San Francisco History: Overview


The history of San Francisco can be roughly divided into the following time periods:

  • Pre-historic times to 1542
  • The Discovery of San Francisco Bay (1542-1775)
  • The Founding of San Francisco (1776-1847)
  • The Gold Rush (1848-1849)
  • Growing Pains (1850-1859)
  • The Bonanza Age (1859-1880)
  • The Gilded Age (1880-1906)
  • Earthquake and Fire (1906)
  • The New Century (1906-1941)
  • The Modern Times (1941-1989)
  • The Current Times (1990-current)


Pre-historic times to 1542

San Francisco owes much of its special character to its isolation at the tip of a hilly peninsula. The city’s many hills, the bay and the ocean that border it on three sides, have a great influence on how San Francisco developed. The City’s identity was and is shaped by its geology and geography.

Millions of years ago California was an ocean floor. Over time, volcanic eruptions created new land masses. In Northern California this led to the formation of the Sierra Nevada and, farther to the west, the Coast Range, south of San Francisco. This new land was so high above the ocean that what is now San Francisco Bay was dry land – a huge valley.

Storms from the Pacific battered the western slopes of the Sierra, causing rivers and streams to form and then flow down to the ocean. Simultaneously, the mountain ranges blocked all of the main rivulets flowing west from Sierra except for one, and channeled that flow through the only gap – the area northeast of San Francisco now called Carquinez Strait. The rushing waters continued down through the plain, carving a deep valley of Raccoon Strait between Angel Island and Tiburon, and the deepest one of all, the Golden Gate. The runoff then joined the ocean, which level at the time was several hundred feet lower than it is today; the coastline was about where the Farallon Islands are (17 miles away). 

In a more recent geological times (last 200,000 years), several ice ages alternated with warmer trends leading to melting of the snowpack and a rise in the level of the ocean. Starting around 10,000 BC, the ocean came to today’s level, surrounding what is now San Francisco on three sides. 

Between 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, the Bay Area’s first human inhabitants were Indians, comprising of the four distinct tribes: the Coast Miwoks, the Wintun, the Yokuts, and the Costanoans or Ohlone. San Francisco at that time was primarily sand dunes. A few small groups lived in the area mainly clustered around Lake Merced by the ocean and Mission Creek near the bay. In 1776, at the time of San Francisco’s founding, Bay Area Coast Miwoks numbered approximately 3,000 and the Ohlone about 10,000.

Indians were Stone Age people and focused on hunter gathering without knowledge of metals or pottery (they used elaborate baskets instead). Due to the abundance of resources these tribes led non-violent existence.

The Indian population of California, estimated to be around 300,000 in 1776, plummeted to roughly 20,000 a little over 100 years later due to European diseases spread by the new settlers. The last "wild" California Indian ("Ishi") was captured on a ranch in a remote area in the northeast part of the state in 1911.


The Discovery of San Francisco Bay (1542-1775)

By mid-16th century Spanish empire was at the zenith of its power. It was primarily concentrating on its colonies in South and Central America (including Mexico which was its northernmost possession). Generally land north of Rio Grande remained undiscovered. 

In 1542 Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo was sailing north from Mexico on the mission to discover the Strait of Anian (believed to connect Atlantic and Pacific oceans). He was the first European to explore California coast. Cabrillo sailed all the way to the Russian river and sighted Point Reyes which he named "Cabo de Pinos" (“Great Clusters of Evergreens”). He did not anchor for fear of being driven into the rocky shore.

Until 1565 (the time of the Spanish conquest of the Philippines) there were no further attempts to explore California coast. Once a regular trade began between Manila and Acapulco, vessels from Manila were following the currents which led them to the North Pacific. However, San Francisco Bay was undetected due to fog and other surrounding circumstances. Ships were docking in the areas now known as Drakes Bay and Monterey Bay.

In 1579 Francis Drake, sailing the Golden Hind, landed on California shore, likely in what is now known as "Drakes Bay". He nailed a "plate of brasse" to a post claiming the land for Queen Elizabeth and called it Nova Albion (it is likely that the white cliffs of Nova Albion reminded him of similar cliffs in his native Dover, England). He stayed for six weeks and stopped at Farallon Islands to stock up on bird eggs on the way back but did not spot San Francisco Bay, most likely due to the fog.

In November 1595 Sebastian Cermeno, a Portugese navigator enroute to Spain was sailing Saint Augustin ship (which was in need of repair) from the Philippines and docked in Drakes Bay where the ship subsequently sank due to winter storm. The group did return to Acapulco on a small boat and also missed the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Before leaving, he rechristened Cabo del Pinos to Punta de los Reyes (“King’s Point”) which is now known as Point Reyes.

In 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino (one of Cermeno’s officers) sailed back in hopes of finding a sunken cargo without success. He did, however, explore California coast and was impressed with the safe anchorage of Monterey Bay.

