California Historical Articles
San Francisco In Transition
( Originally Published 1919 )
BY the mid 1850's San Francisco had attained the dimensions of a city. Among other changes of public interest within the brief space of two, or three years were a hospital, a library, a cemetery, several churches, public markets, bathing establishments, public schools, two race-courses,. twelve wharves, five hundred and thirty-seven saloons, and about eight thousand women of several classes. The population was now about fifty thousand. The city was now of a fairly substantial character, at least in the down-town districts. There were many structures of brick and stone. In many directions the sand-hills had been conveniently graded down by means of a power, shovel called the Steam Paddy in contradistinction to the hand Paddy, or Irishman with a shovel. The streets were driven straight ahead regardless of contours. It is related that often the inhabitants of houses perched on the sides of the sand-hills would have to scramble to safety as their dwellings rolled down the bank, undermined by some grading operation below. A water system had been established, the nucleus of the present Spring Valley Company. The streets had nearly all been planked, and private enterprise had carried the plank toll-road even to the Mission district. The fire department had been brought to a high state of perfection. The shallow waters of the bay were being filled up by the rubbish from the town and by the débris from the operations of the Steam Paddies. New streets were formed on piles extended out into the bay. Houses were erected, also on piles and on either side of these marine thoroughfares. Gradually the rubbish filled the skeleton framework. Occasionally old ships, caught by this seaward invasion, were built around, and so became integral parts of the city itself.
The same insistent demand that led to increasing the speed of the vessels, together with the fact that it cost any ship from one hundred to two hundred dollars a day to lie at any of the wharves, developed an extreme efficiency in loading and unloading cargoes. Hittell says that probably in no port of the world could a ship be emptied as quickly as at San Francisco. For the first and last time in the history of the world the profession of stevedore became a distinguished one. In addition to the overseas trade, there were now many ships, driven by sail or steam, plying the local routes. Some of the river steamboats had actually been brought around the Horn. Their free-board had been raised by planking-in the lower deck, and thus these frail vessels had sailed their long and stormy voyage — truly a notable feat.
It did not pay to hold goods very long. Eastern shippers seemed, by a curious unanimity, to send out many consignments of the same scarcity. The result was that the high prices of today would be utterly destroyed by an oversupply of tomorrow. It was thus to the great advantage of every merchant to meet his ship promptly, and to gain knowledge as soon as possible of the cargo of the incoming vessels. For this purpose signal stations were established, rowboat patrols were organized, and many other ingenious schemes was applied to the secret service of the mercantile business. Both in order to save storage and to avoid the possibility of loss from new shipments coming in, the goods were auctioned off as soon as they were landed.
These auctions were most elaborate institutions involving brass bands, comfortable chairs, eloquent "spielers," and all the rest. They were a feature of the street life, which in turn had an interest all its own. The planking threw back a hollow reverberating sound from the various vehicles. There seemed to be no rules of the .road. Omnibuses careered along, every window rattling loudly; drays creaked and strained; nondescript delivery wagons tried to outrattle the omnibuses; horsemen picked their way amid the mêlée. The din was described as something extraordinary —hoofs drumming, wheels rumbling, oaths and shouts, and from the sidewalk the blare and bray of brass bands before the various auction shops. Newsboys and bootblacks darted in all directions. Cigar boys, a peculiar product of the time, added to the hubbub. Bootblacking stands of the most elaborate description were kept by French and Italians. The town was full of characters who delighted in their own eccentricities, and who were always on public view, One individual possessed a remarkably intelligent, pony who every morning, without guidance from his master, patronized one of the shoe-blacking stands to get his front hoofs polished. He presented each one in turn to the foot-rest, and stood like a statue until the job was done.
Some of the numberless saloons already showed signs of real magnificence. Mahogany bars with brass rails, huge mirrors in gilt frames, pyramids of delicate crystal, rich hangings, oil paintings of doubtful merit but indisputable interest, heavy chandeliers of glass prisms, the most elaborate of free lunches, skillful barkeepers who mixed drinks at arm's length, were common to all the better places. These things would not be so remarkable in large cities at the present time, but in the early Fifties, only three years after the tent stage, and thousands of miles from the nearest civilization, the enterprise that was displayed seemed remarkable. The question of expense did not stop these early worthies. Of one saloon-keeper it is related that desiring a punch bowl and finding that the only vessel of the sort was a soup-tureen belonging to a large and expensive dinner set, he bought the whole set for the sake of the soup-tureen. Some of the more pretentious places boasted of special attractions : thus one supported its ceiling on crystal pillars; another had dashing young women to serve the drinks, though the mixing was done by men as usual; a third possessed a large musical box capable of playing several very noisy tunes; a fourth had imported a marvelous piece of mechanism run by clockwork which exhibited the sea in motion, a ship tossing on the waves, on shore a windmill in action, a train of cars passing over a bridge, a deer chased by hounds, and the like.
