San Francisco History

San Francisco and Thereabout
 by Charles Keeler
The California Promotion Committee of San Francisco, Publisher, 1902


        A free sweep of water navigable for the largest ocean vessels over a stretch of well-nigh sixty miles;  a land-locked harbor with but a single passage a mile in width leading to its sequestered waters;  a haven cut off by hills and mountains from the ocean, yet so accessible that the largest steamers can enter on all tides--such is San Francisco Bay with its four hundred and fifty square miles of water!  A quarter of the population of California dwells on its shores.  With a width varying from seven to twelve miles, it lies just within the Coast Mountain spurs that embrace it, and in that most temperate of latitudes, the thity-eighth parallel.  Its upper reaches are subdivided into two inner bays--San Pablo and Suisun.  The former, with a diameter of some ten miles, is the northern end of the great waterway, while the latter, connected by the narrow Carquinez Straits, lies to the eastward and appears like a huge reservoir into which the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers pour their flood.

        Such is the harbor which Portalá first looked upon from the heights in 1768, and into which the little Spanish ship San Carlos sailed in 1775.  Great are the changes which have taken place since then, but we of today are only on the threshold of the civilization destined to flourish here.  This peeless bay, accessible, deep, safe, convenient, large enough for all the navies and merchant fleets of the world without crowding, in a climate free from winter snow and summer heat, surrounded by one of the most productive countries known, where nature is lavish alike of her fruits and precious metals,--who dare set a limit upon its growth?  The eyes of the world are upon the Pacific now, and upon the United States.  San Francisco Bay is the great point of departure for America into the Pacific, and as such is destined to be one of the great world harbors of the years to come.

        What wonder that many explorers sailed along the California coast and failed to perceive the narrow break in the rocks through which the Sacramento River rolls to the sea?  Fifteen miles away, more or less, the Berkeley Hills rise from the farther shore of the bay, forming a background, which, viewed from the ocean on a misty day, appears to effectually close up the mile-wide gap which alone affords an entrance to the broad expanse of secluded water.  Barren dreary rocks flank the shores, fog-hung and storm-worn, inhabited by cormorants and murres.  To the south, guarding the entrance, is Point Lobos, with the Seal Rocks off shore where herds of sea lions bask in the sun or fish in the adjacent water.  To the north is Point Bonita, where a lighthouse and fog horn warn mariners to avoid the rocks.  Through the narrows the tide runs like a millrace.  An old-fashioned brick fort stands close by the water at the inner point of the strait on the city shore.  It is now abandoned, but upon bluffs to right and left are terraced embankments behind which lurk batteries of immense disappearing guns, while just inside the Gate in the midst of the bay is a rocky islet which has been converted into a citadel commanding the entire channel.  This is the picuresque Alcatraz Island, a point of peculiar strategic importance in the fortification of the bay.

        On either side of the Golden Gate a peninsula juts from the mainland, with the sea to westward and the bay to eastward.  The northern peninsula is occupied by Mount Tamalpais and the Bolinas Ridge, with villages and charming residence suburbs nestling at its base (Belvedere, Sausalito, Mill Valley and San Rafael) while upon the hills of the southern tongue of land is the city of San Francisco.  Straight away eastward on the far shore of the bay, stretching along the plain and foothills of the low spurs of the Coast Mountains, is a group of towns and cities which are practically fused into one, although still retaining their separate names and municipal governments.  The principal of these are Alameda, Oakland and Berkeley, with an aggregate population of about one hundred thousand.

        San Francisco Bay is an ever-changing pageant of gray and blue, with purple hills on its margin varying with the season from green to brown.  The same point of view seldom appears twice alike.  Seasons, weather, hour, all stamp their imprint upon it and make it live.  It is the more companionable because of its many surprises.  You think you have followed it through the whole gamut of its changes, grave and gay, veiled and transparent, calm and tempestuous, when behold the next hour has transfigured the scene and presents an aspect before undreamed!

        Who shall undertake to describe this palpitating wonder of water and cloud, margined with billowy ranges?  At best it must be but a few fleeting impressions that the pen transfixes.  In summer-time when many rainless months succeed, the hills are sear and brown.  The monsoon sweeps in through the Golden Gate and spends its refreshing salt breath upon the Berkeley Range, flecking the full greenish-blue tide with white.  Off to the south the water seems to reach away to a misty dreamland.  Somewhere down there is the properous city of San Jose, but of this the eye gives no hint.  Northwards there is a long rolling boundary line of pale purple hills.  Red Rock, and island in the bay, stands up as a striking bit of contrasting color.  We can distinguish the dark bands of eucalyptus groves high up on the tawny slopes of the Berkeley Hills, and the settlement below dotting the foothills for some miles.  To the northwest is Tamalpais, rising gracefully to its 2,600 feet, a pale blue mountain mass with keenly chiseled profile, slanting down to the north in a fine sweep, with the hills of Angel Island in the foreground.  In a secluded nook at the northern end of the bay, opposite the little town of Vallejo, lies the Mare Island Navy Yard, with its drydock, repair shops, and equipment for the naval base of the Pacific squadron.

        From Black Point, the military reservation just within the Golden Gate, the profile of San Francisco is built up in big terrace lines to the quaint old frame battlemented structure on the bold rocky summit of Telegraph Hill.  Thence in long sinuous sags, interrupted by the square angles of houses atop the ridge, it runs;  streets may be seen plowing through the banks of buildings up steep slopes.  The turretts of the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art stand out conspicuously on the summit of California Street Hill, from which point the ridge falls off abruptly to the lowland of the valley followed by Market Street.  The city's main thoroughfare may be traced from afar by three landmarks--the slender gray stone clock tower of the Ferry Building, the high domed Spreckels Building and the dome of the City Hall, surmounted by a colossal figure of Liberty.  This dome is the third highest in the world, rising to a height of three hundred and thirty feet, and is a graceful point in the city's heart whether viewed from sea or shore.