The decline of the Spanish empire prompted a break in the exploration of the California coast. Spanish interest in Alta California was rekindled in 18th century due to Russians who ventured down the coast from Alaska attracted by the rich bounty of sea otter pelts. Concerned about the encroachment, Spanish hence decided to sponsor an overland expedition into California to re-establish Spanish presence.

Gaspar de Portola was appointed a governor of Baja and Alta California and was given the command of the overland expedition, part of his task being to expel Jesuits and install Franciscan friars. The expedition’s objective was Monterey Bay, highly praised by Vizcaino. The group reached Monterey Bay on September 30, 1769 but did not recognize it (most likely they were less impressed with the area than Vizciano) and camped on what is now known as Pacifica. Portola sent a small scouting party to explore the territory under the command of Sergeant Jose Ortega. Meantime, Portola and his men sighted the Farallon Islands and Drakes Bay. Once Ortega returned, he reported seeing a vast body of water which he believed was a larger inner arm of Cermeno’s Bahia de San Francisco.

On August 5, 1775 Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed his boat named San Carlos through the Golden Gate and became the first European to do so, anchoring near present day Fort Point. de Ayala then sent an overland expedition under the command of Captain Juan Bautista de Anza while anchoring off Angel Island due to the wound. de Ayala prepared a comprehensive report of the area and gave names to the local landmarks – Angel Island, Sausalito ("little thicket of willows"), Alcatraz ("island of pelicans" - this name was actually intended for what is now a Yerba Buena island but an English sea captain mapping the bay in 1826 mistakenly assigned the name to the rock now known as "Alcatraz").

de Ayala proved that Drakes Bay and San Francisco Bay were two separate bodies of water and that the latter’s enormous size and good shelter made it a harbor of great importance.


The Founding of San Francisco (1776-1847) 

In late 1775 the de Anza expedition left to establish a mission and presidio at the tip of San Francisco peninsula as the nucleus of a new colony in Alta California. After leaving most of the party at already established Monterrey, de Anza, his lieutenant Jose Moraga and a Franciscan priest Pedro Font reached the bluff at the very tip of the peninsula on March 28, 1776, where de Anza planted a cross signifying the location of the future presidio. The windswept, rocky edge was not suitable for a mission settlement so the group then continued on for three miles inland, where the soil and climate were better and fresh water abundant. As it was Friday before Palm Sunday – the Friday of Sorrows – the group called their encampment “Laguna de los Dolores”.

On June 29, 1776 the first mass was held and on October 9, 1776, the formal dedication of Mission San Francisco de Asis (in honor of the founder of the Franciscan order) was held. 

By 1810, Spanish empire was contracting and Mexico was in open revolt against Spain. Spain could no longer afford to support Alta California which was essentially abandoned and Presidio and Mission Dolores went into a progressive decline. Mission Dolores closed in 1834, serving as a tavern and a dance hall, with its grounds occasionally used for bull versus bear contests for the next quarter century (it reopened a Catholic church in 1859). The original Presidio was occupied until 1835, when it too was abandoned, its remaining walls being carted away a few years later to help build a customs house at the growing community on Yerba Buena cove.

Spain’s rule over Alta California came to an end in 1821 when Mexico declared its independence and San Francisco became Mexican territory. In 1834 the Mexican government passed the Secularization Act which ended Franciscan’s control of the missions, freed Indian neophytes and stripped the missions of their vast land holdings. Governors of California started giving away huge land grants to local settlers willing to take Mexican citizenship to promote migration. Large cattle colonies – or ranchos – were concentrated in the hands of a small group of families who were known as "Californios". Mariano Vallejo was one of the best known Californios, amassing 175,000 acres of land comprising of much of what is today Napa and Sonoma counties.

When Mexico served its ties with Spain, it opened trade with other nations. By 1830s Yankee trading vessels which were coming around Cape Horn were anchoring regularly at Yerba Buena – a protected cove on the northeast corner of the peninsula. By 1835, William Richardson (a British seaman) decided to erect permanent dwelling on the hillside facing the cove, subsequently, he also became a trade broker between Californios and the American ships. Richardson named the community "Yerba Buena" ("good herb"), after a local mint-flavored plant that grew wild in the area and which Spanish and Indians used to make tea.

By 1840s Yankees were attracted to California’s fertile soil, mild climate and lack of effective Mexican military presence. In 1841 first overland party led by John Bidwell crossed the plains and the Sierra mountains into California and was soon followed by others. By the mid-1840s there was a recognizable trail from Missouri to California. These settlers (unlike pre-1840 American-born residents) did not want to assimilate with the local culture.

With the town starting to grow, Mexican authorities asked Swiss newcomer named Jean-Jacques Vioget (the only one in town with surveying instruments) to create a rough plan and draw a town map. Vioget, who had lived in Chile, followed the traditional Spanish pueblo model of a square commons – a plaza – as a focal point in a grid pattern of streets. He laid a large rectangle encompassing the plaza – later named Portsmouth Square. No names were applied to the surrounding streets but they can be now identified as Kearny and Grant (north-south) and Sacramento, Clay, Washington, Jackson and Pacific (east-west).

