San Francisco History

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


        Oh the bewilderment of a first view of a big hustling American city!  To be dropped off the ferry into the very center of the maelstrom of life, where every mortal is bent upon his own task, where streams and counterstreams of humanity hurry in and out and round about, and all seem at first glance like the chaos of life.  After the repose of the country, the wide serenity of the hill-encircled bay, to grapple with the noise and stir of the city!  But what a sensation of exhilaration, this elbowing with the eager crowd, this trotting with the pack after the quarry, this pressing on with the tumult of men in the rush for place!  Here life and effort are focused, and the great organic forces of the State are centralized and defined.  The wheels of the Juggernaut Progress roll along the street and their victims are many, but the victories of peace atone for all the strife, and humanity goes its way, cursing and praying, weeping and singing, fighting and loving, but on the whole advancing from the beast to the angel.

        At the foot of Market Street the long low Ferry Building of gray Colusa stone commands the view, and its graceful clock-tower rises above the commotion of the city highways.  To right and left stretches the waterfront street, where big docks and wharfs are lined with shipping.  Heavy freight vans rattle and bang over the cobble-stones.  Bells are clanging on cable cars, newsboys are piping the sensation of the hour;  there is an undertone of many voices, a scuffling of hundreds of feet on the cement walks, a hurrying of the crowd for first place on the cars.  From this point of vantage one might parody the well-known lines of Tennyson into:
        Cars to right of you,
        Cars to left of you,
        Cars in front of your clatter and rumble.

        The Market Street cable cars bear the most bewilderingly diverse inscriptions.  No two seem alike, yet all roll merrily up the same broad highway.  The novice soon discovers that for all practical purposes one is as good as another unless his journey be into the higher residence portions of the city, and he furthermore learns that by a most extensive system of transfers he can keep traveling almost ad lib for one five-cent fare, journeying thus from the bay to the ocean.  There is a great parade of cars in front of the Ferry Building.  The red and green cable cars of the Washington and Jackson districts come sweeping around a loop out of a side street with clanging bells and a watchman preceeding them.  Beyond their stand are electric and horse cars, all off to the right of Market, while to the left several important south-of-Market electric systems start.  Here are the fine big cars that run down the peninsula to San Mateo, as well as the Mission and Harrison Street lines.

        About the only distinctive feature in the laying out of San Francisco's streets which relieves the prevailing prosaic checkerboard system of American cities, is found in the direction of Market Street which slants boldly across the center of the town.  The streets to the north of it were stupidly laid out on the points of the compass, up hill and down dale, but a direct route from the mission to the bay following down the valley, was a matter of so much importance in the early days that this highway was perpetuated in the permanent scheme for the city.  The streets of the section south of Market are parallel or at right angles to that thoroughfare, while the district to the north is laid out in streets which run on other lines, making gore blocks at every intersection with Market.

        Nearly everyone seems bound up Market Street, either a-foot or a-cable, so why not follow the crowd?  Cars of many colors are swinging around on the turn-table one after another, and the man in the house of glass, who I trust never throws stones, is giving them the cue for starting up town.  A big underground gong is clanging its warning as the cars swoop upon the turn-table;  bells are jangled at the imperturbable crowd, and in some mysterious way people manage to escape being run over.

        Jumping on the first car to start, I find an outside seat on the dummy.  The bell rings, the gripman throws back his lever which clutches the cable.  You can hear the grip work amid the rumble of the start.  He hammers away at his foot gong and off we roll!  There is a rush of wind down the street, a whirl and confusion of traffic.  Wholesale houses and office buildings line the way, mostly landmarks of the old regime with much gingerbread ornamentation, but here and there a fine modern building of stone or terra cotta shows that the city is alive and growing.  There is time for but a glance up the streets that shoot off from Market at an acute angle;  California, Pine, Bush, are passed in a trice and the corner is reached where Post and Montgomery impinge upon Market.  The fine Crocker Building is squeezed in on the gore block between Post and Market while across the way on the south side of Market a whole block is taken up with the Palace Hotel--a monument of bay windows.  A sort of Bridge of Sighs crosses New Montgomery connecting the Palace with the Grand Hotel.  On the northeast corner of Market and Montgomery Streets, a modern terra-cotta office building is occupied by the business departments of the Southern Pacific Company.  Up Montgomery Street, past the Lick House and the Occidental Hotel, both in the architecture of two or three decades ago, is the magnificent Mills Building, one of the most substantial and well proportioned structures of the City.  Another massive edifice of fine design is the Hayward Building, a block behond the Mills Building, but the clanging car is rolling up the street and there is no time to itemize the many modern buildings which are daily climbing up on steel frames from the noisy city pave.

        Another block of navigating the grip and the coign of observation, the navel of San Francisco is reached.  It is the corner of Third, Kearny, and Geary Streets, where the busy life of the city centers.  So many people leave the car at this point that 'tis evident there is something doing, and meekly enough I fall in line with the crowd.  The three morning papers seek companionship upon the corners here--the Chronicle, whose building is of red sandstone and brick, with its clock tower--a well-known landmark of the city;  the Examiner Building, in Spanish style, with simple plaster walls, deep recessed portico at the top, and tile roof;  and the Call tower, rising fifteen stories to a fine dome, the most commanding architectural feature of the business district.  At this meeting of the ways is Lotta's drinking fountain, a token of which San Franciscans are fond from its association with the soubrette who, in early days, first made fame and fortune here by winning the hearts of the pioneers.

        Kearny Street is the highway for shopping, and hosts of fair ladies trip its stony pavements, looking with absorbed attention at window displays of silks and laces, coats and curtains, or casting glances at the latest walking exponent of fads and fashions.  Some are lured by the fragrant aroma or tempting window exhibition into the sanctuary of ices and candies;  others succumb to the florist, and thus money circulates by the caprice of feminine fancy.

        At the Kearny Street corner, right in the shadow of the Chronicle Building, is a bright and attractive feature of the city streets--the flower sellers.  They are ranged in a long row on the curb, men and boys standing beside their baskets and holding out bouquets to tempt the wayfarers.  The busy stream of humanity sweeps by with fluttering skirts and laughing voices.  Electric cars clang up and down, a coachman snaps his whip as a glistening carriage with jingling harness rolls over the asphalt pavement and the horse's hoofs clatter merrily.  It is a democratic procession--the negro with his pipe, the traveler with dress-suit case, an officer just returned from the Philippines, and above all, the women, over whom even Rudyard Kipling, with cynic eye and caustic pen, could not but indulge in rhapsodies.  Mid all the din and grit of the city, alike in winter as in summer, the flower sellers are at their post, and the perfume of the violet, the sweet-pea and the rose, or whatever may be the flower of the season, steals upon the senses, while the brilliant array of bloom makes an oasis in the desert of stone.

        San Francisco is commonly divided into north and south of Market Street.  In the early days of the city the aristocratic part of town was in Happy Valley and on Rincon Hill, to the south, but when a citizen, Mr. A.S. Hallidie, successfully solved the problem of climbing the steep hills north of Market by inventing the cable car, people flocked to the heights commanding a view of the bay and the Golden Gate.  Then it was that California Street became the nob hill where palaces of ample dimensions were built by the Stanfords, Hopkins, Crockers, Floods and other millionaires, while people of more moderate means settled upon the adjacent hills and slopes.  The south of Market section became the home of the artisans for the most part, and certain cross streets, notably Third, Sixth and Eighth, have developed into secondary shopping centers.  Mission Street, the first thoroughfare south of Market, is becoming the great wholesale street of the city, and numbers of splendid modern structures, solid, substantial, and simple in design, are being constructed upon it.

        The residence district is today reaching out over the hills between the Presidio and Golden Gate Park, while the business section, once crowded down on the made land of the waterfront, is expanding up the residence streets, especially on Geary, Post and Sutter.  Post Street is to me one of the most attractive shopping highways, owing to the number of artistic stores which have of late years been established there.  The idea, which originated with a picture dealer who commenced in a very modest way, has grown with surprising rapidity.  Book stores, bazaars where Oriental brasses and rugs are displayed, collections of artistic photographs, Japanese embroidery and prints, Egyptian embroidery, jewelry, carved and antique furniture are among the displays noted in passing the shop windows.  I know of no other American city, not excepting Boston and New York, where on may find the equal in taste and refinement of some of these stores.

        To go into a picture house where every detail of furniture, from the carved chairs and simple tables to the lockers with big brass strap hinges, are works of art, studiously harmonious, where wall decoration is considered as well as the pictures selected with so much taste to adorn them--surely this is as inspiring as it is unusual!  Then to be led into mysterious back rooms, reserved for sequesrating choice collections of oil paintings, displayed with more generous wall space than any art gallery affords, and other rooms lined with soft Japanese grass-cloth for showing watercolors and etchings!  Verily it is enough to surprise the tenderfoot who thinks of San Francisco as the metropolis of the wild and woolly west, where whiskered men in top boots and flannel shirts carry six-shooters in their belts.  Some people have slipped a half-centurey cog in picturing California from the other side of the continent.  Culture and art have taken on a new lease of life here, and like the exuberant vegetation are already bearing the fruit of the Hesperides.  Let us frankly confess that it is to be found only in spots, like oases in a desert of the commonplace, but every wind that blows is scattering broadcast the seeds.

        Where but in San Francisco can one find a bookstore like an aesthetic library?  Here are books in glass cases, books upon finely designed tables, and, scattered about the room, exquisite antiques in brass and bronze, choice vases and bits of pottery, with a few well chosen photographs and cards on the walls.  Other rooms adjoin the main apartment--the old book room where many quaint and curious books in rare bindings are treasured, the children's room and the old furniture room with its quaint fireplace.  Another bookseller on the same street, a man of years' experience and standing, has gone extensively into the publication of books by San Francisco authors, and the works which bear his imprint will compare with the output of the best Eastern houses in workmanship and style.

        Many cable cars go into the residence district on the heights.  We may travel on the California Street cars through the business quarter, even more exclusively the haunt of men than Kearny Street is of women, and up the steep ascent past the Hopkins Art School, looking backward down the street to the bay with the Berkeley Hills and Mount Diablo beyond;  or we may be hauled up Clay Street through Chinatown, holding on to our seats the while as best we may to prevent sliding down upon our neighbor, and untimately get up into the Western Addition out on Jackson Street or Pacific Avenue.  There are countless blocks of the older residence portion of the city to be passed en route, built up of painted board houses out of which rows of bay windows bulge vacantly, ornamented with diverse whimsicalities that are as meaningless as they are wearisome.  But the cable car jogs on up the hills and down the valleys.  An occasional dracaena flutters its ribbon leaves, or a eucalyptus sways its stiff hanging foliage in the fresh sea breeze.  Then, as we climb, the vista to the north discloses the blue water of the bay with the purple flanking hills of Tamalpais upon the farther shore.  Up steep cobble-stone streets ascends the car, with isolated knobs to the north and northeast--Russian and Telegraph Hills, crowned with buildings.  Straight ahead, oceanwards, are more hills up which a series of cars may be seen moving at measured intervals.

        Van Ness Avenue is crossed--a broad asphalt street lined with costly homes and large church edifices.  Many of the houses are truly palatial in size and style, and an air of wealth pervades the thoroughfare.  On clatters the car, rumbling over a crossing and starting up another streep ascent.  Here stands an elegant mansion of rough red sandstone, with tile roof, there a quaint brick house with the distinctive features of the Renaissance in domestic architecture.  Down the side streets on the lower hills, the city roofs crowd in a gray mass.

