merchants, though in smaller numbers, made their way into this group of wealthy businessmen, as did a few black merchants.(28)

The city’s similarity to commercial ports elsewhere in the United States, clearly discernible in its social structure, extended even to “the appearance of the business community in San Francisco” as early as 1850. Bayard Taylor found that

slouched felt hats gave way to narrow-brimmed black beavers; flannel shirts were laid aside, and white linen, though indifferently washed, appeared instead; dress and frock coats, of the fashion of the previous year in the Atlantic side, came forth from trunks and sea-chests; in short, a San Francisco merchant was almost as smooth and spruce in his outward appearance as a merchant anywhere else.(29)

Regardless of their dress, the few merchants in San Francisco’s black population found themselves subject to the kinds of prejudice and discrimination that flourished everywhere during the pre-Civil War decade. Like Jews and the Irish, who suffered less discrimination on the Pacific Coast than on the Atlantic Coast, blacks fared somewhat better in San Francisco than in the South. According to The Annals of San Francisco, an early history: “The Chinese and the free negroes, of whom there was now a goodly sprinkling, were ‘the hewers of wood and the drawers of water’ of the place.”

In 1863, Charlotte L. Brown, a black woman, was put off one of the Omnibus Railroad Company’s streetcars when a passenger reminded the conductor that “colored persons were not allowed to ride.” While the case was settled in 1866, with the court awarding damages to Brown, the defense attorney claimed to be accurately describing community attitudes in his statement that “mulatto and negro persons were and have been regarded by the entire Public of the said City of San Francisco (with a few exceptions) ... as unfit to be associates or fellow travellers.” The attorney was Irish-born future U.S. Senator Eugene Casserly. “The Admission of such negro or mulatto persons to ride in this defendents [sic] cars as passengers,” he wrote, “was and has been extremely disagreeable to said public.” Casserly insisted that if the president of the company, Irish entrepreneur Peter Donahue, allowed blacks to ride, “it would greatly prejudice this defendant and its cars with said public and cause it very generally to cease using or travelling in the same.”(30) Historian Douglas Henry Daniels concludes that “prejudice was mild compared to anti-Chinese sentiments or Negrophobia in the south, but it was still disturbing, partly because it was not as iron-clad as elsewhere.”(31)

For black San Franciscans and the Chinese, as for the more privileged and less subordinated Jewish, Irish, German, and old-stock Protestant residents of the city, “associational life” offset the harsher aspects of nineteenth-century urban existence. Like their counterparts in other towns and cities across the nation, the settlers of the fifties and sixties expressed their attachment to national origin, cultural heritage, and social or economic status by means of voluntary organizations. San Franciscans, like the Americans observed by Tocqueville east of the Mississippi a generation earlier had “not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”(32)

Geary & Stockton 1867 Mechanics Pavilion wnp71.1466.jpg

The old Mechanics Pavilion on the west side of Stockton Street between Post and Geary in 1867, before it moved west to make way for the new Union Square.

Photo: wnp71.1466

Churches, fraternal lodges, benevolent societies, social clubs, literary circles, trade unions, and merchants’ organizations sprang up in San Francisco. The black community communicated through its newspapers, the Pacific Appeal and the Elevator: convened four separate Colored California conventions between 1855 and 1865; and worshipped in a number of black churches.(33) Irish settlers celebrated the city’s first St. Patrick's Day in 1851 and formed their Hibernian Society in February 1852. The first all-women’s group in the Irish community was the St. Mary's Ladies Society founded in 1859 by the Sisters of Mercy. Irish military associations, such as the McMahon Grenadier Guard and the Montgomery Guard (1859), and charity groups such as the Irish-American Benevolent Society (1860), coexisted with political organizations such as the Fenians (founded between 1856 and 1859). Irish Catholic churches (St. Patrick's on Market Street was founded in 1851) grew in number with the population and moved uptown with it in the 1860s.(34) Protestant churches multiplied to the point where the former mayor of Salem, Massachusetts, could congratulate members of the Sons of New England in 1854 that they had “built up a city of which we may all justly be proud. Everywhere over its surface, in New England fashion, arise the spires of churches and schoolhouses.”(35)


Taylor Street north, just north of Ellis, 1867. The Plymouth Congregational Church is at right.