But these barrooms were a totally different institution from the gambling resorts. Although gambling was not now considered the entirely worthy occupation of a few years previous, and although some of the better citizens, while frequenting the gambling halls, still preferred to do their own playing in semi-private, the picturesqueness and glory of these places had not yet been dimmed by any general popular disapproval. The gambling halls were not only places to risk one's fortune, but they were also a sort of evening club. They usually supported a raised stage with footlights, a negro minstrel troop, or a singer or so. On one side elaborate bars of rosewood or mahogany ran the entire length, backed by big mirrors of French plate. The whole of the very large main floor was heavily carpeted. Down the center generally ran two rows of gambling tables offering various games such as faro, keeno, roulette, poker, and the dice games. Beyond these tables, on the opposite side of the room from the bar, were the lounging quarters, with small tables, large easy-chairs, settees, and fireplaces. Decoration was of the most ornate. The ceilings and walls were generally white with a great deal of gilt. All classes of people frequented these places and were welcomed there. Some were dressed in the height of fashion, and some wore the roughest sort of miners' clothes—floppy old slouch hats, flannel shirts, boots to which the dried mud was clinging or from which it fell to the rich carpet. All were considered on an equal plane. The professional gamblers came to represent a type of their own, —weary, indifferent, pale, cool men, who had not only to keep track of the game and the bets, but also to assure control over the crowd about them. Often in these places immense sums were lost or won; often in these places occurred crimes of shooting and stabbing; but also into these places came many men who rarely drank or gam-bled at all. They assembled to enjoy each other's company, the brightness, the music, and the sociable warmth.
On Sunday the populace generally did one of two things: either it sallied out in small groups into the surrounding country on picnics or celebrations at some of the numerous road-houses; or it swarmed out the plank toll-road to the Mission. To the newcomer the latter must have been much the more interesting. There he saw a congress of all the nations of the earth: French, Germans, Italians, Russians, Dutchmen, British, Turks, Arabs, Negroes, Chinese, Kanakas, Indians, the gorgeous members of the Spanish races, and all sorts of queer people to whom no habitat could be assigned. Most extraordinary perhaps were the men from the gold mines of the Sierras. The miners had by now distinctly segregated them, selves from the rest of the population. They led a hardier, more laborious life and were proud of the fact. They attempted generally to differentiate themselves in appearance from all the rest of the human race, and it must be confessed that they succeeded. The miners were mostly young and wore their hair long, their beards rough; they walked with a wide swagger; their clothes were exaggeratedly coarse, but they ornamented them-selves with bright silk handkerchiefs, feathers, flowers, with squirrel or buck tails in their hats, with long heavy chains of nuggets, with glittering and prominently displayed pistols, revolvers, stilettos, knives, and dirks. Some even plaited their beards in three tails, or tied their long hair under their chins; but no matter how bizarre they made themselves, nobody on the streets of blase San Francisco paid the slightest attention to them. The Mission, which they, together with the crowd, frequented, was a primitive Coney Island. Bear pits, cockfights, theatrical attractions, side-shows, innumerable hotels and small restaurants, saloons, races, hammer-striking, throwing balls at negroes' heads, and a hundred other attractions kept the crowds busy and generally good-natured. If a fight arose, "it was," as the Irishman says, "considered a private fight," and nobody else could get in it. Such things were considered matters for the individuals themselves to settle.
The great feature of the time was its extravagance. It did not matter whether a man was a public servant, a private and respected citizen, or from one of the semi-public professions that cater to men's greed and dissipation, he acted as though the ground beneath his feet were solid gold. The most extravagant public works were undertaken without thought and without plan. The respectable women vied in the magnificence and ostentation of their costumes with the women of the lower world. Theatrical attractions at high prices were patronized abundantly. Balls of great magnificence were given almost every night. Private carriages of really excellent appointment were numerous along the disreputable planked roads or the sandy streets strewn with cans and garbage.
The feverish life of the times reflected itself domestically. No live red-blooded man could be expected to spend his evenings reading a book quietly at home while all the magnificent, splendid, seething life of down-town was roaring in his ears. All his friends would be out; all the news of the day passed around; all the excitements of the evening offered themselves. It was too much to expect of human nature. The consequence was that a great many young wives were left alone, with the ultimate result of numerous separations and divorces. The moral nucleus of really respectable society —and there was a noticeable one even at that time—was overshadowed and swamped for the moment. Such a social life as this sounds decidedly immoral but it was really unmoral, with the bright, eager, attractive unmorality of the vigorous child. In fact, in that society, as some one has expressed it, everything was condoned except meanness.