        Beyond the valley which sunders the hills of San Francisco, rise the Twin Peaks to a height of over nine hundred feet.  On extends the range south into San Mateo County where the mountains stretch away in blue misty reaches.

        The waterfront is lined with docks crowded with ships and steamers, the slender masts and maze of rigging foresting the shore with ropes and spars.  Other ships and white transports from the Philippines lie at anchor here and there off shore, with an occasional battle-ship or cruiser to lend impressiveness to the scene.  Comfortable fat white ferry boats with black smokestacks slip in and out on their journeys to and from the opposite shores.  In midstream is Yerba Buena Island, now popularly known by its nickname of Goat Island--a rounded land mass, treeless and brown on its exposed side but with groves of live-oak hidden away on its northern slopes.  A naval training station is located there, fitting boys for sea duty on our men-of-war.

        To the eastern eye accustomed to verdure in summer-time, the dry hills of San Francisco Bay look strange enough, but the old resident loves this aspect of nature and would not change it had he the power.  There is something quieting and restful about the sober tones which vary from brown and yellow through a whole range of purples, grays and blues, with plumbeous curtains of fog rolling in from the sea.  The wide vistas, the dignity and gravity of the scene, the bigness and freedom of all, sink deep into the heart.  There is nothing trivial or commonplace, nothing merely pretty about it.  Its largeness and nobility grow upon the beholder with years of residence.

        At times all this varied sweep of view is revealed in the utmost detail, with sun sparkling on the rippling waves, and an hour later the high summer fog will drift over, softening the outlines, veiling the hills, dimming the distant heights, and giving the fancy free scope to build into the obscurity what it pleases.  A fresh sea breeze generally blows across the bay throughout the summer, but there are days when the water seems fairly oily in its serenity.

        The night views of the bay have their own charm.  As the ferry boat leaves the waterfront, a multitude of bright lights sparkle at the many piers, some of them red and green, throwing splashes of soft wavering color in the water.  The city streets up the steep hills are indicated by twinkling stars, and across the water sparkle the lights of Berkeley on the upper slopes.  The dark dim land masses, the blackness of the bay with a foggy sky above leave a solemn and mysterious effect of vastness and lonliness on the mind.

               I have dwelt on the beauty of the bay in summer because it is so distinctively Californian;  but the winter, too, has its own lovliness.  The few showers of early autumn are often followed by some of the warmest days of the year, in October and even in early November.  This is the season when we look for northers, those singular wind storms which some people dislike, but which I for one welcome among the experiences of the year.  The north wind blows with hot dry gusts of the desert.  If the rains have started any green blades forth, they droop and wilt beneath its withering fury.  Every particle of moisture in the air is dried out and the atmosphere is crystal clear.  At night the stars blaze and flash as if opening their wide eyes at the tumult of the wind.  Each successive day for three days the weather grows hotter and drier and the force of the wind increases.  Then the gale dies away as suddenly as it arose, to be followed not infrequently by a welcome shower.  There is something immensely stimulating, exhilarating, even exciting about this storm beneath an azure sky.  It is our substitute for thunderstorms which are almost unknown.

        When the winter rains finally set in, what a change comes over the landscape!  Every shower starts forth the green blades on hill and plain.  The southeast wind blows a gale, the dark clouds hurry over the leaden bay, the torrents fall, and everybody is happy.  At the end of the storm, when the sun thrusts its searching rays through the cloud loops, striking the distand hillsides, a pale glint of green brightens them.  Soon, how wonderfully soon, they are clothed in verdure from valley to crest!  The green fairly glows and shimmers beneath the winter sun.  And the atmosphere, washed of all impurities by the downpour, is of matchless transparency.  Every ravine and dimple on the blue slopes of Tamalpais is revealed in all its lovely nakedness.  Far away on the summit of the San Mateo Range the redwood trees may be seen standing up against the sky.  From the Berkeley Hills, out through the Golden Gate the largest of the Farallone Islands is plainly visibly forty miles away and its intermittent light flashes during the hours of darkness.  The houses of San Francisco and the ships in the harbor are defined in starling clearness.

        The winter months about the bay are really a curious union of autumn with spring.  Winter is overlooked in the rushing together of the dying and newborn year.  Flowers are blooming, birds are singing and a thrill of life passes over land and sea.

        At this season the bay is crowded with hosts of birds.  Ducks and scoters swim about off shore.  Murres and cormorants, grebes and loons dive and sport to their hearts' content.  It is the gulls, however, that attract the greatest attention of passengers on the ferry boats.  They follow the boats back and forth, picking up food thrown overboard from the cook's galley and darting after bread tossed them from the deck by interested spectators.  Feeding the gulls has become a favorite amusement, and a pretty sight it is to see them poise in readiness and swoop upon the morsel of bread, catching it in mid air.  So tame do they become that I have known them to take bread from the outstretched hand of a man.

        With this winter view of the bay, let us leave it to inspect more closely the great mart upon its shore.  Hills of green and blue lie afar off.  Mount Diablo, one of the commanding peaks of the Coast Mountains, lifts its head back of the Berkeley Range.  A brown streak on the blue water of the bay marks the course of the Sacramento River, flooded by the winter rains.  The islands are beautifully green;  ships have spread their clouds of canvas to dry after the storm;  back and forth the eye ranges over miles of varied scenery, all colored with a palette that only a California winter furnishes.  The great ferry boat glides into its slip and we follow the crowd off the upper deck into the magnificent nave of the Ferry Building and down the broad stone stairway to the city street.



Return to San Francisco Genealogy