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Destination Guide

 
 
The Finding and Founding of San Francisco
San Franciscos 223-year history of European settlement is predated by untold millennia of Native American habitation?and 230 years of bumbling European explorers unable to find the Bay.

Miwok Indians to the north and the Ohlones to the south lived a peaceful existence before the coming of Europeans, subsisting on the natural bounty of the Bay Areas edible plants and fish and deer stocks. They were skilled weavers, as their baskets and boats attest. (The Kule Loklo Miwok village, re-created near the Bear Valley Visitors Center at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, provides an insight into the rhythms of their daily life.)

The arrival of the white man was delayed by two centuries as Cabrillo, Drake(who beached at Point Reyes in 1579), Cermeño and Vizcaíno passed right by the Golden Gate without seeing San Francisco Bay. It wasn't until an overland expedition by Don Gaspar de Portolá that Europeans first laid eyes on the Bay in 1770. In March, 1776, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza founded the Presidio and Mission of as-yet unnamed San Francisco.

The Spanish presence at the Mission San Francisco de Asis (now Mission Dolores?completed in 1791, its by far the oldest building in the city) and at the Presidio, three miles away, did not amount to much over the succeeding years. The Mexican revolution of 1821 led to the Secularization Act of 1833, ending the Mission period. Mission Dolores fell into disrepair, and the Mexican presence in the Presidio dwindled to almost nothing. Conversion and disease had done much to destroy the culture of the Miwoks and Ohlones; by the early 19th Century, native tribes in the Bay Area had effectively ceased to exist.

In 1792, British explorer George Vancouver, visiting San Francisco Bay, discovered a protected anchorage east of the Presidio, called Yerba Buena by the Spanish after the sweet smelling grasses growing around the base of what is now Telegraph Hill. Vancouver pitched, and left, a tent there'the nucleus of what became Yerba Buena, a small but viable English-speaking community outside Spanish and Mexican authority. In 1846, with the Mexican-American war, the Presidio and Yerba Buena came under American control.


The Gold Rush
In 1847, Yerba Buena, with a population of about 1000, changed its name to San Francisco. The next January, gold was discovered at Sutters Mill, which event created but a minor stir. It was left to newspaper publisher and merchant Sam Brannan, trying to drum up trade for his Sacramento Street hardware store, to really trigger the Gold Rush. He brandished a bottle of gold pellets in Portsmouth Square and shouted: "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" Within a year or two, Brannan was a millionaire.

One hundred thousand "forty-niners" came to San Francisco from all over the world within the next year?prospectors, almost every one of them men. Frenchmen, Chileans, Basques, and Italians brought their cuisine into the many restaurants favored by itinerant miners; San Francisco remains a great restaurant town to this day.

The first prospectors at the diggings made good money, but even better money was made by merchants and suppliers in San Francisco. Prices were incredibly inflated, even by todays standards, with eggs going for $1.00 each and apples for $1.50. Tales circulated of miners trading gold dust for equal amounts of whiskey.

Brannans announcement practically emptied San Francisco of its citizenry in 1848, and most forty-niners stayed only long enough to get picks and shovels before they were off to the hills. Scores of sailing vessels arrived in San Francisco every week?crews, officers, and captains rushing after their passengers to the diggings. In search of scarce building materials to house a mushrooming population, San Franciscans began to scrap the abandoned ships which, tied up hull to hull, literally jammed the Bay. Cobblestones in early San Francisco were originally the ballast from these shipsstones that lie under the pavement of much of downtown San Francisco today. A few abandoned vessels were simply buried in one piece to create landfill for what is now the Financial District.

Life in San Francisco was precarious during the 1850s. Murders were frequent, and the combination or wooden or cloth buildings, whale oil lamps, and rowdy gangs of miners, often drunk, was a volatile one. Again and again, downtown San Francisco burned almost to the ground.

The ripple effect Gold Rush was enjoyed by the entire northern and central California economy. Californias agriculture and timber industries, which feed and house much of the rest of the country, were created in response to the miners and a burgeoning San Francisco. By the early 1850s, San Franciscos banks had become the most powerful in the West, as they are today.


Boom Years and the Barbary Coast
By 1854, the richest places in the gold fields had been exhausted. San Francisco sank into an economic depression from which it would not emerge until the early 1860s with the discovery of the Comstock silver lode in western Nevada. From 1863 to 1877, the Comstock produced more than $300 million, almost all of it ending up not in Nevada but San Francisco, the mercantile and banking center of the region. It was this boom, richer and longer-lived than the California Gold Rush, which began to make a real city out of San Francisco, and millionaires out of some of its citizens. Comstock "bonanza kings" like James Flood, whose home is now the elegant Pacific Union Club, built mansions on Nob Hill. Fabric merchant Levi Strauss created a clothing empire by sewing pants for miners out of his leftover tent canvas.

No one could touch the "Big Four," however. Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford, Sacramento merchants who provided the seed capital for the Central Pacific Railroad, eventually came to control northern and central Californias long-distance railroad, and with it, much of the regions economy. They even owned the ferries with plied San Francisco Bay and San Franciscos streetcars and cable cars. Though their palatial Nob Hill mansions have not survived to the present day, their names live on in the first rank of San Franciscos hotels, shopping?and, of course, education.

The wild and wooly Barbary Coast roared through the ups and downs of San Francisco. The city gained a justly deserved reputation for vice of every sort. Brothels, gambling halls, and Chinese opium dens were everywhere on the citys eastern waterfront, and unwitting patrons were frequently "shanghaied" into service as sailors. The remnants of the Barbary Coasts scandalous "dance" revues can be seen in the slowly declining strip joints along Broadway in North Beach.

The Chinese, who came to California first to work the gold fields and later to help build the railroad, accounted for 20% of San Franciscos working population in 1875. The Chinese faced discrimination and oppressive laws, and, in the late 1870s and 1880s, mob assaults like William T. Colemans "Pickhandle Brigade." Anti-Chinese demagogue Denis Kearney wielded great power during this period. The 1882 federal Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943.


The Earthquake and Fire of 1906
Early in the morning of April 18, 1906, an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter scale ripped through San Francisco, destroying hundreds of buildings. As gas mains ruptured, a fire spread through the city, causing far greater damage than the quake itself. Only 500 or so were killed, but an estimated 100,000, left homeless, either fled in ferries and watched their city burn from the Oakland hills, or joined a tent city of 20,000 in what is now Golden Gate Park.

The city quickly rebuilt itself after the earthquake and fire, like the phoenix that rises from the ashes on the San Francisco flag. Celebrating civic triumph over adversity, San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, a glittering architectural fantasy built on 635 acres of what is now the Marina District. A great success, the Expositions steel-reinforced plaster buildings were bulldozed shortly after it closed, leaving only the domed pavilion of the Palace of Fine Arts (site of the Exploratorium). The grand, domed City Hall(which recently underwent an extensive and lavish renovation) was dedicated in Civic Center in 1915.

Throughout the 1920s, plans were put forward for bridges to connect San Francisco with the East Bay and Marin. Finally in the early 1930s, work began on the Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937.

The Roaring Twenties were an exciting time in San Francisco, as one might imagine; Prohibition didn't do much to dampen the spirits of a city founded on the Barbary Coast. Writers like Dashiell Hammett, William Saroyan and John dos Passos were part of a thriving literary and artistic culture in San Francisco during this period.


Beats and Hippies
After World War II, returning American soldiers, many of whom had passed through San Francisco on their way to or from the Pacific, settled here, prompting the Government to oversee construction of a vast new residential area, the Sunset District, on what had been miles and miles of sand dunes. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other young writers and thinkers of what was to be known as the Beat Generation established themselves in the cafes and bars of North Beach, continuing the citys literary, bohemian tradition?albeit with a dreamy, druggy, jazz-inflected twist. Rising North Beach rents forced beatniks (a term coined by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen) out to the Victorians of Haight Ashbury, where their boundary-breaking prose had already inspired a new movement of long-haired young cultural mavericks.

Derisively dubbed "hippies" by the beats, who saw them as junior beat wanna-bes, the hippies took their cultural and psychic explorations to different extremes, aided by LSD, a recently synthesized hallucinogen. Bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane came up with the soundtrack to "tune in, turn on, and drop out," and the 1967 Summer of Love drew over 100,000 young seekers to the Haight.

Flower Power began to manifest itself more and more stridently as political unrest, with demonstrations and even riots becoming a feature of life at San Francisco State University and, even more so, at the University of California, Berkeley. "Peace and love" began to turn into a bad trip. At a 1968 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Pass, east of Berkeley, Hells Angels motorcycle gang members, serving as security guards, killed a fan in a violent mêlée in front of film cameras.


The Modern Era
San Franciscos gay community began to assert itself with greater confidence and urgency in the 1970s, electing Supervisor Harvey Milk as the nations only openly homosexual politician. Milk was killed in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, by former Supervisor Dan White. Whites subsequent conviction on a mere manslaughter charge prompted riots and the burning of police cars by angry gays and their supporters in front of City Hall on "White Night."

During the 1980s, the gay community reeled under the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. Though incidences of the disease have leveled off and more effective drugs prolong the life of those afflicted with it, the Castro has drawn even more tightly together to promote awareness of the disease and to support those whose lives have been affected by it.

In 1989, just as the Bay Area was sitting down to watch the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics play each other in the third game of the World Series, it was rocked by the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake. The legacy of the quake can be seen in sometimes nightmarish San Francisco traffic, caused by irreparable damage to important sections of freeway.

Today, the stylish, imperious mayor, Willie Brown, presides over a city of extremes. The magic of a thriving downtown business sector, explosive new dot.com businesses South of Market, and a real estate boom in the citys southern corridor does not seem to be enough to dispel concern over an ever-rising homeless population and intractable problems with the citys public transportation system, MUNI.

Public confidence in San Franciscos economy is greater than ever, however, and for the 725,000 residents and the millions of visitors who love it, it would be hard to dim the luster of the abundant charms of the City by the Bay.

Doug Gorney