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San Francisco's Portsmouth Square, also known as the Plaza, as seen in 1851. The view is to the west, toward what was later dubbed Nob Hill. The image, a daguerrotype, was credited to a dentist named S.C. McIntyre. (Image via Wikimedia Commons and Library of Congress)
San Francisco's Portsmouth Square, also known as the Plaza, as seen in 1851. The view is to the west, toward what was later dubbed Nob Hill. The image, a daguerrotype, was credited to a dentist named S.C. McIntyre. (Image via Wikimedia Commons and Library of Congress)

Boomtown History: From Vast Solitude to a World Rushing In

Boomtown History: From Vast Solitude to a World Rushing In

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By now, the Bay Area has seen the arrival of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of young seekers like Richard Henry Dana.

Dana was a college undergraduate who left school in a crisis, taking a radical course in his search for answers about who he was and what he might become. His path led him from what appeared to be a safe life at Harvard, the scion of an established Massachusetts family, to California.

And in coming to the West Coast, his quest found at least partial fulfillment. He tested himself physically in the journey, found himself adept at a difficult occupation, discovered exotic cultures and even picked up a new language, Spanish.

I suspect that many of us share a little bit of that story. We've come here looking for education, work, love, a change of scenery, a place where we might more fully know ourselves and give the genius we believe lives inside us a chance to breathe a little.

That much we might have in common with Richard Henry Dana. But his experience was essentially different from that of the throngs, including us, who have come anticipating a place of striking beauty, diverse culture and rich opportunity. Whatever we actually find, most of us have arrived ready to be enchanted.


It was hardly that way for the 20-year-old Dana, who had shipped out as a common sailor on a trading voyage to an unknown coast. Here were his impressions of his arrival in December 1835, when his ship sailed through the yet-to-be-named Golden Gate to drop anchor off yet-to-be-named San Francisco:

Vast solitude, the stillness of nature, a lonely harbor and a virtually deserted landscape.

Dana's ship lay at anchor in Yerba Buena Cove, just offshore of the present-day Financial District, for more than three weeks. "But during our whole stay," he said, "not a sail came or went."

Except for the "ruinous" Presidio and Mission Dolores, each several miles from the anchorage, "there were no other human habitations except that an enterprising Yankee years in advance of his time had put up … a shanty of rough boards."

Dana saw possibilities nonetheless, as he also wrote in "Two Years Before the Mast," his memoir of the trip:

If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water, the extreme fertility of its shores, the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as any in the world, and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance.

Richard Henry Dana as he appeared shortly after his account of sailing to California, Two Years Before the Mast, was published. (Library of Congress)
Richard Henry Dana as he appeared shortly after his account of sailing to California, Two Years Before the Mast, was published. (Library of Congress)

In fact, everything Dana saw was about to change, first in a trickle, then in a torrent. Drawn by reports of California's agricultural and trading prospects, the little village of Yerba Buena grew to about 20 homes by 1841. In January 1847, when the settlement changed its name to San Francisco, it was a town of several hundred people. A year later, when a carpenter and millwright named James Marshall picked gold out of the American River east of Sacramento, the settlement had 800 people or so.

And gold changed everything. First it emptied out San Francisco, as the predominantly male population dropped everything to rush to the American River. Then it filled the city back up again the following year as tens of thousands of "Argonauts" swarmed through the city to hunt for treasure. San Francisco's population neared 25,000 in 1849 and 36,000 by 1852.

What did the city look like during this population explosion? Here's a rather romantic description from Bayard Taylor, a New York reporter who landed in San Francisco in the latter half of 1849:

The appearance of San Francisco at night from the water is unlike anything I ever beheld. The houses are mostly of canvas, which is made transparent by the lamps within, and transforms them in the darkness to dwellings of solid light. Seated on the slopes of its three hills, the tents pitched among the chapparal to the very summits it gleams like an amphitheatre of fire. Here and there shine out brilliant points from the decoy lamps of the gaming houses; and through the indistinct murmur of the streets comes by fits the sound of music from their hot and crowded precincts.

Of course, hundreds of witnesses attest that the city in the making was also crowded, disorganized, filthy and vermin-ridden. It was expensive, rife with out-of-control property speculation, and full of all the familiar vices, most notably gambling houses. It was prone to burning down, with half a dozen blazes sweeping parts of the city in the first few years of the Gold Rush.

So, that was San Francisco, becoming the archetype of the American boomtown (a term, by the way, that did not come into use until the 1880s).

And like other towns during other booms, it proved to be an economically unstable place that was at first almost wholly dependent on the continuing extraction of gold and expansion of population to move ahead. The city suffered several small downturns during its first few years before declining gold shipments knocked the bottom out of the speculative economy in 1854 and 1855.

One of the newspapers in town, the Daily Alta California, published an essay in June 1855 that surveyed the wreckage of the real estate market and talked about its deeper causes and costs:

It is an indisputable fact that nearly all the prominent operators of 1852-3 are now bankrupt, and the mass of smaller men are utterly ruined. A year or two ago they thought themselves rich — they lived extravagantly, kept their horses and carriages, furnished their houses magnificently, and now — they have nothing. Some few still hold out, and, with retrenched expenses, are waiting impatiently for a "rise." They will probably be sick at heart before it is realized.