During 1846 – early 1848 Mexican-American war was taking place over the control of Texas with Americans desiring California as well (it was initially offering to purchase for $3.5M). U.S. completely prevailed and Mexico ceded Texas and California. San Francisco played a small part in the war. On July 9, 1846 Captain John Montgomery with a small detachment of sailors rowed ashore from the warship Portsmouth, anchored in the bay and raised the American flag over the plaza which was later named after the ship.

In 1847 Mariano Vallejo, Thomas Larkin and Robert Semple convinced that a town on the eastern shore of the bay (closer to John Sutter’s increasingly important colony of Sacramento), would be a better location for a major city, petitioned Vallejo for a land grant on Carquinez Strait. The grant was given and the city was to be named Francisca. At that time, residents of Yerba Buena decided that their town deserved to be associated with the name of the magnificent bay and persuaded a mayor to change its name to San Francisco. A relevant proclamation was issued on January 23, 1847. Larkin and Semple changed the name of their prospective town to Benicia.

Later in 1847 mayor Bartlett asked Jasper O’Farrell, an Irish engineer and surveyor who had been in town for four years, to expand city’s boundaries. Shallow water beyond the beach as well as impossibility of development deeper into the land due to high hills were giving residents ideas to fill the cove and add more lots by continuing the grid. O’Farrell’s main departure from Vioget’s plan was to lay out Market Street, a 120-feet boulevard running at a diagonal to the original grid pointing at Twin Peaks, a prominent landmark to the west, symbolically, it was also in the direction of Mission Dolores, one of the city’s focal points. This extravagant use of valuable land for public thoroughfare nearly got O’Farrell lynched. It is said that when O’Farrell’s map was first published in 1847 a mob formed in protest and talked of lynching the surveyor which prompted Jasper to temporarily leave San Francisco. When expanding the southeast corner of the main grid toward the waterfront, O’Farrell discovered that areas south of Market Street around 1st Street overlapped with some previously granted one-hundred-vara lots (other lots were 50 vara in size). Market Street hence served as a division for these differently-measured lots. This is the reason why Market Street is difficult to cross as few streets ending at Market Street directly connect with streets on its other side.


The Gold Rush (1848-49)

At the end of 1847 San Francisco community comprised of approximately five hundred people.

By 1840s, a number of newcomers to California started to explore the area beyond the coastal settlements. One of the pioneers was John Augustus Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who arrived in 1839 on the run from the creditors and bad marriage. He built his ranch near the American River in what is now downtown Sacramento.

With more people arriving to California, there was a rising need for building materials and the trees in the Sierra foothills proved to be the best. Realizing the business development potential, Sutter sent his carpenter James Marshall to find a suitable location for a lumber mill. Marshall located an ideal spot on the South Fork of the American River near an Indian village called "Cullomah" (it later was called "Coloma").

On January 24, 1848 Marshall, while inspecting the mill’s tailrace (which he believed was not deep enough) spotted a small gold nugget half a size of a pea lying in about a foot of water. Further testing revealed that this nugget was indeed gold. Even though Sutter and Marshall swore to secrecy, the word on the discovery quickly reached Sutter’s employees. First news of the discovery reached San Francisco in March, 1848 but was greeted with skepticism. It was not until May, when a natural-born promoter and an owner of a supply store named Sam Brannan went to the Coloma area on the news of the discovery, bringing back a collection of gold nuggets, which he enthusiastically displayed to everyone in Portsmouth Square. It was then when the gold fever first struck.

As 1848 came to an end, an estimated eighth to ten thousand miners from all over the world were at the diggings. On December 5, 1848 President Polk in a message to Congress confirmed the rumors of gold discovery of an "extraordinary character". By early 1849, land and sea expeditions from the East Coast as well as European cities were arriving in San Francisco in large numbers. Sea journey was usually via Cape Horn in South America, with others trying a shorter route – by sea to Panama or Nicaragua – and then overland through the swamps and jungles to the Pacific shore. The rest made an overland journey via deserts and snowy mountain passes. On average, it took approximately 6 months to complete the travels.

In 1849, nearly 800 vessels left New York City alone for San Francisco and about 100,000 people were arriving in the gold fields in that year. The California gold rush was the greatest peacetime migration in modern history. Ironically, San Francisco is one of the four California’s 58 counties where gold was not found. San Francisco’s population rose from about 1,000 in early 1848 to 2,000 in February, 1849 and to 20,000 or more at the end of 1849.

In the early stages of the gold rush (1848), finding gold was easy and some people yielded up to five pounds of gold a day. Gold’s official price on the East Coast was $18.00 per ounce but in California it fell to $8-$9 per ounce. It is estimated that in the first years a typical miner was making $10.00-$15.00 per day when an average salary east of the Mississippi was about $1.00. 

For the first time, America held out the promise to ordinary Americans that they could become wealthy virtually overnight. While very few would actually become rich through gold mining, the motivating factor was the belief that it could happen. San Francisco was the focal point, the new frontier, not just physically but psychologically as well.

While San Francisco was initially abandoned in 1848 by its residents and newcomers, the winter rains brought miners back as they needed to wait out for better weather, stock up on supplies and look for shelter, food and entertainment. Most of the diggers were either bachelors or left their families back East hence dining in the restaurants became quite popular. San Francisco’s wide ethnic variety of food takes root in the Gold Rush era when people from all over the world descended on the city. The prices were steep – a breakfast of coffee, ham, and eggs could cost $6.00. A loaf of bread which costs 6 cents in New York would cost 50 cents or more in San Francisco.

Shelter was a scarce commodity. Most "buildings" were leaky tents and haphazard board shacks. A private room in a desirable sleeping quarters could cost as much as $1,000 a month. Even raw bunks with mattresses went for $15.00 per night and some enterprising landlords sold sleeping places on benches, tables and even on board planks stretched across sawhorses. Fleas, lice and rats were frequent bedtime companions.

Real estate prices skyrocketed to astronomical heights. A property purchased in late 1848 for $23,000 sold for $300,000 a year later. El Dorado, a gambling emporium on Portsmouth Square which initially was not much more than a canvas tent 15 by 20 feet in size leased for $40,000 per year. Gambling was the premier recreation and three sides of Portsmouth Square were at one time virtually nothing but gambling venues. Drinking was just as popular and a numerous number of saloons flourished. Whiskey was costing $30 per quart but the demand was great.

Once vessels arrived in San Francisco, they were abandoned as they were mostly intended for a one-way journey and the passengers were in a hurry to get to the gold fields, leaving Yerba Buena cove thick with abandoned ships. While Yerba Buena cove was ideal for anchorage, protected from the Bay currents, the land immediately surrounding the cove was not. Within just a block or two of the shoreline the land sloped sharply upward leading to the precipice of 376 feet Nob Hill, only five blocks away from the water. The only way to expand eastward was into the cove itself which was initially done by building wharves extending into the bay and then later by filling the spaces between them with soil and sand, remnants of the abandoned ships and with anything else handy, usually spoiled merchandise or trash. Commercial Street was called Long Wharf and eventually extended 2,000 square feet into the bay (about where Embarcadero is today). Connecting planks were laid to facilitate movement between the wharves. As the bay was filled in, these planks became part of O’Farrell’s grid pattern of streets (Battery, Front and Davis were once plank thoroughfares connecting the wharves).


Growing Pains (1850-1859)

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Life in San Francisco was exciting, unpredictable and dangerous. The city was extremely vulnerable to fire as most buildings were made of wood or cloth and whale-oil lamps were widely used. There was often an inadequate water supply in case of fire and winds easily spread the flames.

Sydney Ducks, a gang of Australian ex-convicts who came for the Gold Rush, took advantage of the fires and arson by looting the properties. Their base of operations was Pacific Avenue at Broadway, known as “Sydney Town”.

In May, 1851, after the fifth major fire in two years, San Francisco’s merchants and property owners established the First Committee of Vigilance to rid the town of the criminals and largely succeeded - four Sydney Towners were hanged. In 1856, the Second Committee of Vigilance was formed.

By 1854, preceded by five years of growth, San Francisco experienced its first depression - it became harder to mine for gold which also affected the supporting industries. Several major financial institutions collapsed and one of San Francisco’s councilmen, a wharf owner named Henry Meiggs, looted the city treasury of several hundred thousand dollars – nearly all of its gold reserves – and fled to South America.

1850s also saw a swift decline of the Californios and their ranchos as 49rs became squatters on their land. The only recourse was legal action which was very expensive. Even the winners sometimes ended up as losers. For instance, Point Reyes was originally part of two ranchos, the Mexican owners won their case but it was so costly to litigate that when the case ended they had to turn over their deeds to the attorneys.


The Bonanza Age (1859-1880)

In 1859, a prospector name James Finney (called "Old Virginny" after his native state), made the richest discovery of silver ore in history. He and several other prospectors (including Henry Comstock who later gave his name to the lode), staked claims to dusty land in western Nevada. They were attracted to modest amounts of gold in that area. During the shoveling they were puzzled and irritated by large amounts of "blue mud" which upon testing revealed to beextremely rich in silver. The rush to Washoe began and its consequences for San Francisco were nearly as great as the Gold Rush ten years earlier.

By the end of 1863, Comstock lode produced $22 million which was modest by the Gold Rush standards but enough to warrant serious attention of the miners. During the next 15 years the Comstock lode generated more than $300 million. The original discoverers did not profit from this as they sold out early for only a few thousand dollars and most died broke. The main beneficiary of the "Big Bonanza" was not even Virginia City (the town that rose above the treasure), the real winners were San Francisco and a handful of shrewd speculators. San Francisco provided 90% of the necessary supplies and materials for the miners. Several thousand new buildings went up in the city in the 1860s and 1870s, including U.S. Mint at Fifth and Mission Streets.

In 1850s William Ralston was a relatively obscure banker but in 1864 he formed a new partnership with Darius Mills and together they founded the Bank of California at the corner of California and Sansome streets. A Virginia City branch of this bank started lending to miners who at that stage were nearly bankrupt with production at a standstill, using shares of stock in the mines as collateral. The bank also bought nearby forest to supply lumber for timbering the mines and constructed Virginia – Truckee Railroad, the only rail to Virginia City. This monopoly of supplies and transportation was referred to as "Ralston’s Ring". By 1867, the Bank of California’s shares rose astronomically.

Ralston spread his cash around, started a number of enterprises including the California Theater (located on Bush Street near Kearny Street which became San Francisco’s leading stage for many years). His biggest project was Palace Hotel on Market Street, when completed in 1875 (six weeks after Ralston’s death), it had 800 rooms and seven floors topped with an amber skylight making it, for a time, the largest hotel in the U.S. . There was a marble-paved courtyard and carriage turnaround. Rooms could receive messages via pneumatic tubes, had primitive air-conditioning and were decorated with polished mahogany, ebony and rosewood.

By early 1870s a quartet of Irishmen known as "Bonanza Kings" had started to generate headlines of their own. John Mackay, James Fair, James Flood and William O’Brien had moderate success during the Gold Rush. They formed a partnership where Mackey and Fair provided mining expertise while Flood and O’Brien served as stockbrokers on the mining exchange. They were buying potentially lucrative mining stock controlled by Ralston / Sharon team. Ultimately, they were able to buy several smaller mines which they later called "Consolidate Virginia". In early 1873, miners below 1,000 feet level struck what later became known as the "Big Bonanza", a massive body of concentrated silver ore more than 400 feet deep, worth in excess of $100 million. Bonanza Kings became California’s richest men.

Another quartet, later known as the "Big Four" - Sacramento merchants Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington - focused on providing seed capital for the Central Pacific railroad. Construction began in 1863 and on May 10, 1869 the "golden spike" linked the East and West coasts. "San Francisco annexes the United States" said one of the banners in the city but the anticipated benefits failed to realize – City’s artificially high prices sank due to competition from the East Coast, cheaper transportation allowed thousands of unemployed to travel to California, driving down both wages and prices.

The Gilded Age (1880-1906)

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The Big Four were generously rewarded for taking the risk of building the railroad – not only the federal government granted them an outright subsidy in lands rich in timber and agricultural promise, they also founded their own construction company which was in charge of building the railroad. They later created a monopoly by buying smaller railroads, ferry, riverboat and steamship lines, subsequently closing them down). With competition eliminated, rates became so high that it was cheaper to ship goods from Liverpool to San Francisco via New Orleans than from Bakersfield to San Francisco. The Big Four maintained their grip on the transportation monopoly into the first decade of the 20th century.

During this time period, Barbary Coast became a notorious area. It took its name after a pirate-infested Northern African coastline and its history goes back to 1850s and the waterfront hangouts of Sydney Town. The heart of the Barbary Coast was Pacific Avenue at Broadway which later encompassed part of Chinatown and today’s Financial District - it was referred to as "Terrific Pacific". Pockets of vice could be found near Union Square on Morton Street / Maiden lane (nothing but brothels). Opium smoking was available in Chinatown - by 1885, twenty six opium dens were open to the public. Prostitution was also widespread. The only building still existing that provides even a hint of the Barbary Coast’s character is the former Hippodrome bar and dance hall at 555 Pacific Ave, off Kearny Street.

The so called “shanghaiing" was also popular in San Francisco. As it was often hard for departing sea captains to maintain and recruit seamen, some waterfront dives assisted with "crimping" by forced recruitment for outbound ships in return for payment of the fee equal to 2-3 months’ worth of the "recruited" sailor’s wages. "Runners" from various dives would row out into the ocean towards the incoming ships advertising the pleasures that the city had to offer. Once ashore, the victim was made drunk (with knockout drops) and relieved of his possessions to be further transported to another ship. Term "shanghaiing" was used as Shanghai was an exotic destination and a long voyage from San Francisco.

The Barbary Coast went into decline after 1906, with the rebuilding of the City it was thought that the Barbary Coast was too low brow to an increasingly important city and the final blow came when the Red Light Abatement Act was passed in 1914, designed to close the brothels. 

Cable cars were first introduced to San Francisco on August 1, 1873 by Andrew Hallidie, a Scottish immigrant and a wire rope manufacturer. While he was the first to introduce cable rope technology for human transportations, this technology was already in use for carrying ore. Cable cars became popular, had many lines, covered approximately 112 miles, and tremendously affected property values in previously inaccessible areas of the city (for instance, Nob Hill).

San Francisco’s growing population required a large recreation area and in 1868 the Board of Supervisors set aside a strip of blowing sand and dunes, three miles long and ½ mile wide. This land was then known as "Outside Lands", it was sparingly populated and there were not many squatters which made settling legal claims easy. The idea was to make the park look "rustic", to avoid formality and promote vegetation, which was challenging due to the sandy soil and strong winds. The park became very popular and nearly one fifth of the city’s population would visit it on a weekend (about 50,000 out of approximately 250,000).


