Skip to content

December 14, 1863: San Francisco

December 14, 2013
San Francisco Skyline

San Francisco from Twin Peaks; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

San Francisco is not only the metropolis of the state, but in reality the most prosperous portion, growing the fastest, and the growth being healthy. Most of the interior towns of the state are at best growing but very slowly, and a large majority are actually decreasing in population. In fact, the state is. This will surprise you, but it is true, and arises from several causes.

Veterans Day 19

Veterans Day Parade; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

First, the newly discovered mineral regions in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado get most of their roving, adventurous population from this state, where there are tens of thousands who have long hoped in vain to get suddenly rich, who have no ties to bind them to any spot, who love adventure and pursue it to each new region. This class, ever on the move, has furnished not less than 150,000 men to these other new regions, and the state is the loser in point of population. These all come from the mines, and the mining towns, as a consequence, decline as the placers become poorer and the population leaves.

Next, there is an enormous preponderance of males in the population—in some counties there are, on the average, eight men to one woman! Even in this city there are 20,000 more men than women. As a consequence, the natural increase of the population is far less than in a population normally constituted. The women, what there are of them, are prolific and fruitful to a satisfactory degree—there is no complaint on that score—it is their lack of numbers from which the population suffers.

These are the two principal causes that check the increase of population. Another, but smaller cause is found in the men who have made some money and return East to enjoy it.

But these causes, which have been at work at large in the state, have not checked San Francisco. Its growth has been rapid, it has grown as if by magic. Fifteen years ago two or three ranch houses and barren sand hills marked the spot; today it is a city of over 100,000 inhabitants, and growing fast.

20131212 07

Financial District; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Since I arrived here three years ago building has been going on at an almost incredible rate. I live now in a fine, large boarding house, with stores under it, on a growing and fashionable street. When I arrived streets were laid out there, through barren sand hills, with here and there a sort of shell of a house standing.

The first day of last January the first street railroad car started. There was, indeed, a sort of street railroad to the Mission Dolores, three miles distant, but not regular street cars. Today they run through all the streets, some of them running over three miles—there must be over a dozen miles of street railroads in active operation.

Here is a healthy climate. When the interior is scorching with intense heat in summer, this is cool with sea breezes. When, in winter, fathomless mud abounds in the interior, here are more pleasant days than elsewhere. Everyone who can lives here, at least a part of the year, and miners, when out of work or full of dust, come here to spend their money and enjoy themselves.

Balclutha 01

SS Balclutha at Hyde St. Pier; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

This is not only the great seaport of the state, but of the western coast of America—there is not another good harbor between Cape Horn and the Bering Straits, and this is not only a good one, but one of the very finest in the world—so this place must ever be of necessity the commercial metropolis of the Pacific—the New York of an immense region, not only of this state, but the center of commerce for the whole coast—all parts must pay tribute to it. Capitalists seeing this, invest their money here. They make it elsewhere in the state, perhaps—in mines or trade—but invest it here. Huge buildings have gone up this year, built with money made in Washoe, but invested here.

The place is in such easy communication by bay, rivers, and coast, to most of the rest of the state, and is so easy of access, that it is gradually absorbing the trade of the smaller interior towns, and it fattens on their decay. All these and other causes make the city what it is, and lead to such bright hopes of the future.

A part of the city is scattered over steep hills, but most of it is built on sand flats that stretch along the bay or are built out into it. The location is lovely. A range of hills six or eight miles wide separates us from the ocean. The city fronts east, and across the bay, which is here about six or seven miles wide, little villages are growing up. Oakland is the largest, and grows as Brooklyn does, only it is farther off and grows slower. A new railroad has just been opened along the west side of the bay to San Jose, fifty-six miles distant.

St Ignatius 01

St. Ignatius; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

The city abounds in fine mansions, substantial buildings, palatial hotels, and all the accompaniments of a large city—the only thing strange is that it has grown in fifteen years.

It is the best-governed city in the United States—there is less rowdyism than in any other city I know of in America. This will surprise you. Previous to 1856 it was terrible—its fame for murder and robbery and violence spread over the world. It was even vastly worse governed than New York, by the vilest of all politicians. They held the elections, and by election frauds, double ballot boxes, etc., legally kept the power. Robbers were policemen and murderers were judges. The life of any respectable man who dared raise his voice against the iniquities of officers was endangered, and from the corruptions of the courts there was no redress. The most prominent citizens were shot in the streets.

At last the people rose in their might and formed the celebrated Vigilance Committee. This was composed of the best and most prominent citizens, who usurped the government, chose leaders, made courts, tried and executed or banished criminals, and enforced decrees with the bayonet and revolver. At the tap of the alarm bell all stores were closed, and ten thousand armed men were in the ranks to enforce justice, though not law. They publicly hung a few of the worst offenders and banished many of the less prominent ones. They held control of the city until election, when decent officers were elected. They appointed a committee to nominate officers for the government of the city—the ticket called the Citizens’ Ticket or People’s Ticket, the nominees being chosen from both political parties. No man of this committee could hold office. This goes on still. The committee is changed yearly, the old one nominating a new committee, all of business men, and they cannot nominate one of their own number to any office. How unlike the caucuses of the roughs in eastern cities.

Veterans Day 03

Mayor & Mrs. Ed Lee; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Well, from that time the city has been well governed; roughs have tried to get the upper hand once or twice but have been most overwhelmingly defeated. Once, indeed, three or four men were nominated by the committee itself who were not good; an independent meeting was called, a new ticket was made out on which the regular nominees were retained if they were decent men, but rejected if not, and it carried the city. So much for the city government—it is not perfect, but compared with New York City it is as far ahead of that, as that is ahead of the Fiji Islands.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Marsha permalink
    December 14, 2013 11:31 am

    I’ve enjoyed your memorable pictures accompanying Brewers narrative throughout this year. It’s introduced me to communities in the state where I was born that I didn’t even know about. It’s sparked dialog with others on past and current history.

    When clicking through other blogs, they rarely elicit the response that this one does.
    Must be changing me somehow. Thanks for the journey and Happy Holidays!

    • William H. Brewer permalink*
      December 15, 2013 9:53 am

      Thank you so much! This has been a labor of love for me, and hearing that people are enjoying it makes it all the more satisfying. Thanks for coming along on the journey, and Happy Holidays!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: