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San Francisco, 1846-1869

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In 1848, San Francisco was a small village with less than 1,000 souls. Five years later the population would reach 25,000; and by 1870 the city would pass the 100,000 mark. The story of the ascent begins with one word: GOLD. But gold alone — and later, silver from Nevada — cannot explain why San Francisco continued to thrive while other towns, like Bodie, withered into ghost towns. After the rush was over, San Francisco remained the locus of commerce, as Dana had foreseen many years before. The discovery and mining of gold only hurried the inevitable. 

It was during these years, from 1848-1869, that San Francisco matured into a full-fledged city, blessed and stricken with all the glories and degradations that beset any metropolis. But whereas most cities require many decades, even centuries, to work through their growing pains, San Francisco rushed through its childhood in twenty short years. In 1869, the Southern Pacific Railroad connected San Francisco inexorably to the East Coast. Local citizens rejoiced that their geographical isolation had ended, and that the spirit of Progress would now lift San Francisco to new heights — the “brightest star of empire” foreseen by the Poet of the Sierras.

In the span of years between 1849 and 1869, San Francisco developed a style of living uniquely its own: the Darwinian Democracy. The crowds that flooded through the Golden Gate and out to the mines had one urge, one common goal: to get as rich as possible as fast as possible, then to return home in triumph and splendor to live out the rest of their lives as gentlemen and ladies of means. It was a democracy in that no title, no pedigree, no education made any difference, at least initially. Everyone had an equal chance to get rich , in spite of some efforts to restrict mining to American citizens.  But this greedy democracy was no community of ideas: it was Darwinian in the sense of survival and success for some, disappointment and failure (or even death) for others. 

Life in San Francisco in the early 1850s was suited to the lifestyle that evolved in the placers. Both were gambles of big risks for big gains. The small city of 25,000 sported close to 1,000 gambling halls and saloons and averaged, for months on end, about two murders a day. Most of the city was burned to the ground six times between 1849 and 1851 (with four of the fires almost certainly started by arsonists). The lawlessness and inactivity of the legal system provoked the formation of two vigilance committees by thousands of outraged citizens of San Francisco. And Every day, immigrants from all over the world jostled each other for a place in the sun and a chance to get rich. 

Those first 25,000 avaricious dreamers formed the nucleus of what has grown into the San Francisco of the present. The grand schemes, the toleration of other folks’ fantasies, the hope that this city may really be the promised land — these are values of the 49ers , and their best (or most foolish) legacy to the people of the later ages.

By the 1860s, the chaos of individualism had subsided into a quieter urban existence.  The frontier was almost a thing of the past in California; and with the coming of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, San Francisco’s hour of independence and unique glory as over. In one sense , the story of the next 100 years in the city’s history would be the gradual submergence of her identity into the larger megalopolitan character and appearance of the American city.

Then, in the 1960s, something akin to the Gold Rush spirit would arise in the city of Saint Francis.

Yerba Buena becomes San Francisco


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Civic Utility and Symbolism: San Francisco’s City Halls

Click HERE for an overview and images of San Francisco’s Six City Halls

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