Earthquake and Fire (1906)

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The infamous earthquake emanated in St. Andreas fault and struck at 5:12 am on April 18, 1906. It was so powerful that its tremors were recorded as far away as Birmingham, England. Its epicenter was off-shore, a few miles south of Golden Gate and affected towns along a 200-mile stretch, with San Rosa and San Jose also being hit hard. Oakland and Berkeley were little affected. 

In San Francisco, eyewitnesses reported seeing ground undulate in waves as high as 2 or 3 feet. The earthquake broke the water lines (including water pipes to the City’s main reservoirs) as well as telegraph and telephone links. There were a few fires caused by overturned stoves, spillage of chemicals and similar causes but the main fires started in South of Market, North of Market and Hayes Valley areas with temperatures reaching 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The light from the fire could be seen 50 miles away and smoke rose 5 miles high.

About 3,000 people died which is comparatively low given the magnitude of the damage. Almost every structure from the waterfront north to North Beach, west to Van Ness Avenue, south to Townsend Street and southwest as far as 20th Street in the Mission were destroyed. There were a few enclaves that managed to survive (the Old Mint, the main post office and some areas in Russian and Telegraph Hills). Four fifths of the property value in San Francisco vanished (28,000 buildings), the loss was in the range of $500 million – the size of the federal budget in 1906.

Many U.S. cities as well as foreign countries (Japan giving the most) gave aid to San Francisco, totaling approximately $9 million and the rest of the damage was covered by the insurance companies.


The New Century (1906-1941)

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When the rebuilding began, Los Angeles was starting to become San Francisco’s rival and the latter needed a master architectural plan which would transform it into a more beautiful city and confirm its preeminent stature. Daniel Burnham, a noted Chicago architect educated in Paris and a follower of the "City Beautiful" movement, was chosen for the task. He chose Paris as a model for the City’s rebuilding. Daniel Burnham envisaged one-way streets and a network of subways with classical colonnaded temples looking down upon the city from the hilltops as well as the park several times the size of Golden Gate Park for the area west of Twin Peaks. New city hall and civic center were supposed to be located in a semicircular plaza that would radiate from the intersection of Market and Van Ness streets.

This plan met resistance from the property owners whose properties had to be condemned in view of street widening and envisaged construction as well as from other citizens who did not want the city to incur bonded debt. As a result, the new city was rebuilt along the lines of the old. Some elements proposed by Burnham were implemented (for instance, classical elements of the City Hall and the Civic Center as well as one-way streets were introduced in the 1940s). San Francisco’s downtown was rebuilt in approximately three years.

In 1909 San Francisco submitted a bid for the Panama Pacific International Exposition which was approved by Congress in 1911 (Panama canal was to be opened in 1914). All of the present Marina district of San Francisco plus portions of the Presidio and Fort Mason housed the Exhibition. The result was a fair of such beauty and harmony that author Gray Brechin likened it to "a miniature Constantinople at the base of Pacific Heights". Amongst the highlights were the Machinery Hall big enough for the airplane to fly through it and a 43-story Tower of Jewels (which had over 100,000 colored, cut-glass beads suspended by wires with tiny mirrors behind them). The Exposition was an aesthetic and financial triumph, with nearly 20 million people attending.

On May 27, 1937, Golden Gate Bridge was opened to the public. Its total cost was $35 million and Joseph Strauss was chiefly responsible for building it. The start of its construction was initially delayed due to litigation and issues with financing related to the Great Depression. A pledge from A.P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of America, to guarantee the sale of the first $6M worth of bonds kept the project from stalling. The delays in Golden Gate Bridge’s construction resulted in a benefit as the original bridge design was not attractive and only the efforts of the young East Bay architect Irving Morrow made it look like it does now.

Financing of the Bay Bridge was less challenging than that for the Golden Gate Bridge as heavy ferry commute traffic already existed and it was evident that the Bay Bridge would pay for itself. President Hoover, an engineer and a Stanford graduate, took a personal interest in the project and was instrumental in securing federal approval.


Modern Times (1941-1989)

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With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the coming of World War II, San Francisco would begin to change from a basically homogenous, predominantly white, somewhat insular city, to the more international, multiethnic metropolis of today. The war brought a huge influx of people – both military and civilian – that boosted the City’s population to an estimated 800,000.

In the Bay Area, the prime support contribution took the form of shipbuilding (Sausalito and Richmond being the primary shipyards). In 1944 the Bay Area led the world in shipbuilding. At one point, a ship was constructed in an incredible four days (average was 6-8 weeks).

With the influx of population, the city became overcrowded, with many ethnic groups coming into the city. Housing was in tremendously short supply, the only civilian buildings erected were dormitories and barracks to accommodate defense plants workers. By the late 1943, for the only time in the San Francisco’s history to date, local civic groups discouraged conventions and tourists from coming. After the war, many of the servicemen and civilians who came to work at the defense plants stayed in the Bay Area.