Photo: Private Collection

Jews from Poland and northern Germany established the congregation of Sherith Israel in 1850, the same year that southern German Jews founded Emanu-El.(36) The French Benevolent Society (1851) established a hospital almost immediately, and the German General Benevolent Society (1854) had a hospital and nearly six hundred members in 1856. The Chinese built such a cohesive network of associations in their segregated community that William Ingraham Kip, the first Episcopal bishop in California, found that “it was more difficult to establish a mission among the Chinese in San Francisco than in China.”(37)


21. Samuel C. Upham, Notes of a Voyage to California Together with Scenes in El Dorado, 1849–1850 (Philadelphia, 1878), pp. 221–222, quoted in John B. McGloin, San Francisco: The Story of a City (San Rafael, Ca., 1978), pp. 34–35; Bayard Taylor, El Dorado; or Adventures in the Path of Empire, vol. 2 (New York, 1850), p. 55.
22. See Peter R. Decker, Fortunes and Failures: White-Collar Mobility in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), pp. 60–86.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid. See also Lotchin, San Francisco, pp. 102–105; and Robert A. Burchell, The San Francisco Irish, 1848–1880 (Berkeley, 1980), pp. 1–4.
25. “Proceedings of the Chamber of Commerce on Warehousing,” Dec. 10, 1861; Memorial from Chamber of Commerce to Congress, Dec. 24, 1861; letters from Chamber of Commerce to the California Congressional delegation and to Milton S .Latham, Dec. 26, 1861, and May 15, 1862. All in folder 5, Milton Slocum Latham Papers, California Historical Society, San Francisco.
26. Lotchin, San Francisco, pp. 45–82.
27. Ibid., p. 125; Decker, Fortunes and Failures, p. 83.
28. Decker, Fortunes and Failures, pp. 87–97, 1 18; Burchell, San Francisco Irish, pp. 52–72. See also Douglas Henry Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco (Philadelphia, 1980), pp. 33–34.
29. Taylor, El Dorado, p. 62.
30. Statement of defendant, Charlotte L. Brown v. The Omnibus Railroad Company, Twelfth District Court, City and County of San Francisco, 1863, manuscript copy, Charlotte L. Brown Papers, California Historical Society, San Francisco. A similar case, in 1867, went on appeal to the California Supreme Court when the company claimed that the jury’s award of damages to the plaintiff had been influenced by the “question of race and color which was entirely foreign to the case.” See Brief for appellant, Emma Jane Turner v. North Beach and Mission Railroad Company, Supreme Court of the Slate of California, copy in the Wellington Cleveland Burnett Papers, California Historical Society, San Francisco; Frank Soule et al., The Annals of San Francisco (Palo Alto. 1966), p. 369; Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites, p. 35.
31. Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites, p. 108.
32. Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley, 2 vols. (New York, 1945), 2:114. See also Bradford Luckingham, “Associational Life on the Urban Frontier: San Francisco, 1848–1856," Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Davis, 1968, pp. 165–166.
33. Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites, pp. 108–122.
34. Burchell, San Francisco Irish, pp. 88, 96–101.
35. Alta California, Dec. 23. 1854, quoted in Bradford Luckingham, "Immigrant Life in Emergent San Francisco," Journal of the West 12 (Oct. 1973):605.
36. Ibid., p. 612.
37. William Ingraham Kip, "The Chinese in California.” The Spirit of Missions 20 (March 1855): 85–90. quoted in Luckingham, “Immigrant Life,” p. 602.

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Excerpted from San Francisco 1865-1932, Chapter 1 “Commercial Village to Coast Metropolis”

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