A panorama of San Francisco taken in 1878 from the Mark Hopkins mansion on Nob Hill by photographer Eadward Muybridge. The large, dark-colored edifice at center was the home of railroad magnate Charles Crocker. The spite fence he built to retaliate against neighbor Nicholas Yung is the large rectangular structure to the right of the mansion in this image. This copy of the panorama is in the collection of the Society of California Pioneers and was restored in 2011 by Gawain Weaver Art Conservation. (Eadward Muybridge/Gawain Weaver Art Conservation)
It's the most famous fence in San Francisco history: a three-story-tall board wall that one of the city's richest men built around the home of a neighbor who wouldn't sell his property.
The rich man was Charles Crocker, one of the Big Four who helped bankroll the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In 1876, he joined the handful of San Francisco's super-rich in building a mansion on Nob Hill.
In a lavish though faintly snarky writeup on Crocker's new digs in July 1877, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that "serene happiness reigns on Nob Hill, disturbed only by casual human ills."
The human ill afflicting Charles Crocker was embodied by Nicholas Yung, an undertaker who lived on the only sliver of the block bounded by California, Sacramento, Taylor and Jones streets that the millionaire did not own.
When Yung turned down Crocker's bid to buy his lot, Crocker spent $3,000 -- something like $70,000 in 21st century money -- to erect a 30-foot-high fence around three sides of his neighbor's home.
Yung threatened to retaliate, the Chronicle reported, by building a giant coffin on his roof. It would project above the fence and be "emblazoned on the side turned toward his aristocratic neighbors with a skull and cross-bones ... to serve as an advertisement of his business and a reminder of mortality."
Later in 1877, the fence would become the object of threats from the radical pro-labor, anti-Chinese Workingmen's Party of California. In late October, party supporters staged a march up Nob Hill to decry the excesses of capitalism.
In a later pamphlet describing the protest, an unidentified Workingmen's author -- perhaps party leader Dennis Kearney himself -- explained that the march to the mansion neighborhood was merely a prank and that "two thousand people climbed the hill to enjoy the joke."
But the pamphlet, titled "The Labor Agitators, or, The Battle for Bread," explained that not everyone in the crowd was in a jocular mood:
"At this meeting a gentleman named Pickett, commonly called Philosopher Pickett, had desired to air his eloquence, and was permitted to do so. He launched out against the railroad magnates with fanatic fury. He proposed to tear down a fence, known as Crocker's fence, which is very obnoxious to a great many people because it manifested the domineering spirit of a man of millions."
The Workingmen pleaded that they had condemned the idea of destroying the fence and accused the city fathers of using the episode as a pretext for cracking down on Kearney. Sure enough, he was arrested for inciting to riot the next time he spoke publicly.
The prosecution served to lionize Kearney, whose political star rose and set over the next few years while the fence stood unperturbed.
Eventually, Yung moved his house to Broderick Street, but he refused to sell the now-vacant lot. The fence remained.
Yung died in 1880 and Charles Crocker in 1888, but the feud went on. Yung's widow, Rosina, declined to sell the vacant lot to Crocker's heirs, but also turned away offers to sell the property to a Chinese laundry and an advertising company. The fence stayed in place throughout the 1890s and into the new century.
After Mrs. Yung died in January 1902, the Chronicle looked forward to the day when the fence would come down -- and served a big helping of vituperation to the Crockers for having left the "lofty barricade" up so long.
"The fence is the most famous memorial of malignity and malevolence in the city," the Chron fumed. "... Crocker has long been dead, but his heirs have preserved this testimonial of rancor."
The paper also called out the Crockers for their "legacy of hatred" and their "inartistic monument to resentment."
Finally, in 1904, the Yungs' children sold the lot, and Crocker's children tore down the fence. If they'd waited another couple of years, it would have burned, along with the Crocker mansion and nearly everything else on the hill.
Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.
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