The 1940s gave away to the more settled 1950s, the Bay Area enjoyed a surge of prosperity that prevailed throughout the rest of the United States. However, the self-satisfied mood of the Eisenhower years gave way to a counter reaction in San Francisco where a small group of nonconformists known as the “Beats” planted the seeds of revolt. A small group of Bohemians, in opposition to the prevailing mainstream beliefs, clustered in the North Beach neighborhood. They became known as the "Beats" – a term coined by Jack Kerouac from his characterizing his as a "beaten" generation, a comparison to the Lost Generation of the 1920s. The event that launched the movement was a poetry reading at the Six Gallery (now long vanished, it was located on Fillmore Street near Union Street) in 1955, where Allen Ginsberg gave first reading of the Howl (he wrote this poem when living at 1010 Montgomery Street (off Broadway) where he lived in 1955). Sandals, berets, turtlenecks and dark glasses were a typical attire of the Beats. Herb Caen called them "beatniks", meaning it derogatory as in 1957 Russians launched their first satellite, Sputnik and Caen added the word to the lexicon when the noted that Sputnik and the Beats were both "far out" (joining the two words together, he created "beatnik").

The Beat movement was short lived. By 1958 the Beatniks had been covered by the national media and were part of the contemporary scene - tour buses were riding through North Beach to gawk at them. By early 1960s the Beats were passe and a few Beats were forced to move away from a previously inexpensive North Beach as the tourist boom inflated prices. 

Some of the Beats moved to Haight-Ashbury which at the time was a run-down, largely black neighborhood just outside the entrance to the Golden Gate Park. Neglected Victorian houses offered cheap rent, and the Beats, who worshipped jazz and black musicians, found themselves at home in the area.

Separately from the Beats, a group of younger population (San Francisco State University was located in Haight-Ashbury until 1952 but many of its students continued to live in the old locale) also settled in the area. The Beats considered this new gathering not "cool" enough to be hipsters like themselves, so they were belittled as junior grade hipsters or "hippies". The Beat movement, with its love of jazz and poetry as well as an interest in Asian culture and Zen Buddhism, passed from the scene in the mid-1960s but its influence remained as the hippies inherited the Beats’ sense of political and philosophical alienation from society. The hippies also enthusiastically embraced the drugs and expanded well beyond the Beats’ occasional use of marijuana to embrace LSD and other mind-expanding substances.

The first flowering of the Haight - leading to the Summer of Love of 1967 – started in late 1965 with two first coffeehouses where both Beats and hippies congregated opened. This was also the time when San Francisco’s first rock bands made their appearance. One of the earliest ones was the Charlatans – their trademark was the Victorian-era clothes (which were plentiful in the local thrift stores) and they lasted only a few years. Two other bands that started around the same time - Jefferson Airplane and Warlocks (later known as the Grateful Dead - would endure for decades. Adding to the scene was Ken Kensley and his Merry Pranksters, who gave LSD parties at various Bay Area locations and advertised them by passing out handbills asking: "Can You Pass the Acid Test?".

In January, 1966, the world’s first psychedelic shop opened on Haight Street, and, as the year progressed, LSD and other drugs became more prevalent. By early 1967 tens of thousands of people started congregating in Golden Gate Park for a human Be-In, an event presided over by Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and others in celebration of the new spirit of community that started to envelope the Haight. Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, the Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janice Joplin) played free concerts and LSD was passed around like candy. By summer, thousands more of young people arrived. For some time, the mellowness continued but the publicity, the expectation and the onslaught of more people proved to be too much. By August, 1967 the Summer of Love turned ugly as drifters, criminals, drug abusers and opportunists of all kinds arrived (including Charles Manson). Fights broke out, two well-known drug dealers were murdered within a day of each other and "speed" replaced the more benign LSD as the drug of choice. Things got worse in 1968 when a confrontation with police led to a riot. In April of that year, after Martin Luther King’s assassination, store window along Haight were smashed. Hard drug usage became widespread when cheap heroin flooding the market, creating a virtual epidemic. By 1969 the Haight hit bottom, drug users roamed the streets, stealing and robbing to support their habits.

By early 1970s the Haight started to rebound with escalating real estate prices in San Francisco as well as a newly found appreciation of Victorian houses (which were plentiful in this neighborhood) plaing a role. The hippie era left behind very few physical signs of its existence, being replaced with local business establishments. One of the few remnants is the Free Clinic off Haight Street. Rolling Stone magazine can also be classified as a survivor at it got its start in San Francisco in October, 1967. The Haight Ashbury phenomenon left a legacy of increased tolerance: it was one of the influences that led to gains by gays, women, and ethnic minorities in the upcoming 1970s and 1980s. The Beats and hippies reminded the powers of San Francisco’s great legacy, its distinctive difference as a great city as well as its willingness to accommodate different voices and lifestyles, however strange they may at first seem.