It was the era of the grandiose. Even conversation reflected this characteristic. The myriad bootblacks had grand outfits and stands. The captain of a ship offered ten dollars to a negro to act as his cook. The negro replied, "If you will walk up to my restaurant, I'll set you to work at twenty-five dollars immediately." From men in such humble stations up to the very highest and most respected citizens the spirit of gambling, of taking chances, was also in the air.
As has been pointed out, a large proportion of the city's wealth was raised not from taxation but from the sale of its property. Under the heedless extravagance of the first government the municipal debt rose to over one million dollars. Since interest charged on this was thirty-six per cent annually, it can be seen that the financial situation was rather hopeless. As the city was even then often very short of funds, it paid for its work and its improvements in certificates of indebtedness, usually called "scrip." Naturally this scrip was held below par—a condition that caused all contractors and supply merchants to charge two or three hundred per cent over the normal prices for their work and commodities in order to keep even. And this practice, completing the vicious circle, increased the debt. An attempt was made to fund the city debt by handing in the scrip in exchange for a ten per cent obligation. This method gave promise of success; but a number of holders of scrip refused to surrender it, and brought suit to enforce payment. One of these, a physician named Peter Smith, was owed a considerable sum for the care of indigent sick. He obtained a judgment against the city, levied on some of its property, and proceeded to sell. The city commissioners warned the public that titles under the Smith claim were not legal, and proceeded to sell the property on their own account. The speculators bought claims under Peter Smith amounting to over two millions of dollars at merely nominal rates. For example, one parcel of city lots sold at less than ten cents per lot. The prices were so absurd that these sales were treated as a joke. The joke came in on the other side, however, when the officials proceeded to ratify these sales. The public then woke up to the fact that it had been fleeced. Enormous prices were paid for unsuitable property, ostensibly for the uses of the city. After the money had passed, these properties were often declared unsuitable and resold at reduced prices to people already determined upon by the ring.
Nevertheless commercially things went well for a time. The needs of hundreds of thousands of newcomers, in a country where the manufactures were practically nothing, were enormous. It is related that at first laundry was sent as far as the Hawaiian Islands. Every single commodity of civilized life, such as we understand it, had to be imported. As there was then no remote semblance of combination, either in restraint of or in encouragement of trade, it followed that the market must fluctuate wildly. The local agents of eastern firms were often embarrassed and overwhelmed by the ill-timed consignments of goods. One Boston firm was alleged to have sent out a whole shipload of women's bonnets — to a community where a woman was one of the rarest sights to be found! Not many shipments were as silly as this, but the fact remains that a rumor of a shortage in any commodity would often be followed by rush orders on clipper ships laden to the guards with that same article. As a consequence the bottom; fell out of the market completely, and the unfortunate consignee found himself forced to auction off the goods much below cost.
During the year 1854, the tide of prosperity began to ebb. A dry season caused a cessation of mining in many parts of the mountains. Of course it can be well understood that the immense prosperity of the city, the prosperity that allowed it to recover from severe financial disease, had its spring in the placer mines. A constant stream of fresh gold was needed to shore up the tottering commercial structure. With the miners out of the diggings, matters changed. The red-shirted digger of gold had little idea of the value of money. Many of them knew only the difference between having money and having none. They had to have credit, which they promptly wasted. Extending credit to the miners made it necessary that credit should also be extended to the sellers, and so on back. Meanwhile the eastern shippers continued to pour goods into the flooded market. An auction brought such cheap prices that they proved a temptation even to an overstocked public. The gold to pay for purchases went east, draining the country of bullion. One or two of the supposedly respectable and polished citizens such as Talbot Green and "honest Harry Meiggs" fell by the wayside. The confidence of the new community began to be shaken. In 1854 came the crisis. Three hundred out of about a thousand business houses shut down. Seventy-seven filed petitions in insolvency with liabilities for many millions of dollars. In 1855 one hundred and ninety-seven additional firms and several banking houses went under.
There were two immediate results of this state of affairs. In the first place, every citizen became more intensely interested and occupied with his own personal business than ever before; he had less time to devote to the real causes of trouble, that is the public instability; and he grew rather more selfish and suspicious of his neighbor than ever before. The second result was to attract the dregs of society. The pickings incident to demoralized conditions looked rich to these men. Professional politicians, shyster lawyers, political gangsters, flocked to the spoil. In 1851 the lawlessness of mere physical violence had come to a head. By 1855 and 1856 there was added to a recrudescence of this disorder a lawlessness of graft, of corruption, both political and financial, and the overbearing arrogance of a self-made aristocracy. These conditions combined to bring about a second crisis in the precarious life of this new society.
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