        Just off from Jackson Street is a simple little brick chruch which has been an inspiration to a growing number of lovers of the genuine and beautiful in life.  It matters not whether they are Swedenborgians as the minister of the church happens to be, or have other creedal affiliations.  The spirit of the place, with all its quiet restfulness, its homelike charm, its naive grace, has sunk deep in the lives of a small but earnest group of men and women.  Within, the stranger is impressed with a certain primitive quality about everything.  The heavy madroño trunk rafters left in their natural state, the big open fireplace, the massive square-post, rush-bottom chairs, and the large, grave allegorical landscapes of seedtime and harvest, painted with loving care by William Keith, combine with the simplicity of design and the fitness of every detail, to make a church, which, without any straining after effect, is unique in beauty.  The message of its builder has reached his mark, and here and there through city and town, homes have been reared in the same simple fashion--plain, straightforward, genuine homes, covered with unpainted shingles, or built of rough brick, with much natural redwood inside, in broad unvarnished panels.  The same reserve which has characterized the building of these homes has likewise been exercised in their furnishing.  A few antique rugs, a few good pictures or photographs of the masters, and many good books, with plain tables and chairs, constitute the furniture.  To find this spirit, which would have been a delight to William Morris, so strongly rooted as to assume almost the aspect of a cult, is, I take it, one of the most remarkable features of a civilization so new as that of modern San Francisco.

        For a bird's-eye view of the city, no point of vantage is more commanding than the summit of Telegraph Hill.  An electric car out Kearny Street goes past the base of the hill, but the height must be gained on foot.  Just where Kearny Street leads into Broadway, in that tatterdemalion Latin quarter where Mexican and Italian restaurants crowd about the old jail, and the window of every two-penny shop has a name inherited from Spain or Italy, we leave the car and climb the steep road.  Many of the side streets are passable only for pedestrians.  Flights of steps or broad chicken-ladders lead to houses perched on rocky heights.  It is a famous place for goats, which graze on old newspaper and shavings, looking at you the while with wistful expressions on their bearded countenances.

        Panting, we reach the summit and gaze abroad for the first impression.  What a view is spread about within the wide sweep of horizon--of life with all its varied activities--commerce, manufactures, homes!  It is like sitting down with a whole metropolis wriggling under the microscope!  The great frame barn-like dilapidated castle interrupts a portion of the view to northward, but otherwise the whole varied panorama can be taken in by a turn of the head.  To the east and northeast, lies the expanse of blue water bounded by the far-away green hills of the Contra Costa shore, rising gradually to the highest point in Grizzly Peak of the Berkeley Range.  Goat Island, a green mound in the center of the bay, is humped up in front of Berkeley.  To the south of it, Oakland lines the bay shore.

        Around northwestwardly stands the Bolinas Ridge, with the waters of the Golden Gate at its base.  Fort Point protrudes on the south, with Point Bonita beyond it on the north shore, and still farther off, just a glimpse of the glistening blue ocean.  So much for the bay view which curves around the marvelous panorama of the city!  At the wharves is a fringe of shipping.  Men and horses move about the docks like black pygmies.  The rumble of vans ascends from the cobble-stone pavement, and the explosive puffs of a gasoline engine are heard.

        But the city, oh the city, how it crowds the hills with a wilderness of gray walls and windows, cleft here and there by the lines of parallel streets which dare to climb the most forbidding heights!  How it is spread out there on the slopes, with lofty tower buildings rising from the plain, and a line of pale hills fading beyond into purple behind a veil of smoke!  Near at hand, in front of the Greek church, with its green, copper-capped turret, is a little patch of grass.  Beyond it, on Russian Hill, are some artistic homes with a bit of shrubbery on the adjacent hillslope.  Clothes are hanging out to dry on flat roofs far below.  The clang and din filters up from the plain in subdues tones, with the shrill voices of children caught by a veering gust of wind.  What a chaos of dull houses, thrilling with life, each enclosing its family history, its triumph or tragedy, but all so immovable and unindividual as I look upon the mass!



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