During that time period, the Castro became known as a Gay Mecca, and its gay population swelled as significant numbers of gay people moved to San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s (World War II also saw a jump in the gay population when the US military actively sought out and dishonorably discharged homosexuals). The growth of the gay population caused tensions with some of the established ethnic groups in the southern part of the city. On November 27, 1978 Dan White, a former member of the Board of Supervisors and former police officer, assassinated the city's mayor George Moscone as well as San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, Supervisor Harvey Milk. The murders and the subsequent trial were marked both by candlelight vigils and riots within the Castro. In the 1980s, the HIV created havoc within the gay male community. Today, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender populations of San Francisco are estimated to be approximately 15%, and they remain influential in the City's life.

The 1970s also brought other major changes to San Francisco, such as the construction of its first subway system, BART, which connected San Francisco with other cities in the Bay Area (in 1972). San Francisco's then tallest building, the Transamerica Pyramid, was also completed during that year. The City also saw a wave of violence during this time such as the Zebra Killings, the Zodiac Murders and the Golden Dragon massacre.

During the administration of Mayor Dianne Feinstein (1978–1988), San Francisco saw a development boom referred to as "Manhattanization". Many large skyscrapers were built — primarily in the Financial District - but the boom also included high-rise condominiums in some residential neighborhoods.

During the early 1980s, homeless people began appearing in large numbers in San Francisco, the result of multiple factors including the closing of state institutions for the mentally ill, the Reagan administration drastically cutting Section 8 housing benefits, and social changes which increased the availability of addictive drugs. Combined with San Francisco's attractive environment and generous welfare policies the problem soon became endemic. Mayor Art Agnos (1988–92) was the first to address the problem, and not the last; it is a top issue for San Franciscans even today. His program, “Beyond Shelter”, became the basis for the similar federal programs. Later, mayor Gavin Newson created the controversial "Care Not Cash" program and policy on the homeless, which calls for ending San Francisco's generous welfare policies towards the homeless and instead placing them in affordable housing and requiring to attend city funded drug rehabilitation and job training programs.

On October 17, 1989, northern California was hit with by a 6.8 earthquake, the biggest since 1906. Amongst top sites of destructions were upper decks of the Bay Bridge and the dramatic damage and fire in the Marina district (as none of the Marina apartment buildings are anchored to bedrock and are on a landfill, the sandy soil experienced the process known as "liquefaction", causing the buildings to settle). The affected areas were quickly restored. The quake severely damaged many of the city's freeways including the Embarcadero Freeway and the Central Freeway. Mayor Agnos made the controversial decision to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway, opening the waterfront which later led to redevelopment of some of the run-down areas of the City.


The Current Times (1990-current)

This image is provided courtesy of

The 1990s saw the demolition of the areas damaged by the 1989 earthquake (such as Embarcadero and Central Freeway) and restoration of the once blighted Hayes Valley as well as the city's waterfront promenade, The Embarcadero. In 1994 as part of the Base Realignment and Closure Plan, the former military base of San Francisco Naval Shipyard in Bayview-Hunters Point was closed and returned to the city while the Presidio was turned over to the National Park Service and since converted into a national park.

In 1996, the city elected its first African American mayor, former Speaker of the California State Assembly Willie Brown. Brown called for expansions to the San Francisco budget to provide for new employees and programs. His tenure saw the development and construction of the new Mission Bay neighborhood as well as a baseball stadium for the Giants, ATT Park which was 100% privately financed.

During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, large numbers of entrepreneurs and computer professionals moved into San Francisco, followed by marketing and sales professionals, and changed the social landscape of once poorer neighborhoods. In 2001, the markets crashed, the boom ended, and many left San Francisco. By 2003, the City's economy had recovered from the dot-com crash thanks to a resurgent international tourist industry and the Web 2.0 boom which saw the creation of many new Internet and software start-up companies, attracting white-collar workers, recent university graduates as well as young adults from all over the world. Residential demand as well as rents rose again, and as a result, San Francisco’s city officials relaxed building height restrictions and zoning codes to construct residential condominiums in SOMA such as One Rincon Hill, 300 Spear Street, Millennium Tower among others.

Today, San Francisco is the cultural, commercial, and business center of Northern California, it also recently became the most expensive city to live in the United States. The City has a diversified service economy, with employment spread across a wide range of professional services, including financial services, tourism, and high technology. San Francisco is also the headquarters of five major banking institutions and various other companies such as Levi Strauss & Co., Gap, Inc.,,, Reddit, Square, Inc., Airbnb, Twitter, Uber, Mozilla, Craigslist and many others.

The international character that San Francisco has enjoyed since its founding is continued today by large numbers of immigrants from Asia, Latin America and other locations.

The content of this page was partially derived from the book by Rand Richards: “Historic San Francisco. A Concise History and Guide." as well as “Historic Walks in San Francisco. 18 Trails Through the City’s Past.””


About Kate

As a long-term resident of San Francisco, Kate is well familiar with the city’s past and present. With her professional background and deep knowledge of the local housing market, Kate is in the position to best assist with your real estate needs. Should you be looking for a recommendation on the upcoming cultural or social events and/or if you need a trusted local real estate advisor, ask Kate – San Francisco is her HOME.

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1801 Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA 94123

Mobile: +1.415.601.0926


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CalBRE No:  01445813


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