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A Glimpse at an Unrecognizable San Francisco During the Gold Rush

Updated: Dec 07, 2022 18:16
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Let’s take it back to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush of 1848. The discovery of gold marked a turning point for the Bay Area, ushering in a new era of industrialization. This was of course, at the expense of the native Ohlone people, who had been suffering enslavement and persecution at the hands of Spanish missionaries, and later, settlers, for decades.

With gold came a subsequent population boom, fueled by a lust for quick money.

The photo below, an early daguerreotype, was taken in 1851 at Portsmouth Square with Telegraph Hill in the background. The gold rush was reaching its peak, and development was well underway.

Here’s a little deep dive into what’s going on in this photo:

In the early 19th century, Portsmouth Square was the first public square in San Francisco. It was named after the USS Portsmouth, the ship that Captain John Berrien Montgomery used to seize Yerba Buena in the Mexican-American War. The Square is bordered by Kearny Street on the east, Washington Street on the north, Clay Street on the south, and Walter Lum Place on the west.

Ecologically, the rolling shrub-covered hills reveal the untouched Bay Area, whose natural biodiversity consisted of dunes, coastal scrub, oak woodlands, and riparian habitats. 

The signs of the buildings in the photo above are as follows (from left to right): California Restaurant (with another sign underneath saying A. Holmes and other indistinguishable words, perhaps watch maker), Alta California Book and Job Printing, Drugs & Medicines Wholesale & Retail, Louisiana, Bella Union, and Sociedad.

The Alta California Book and Job Printing was home to Alta California, the newspaper of San Francisco in the 19th century.

Bella Union was a theatre and gambling saloon; the building eventually burned down in the Great Fire of 1906.

Another interesting tidbit to keep in mind—San Francisco had a completely different shoreline back then, so if those three men in top hats in the first picture turned to their right, they would be right by the Pacific Ocean.

We can only guess as to what they were ruminating about—or perhaps they knew they were being photographed, and chose to stand together and speculate about what would be next for the small growing town.

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Jenna Homen

Jenna Homen

A Bay Area native, Jenna used to live in San Francisco and spent large amounts of her time ruminating on the happenings, history, and idiosyncrasies of San Francisco.

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