But this system of overvaluation has not merely ruined those engaged in Real Estate operations: It has to a certain degree debauched the whole community. Parties who saw futures in land have neglected their legitimate callings to squat ... and drag out unprofitable years waiting for a settlement of titles. A recklessness of human life has been engendered, which has told very badly on the interests of the State at large, preventing many who would have made excellent citizens from coming to these shores. It has kept rates of interest extravagantly high, thereby eating out the vitality of the republic. A disposition to speculate desperately — in other words, to gamble — not merely in land, but in everything else, has been fostered by it, and manifests itself in the frantic effort to "get whole" which have led men of high social standing to the commission of the most debasing Crimes. In a word, it has vitiated the morals of the whole community.

The city would not be down for long, though.

So, we've been poring over Richard Henry Dana, Bayard Taylor and some of the many other tellings and retellings of San Francisco Bay Area and California history with the aim of putting together a narrative of the booms and busts that started with the Gold Rush, why and how they have happened, and what makes each of those ups and downs unique.

Yes -- that's an epic ambition.

First off, look at the sweep and complexity of the subject. For instance: One of the very finest attempts to tackle this regional history, "The San Francisco Bay Area: A Metropolis in Perspective," by a Southern California urban planner and UC Berkeley scholar named Mel Scott, starts with a discussion of what the local landscape looked like during the last Ice Age. One big difference from today: no San Francisco Bay.

At some point after the glaciers retreated and the bay appeared, people make their appearance: the native Californians, Spanish explorers and their missions, the arrival of the Anglos, Yankees and immigrants from every quarter of the globe.

Then you've got the Gold Rush, which extracted hundreds of millions of dollars in gold from the Sierra Nevada foothills in less than a decade. You've got San Francisco's rapid growth, from 800 residents to about 25,000 in little more than a year, and the city's rapid rise to power as a financial, manufacturing and shipping center. And you've got the entire region's continuing industrial and urban development through war, peace and natural calamity.

It's a story that rolls from the birth of local manufacturing at San Francisco's Union Iron Works to the creation of the Bank of America to the Twitter tax break.

Of course, skipping across chronological bullet points barely hints at the hard parts of the region's history: not just the recurring reversals in regional fortunes -- the bust years, when they've occurred -- but the human, environmental and, some would argue, moral costs of the boom times. Those themes, which touch on the genocide carried out against California's native people to the despoiling of nature to the gentrification of the Bay Area's core cities in our time, are vast and now command wide attention.

In "Imperial San Francisco," historian Gray Brechin interprets the rise of San Francisco and institutions from the local media to the University of California as the ruthless and spectacularly effective extension of a national policy that sought to subjugate not only our region, California and the West, but the entire Pacific basin.

San Francisco in 1857
San Francisco in 1857

(Brechin is also making a larger point about the tendency of cities everywhere to colonize and extract the wealth of a surrounding domain. But his unsparingly acid tone is kind of fun. At one point, he summarizes the reality of the individual Gold Rush miner as an affair of "primitive technology and rampant alcoholism and violence ... with backbreaking labor, lice, worms, and dysentery." Funny -- I don't remember that verse in "My Darling Clementine.")

You'll find a critical but more nuanced view of the good and bad in the Gold Rush from "Rooted in Barbarous Soil," a volume of essays on the state's founding era edited by Kevin Starr, the pre-eminent historian of California. In his introduction, Starr acknowledges the "racist criminality" that characterized the era's treatment of the native population and the denial of liberty and justice to Gold Rush immigrants of color, and he insists that "we cannot exempt ourselves from continuities and responsibilities of prejudice down to our own time."

But he also argues that despite the repressive behavior of the state's Anglo-American settlers, the gathering of people here from all over the world sparked a sort of revolution in diversity that in the long run has led to a wide range of accomplishments in arts and sciences and even in the modern struggle for social justice. Starr writes:

"For some, the Gold Rush is a panorama of delusion, aggression, lies and deceit, broken promises and empty dreams. For those who think this way, those long-ago years continue today in masked but still damaging forms. ... Yet for those who believe that the California experiment, which is part of the larger American experiment, is of lasting value, the sins of the Gold Rush, while not denied or even forgiven, can be held in equipoise, in mitigating judgment, against all that the Gold Rush positively achieved. ... Such positive results do not excuse the sins of the past; yet they do provide a hope that what has been accomplished has been, on balance, worth at least some of the terrible cost."

So: We have a big, complex topic that has been studied and written about incessantly, and often competently, for more than 150 years. What can we add?

A couple of things, we hope. For starters, an impressionistic, well-focused sense of what happened at key points in the Bay Area's history of booms and busts. Beyond that, some visual aids that suggest the evolution of the Bay Area and the face of both prosperity and hard times here over the past century and a half. Also, we'll point to some of the many excellent sources -- from early, first-person accounts to later analytical histories -- that lend deeper insight into our history of booms and busts.


We'd love to hear about your favorite reads, too.

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