The Rich History of San Francisco's First Plaza

10 min
Portsmouth Square is a community hub for many of the neighborhood's Chinese residents.  (Michael Fraley/Flickr)

Plazas are one of the few public spaces where people from all walks of life cross paths. In San Francisco alone there are dozens of them across the city: some small, some big, some old, some new. That's what got one Bay Curious listener wondering which plaza was the first.

To find out we spoke to San Francisco Recreation and Park historian Christopher Pollock.

He told us the city's oldest plaza is Portsmouth Square, located in the heart of Chinatown.

To understand why this spot is considered the first, Pollock said we have to go back to the days when San Francisco was occupied by Spanish and Mexican settlers. They called their settlement "Yerba Buena" and the plaza — what we now call Portsmouth Square — was the center of government affairs.

So how did Portsmouth Square get its name?

Portsmouth Square, 1851 (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846 many Americans believed it was their Manifest Destiny to expand West, and Yerba Buena was one of those desired territories.

"Capt. John Montgomery lands near Portsmouth Square and symbolically raised a flag to signal this was an American occupation," said Pollock.

Shortly after, Montgomery renamed the square after his ship, the USS Portsmouth.

A Very Distinguished Square

Beyond being the first city square, a historic park and a hub for the local Chinese community, Portsmouth Square has a few other claims to fame.

Portsmouth Square (Courtesy of New York Public Library)

A year after the Americans claimed the territory, the first public school in California was built at the square's southwest corner.

"Some anecdotal stories say not many attended in the beginning. Trying to rope people into education was far from their thoughts at the time, and they didn't have any truancy offers to chase down people who didn't attend," said Pollock.

The square also has ties to the Gold Rush. According to local lore, Portsmouth Square was where the discovery of gold was first announced. As news spread, thousands of prospective miners migrated to the city.

Fast forward to 1873 and the city gets its first cable cars. The inventor, Andrew Smith Hallidie, piloted the cars by driving past Portsmouth Square.

Soldiers being served supper at Portsmouth Square after the 1906 earthquake. (Library of Congress)

Then the 1906 earthquake and fire devastated the city. In the open space at Portsmouth Square, camps were set up for people who were displaced or burnt out of their homes.

"[Eventually] the military established their own camp and ended up building some 150 two-room earthquake cottages that were in neat little rows within the square," said Pollock. That camp housed people for up to a year.

A lot has happened here — more of which we explore on the Bay Curious podcast.

Or you can see it for yourself. Take a walk through the park and you’ll find a number of commemorative plaques highlighting all of this history.