The waterfront extension swindle

Even as San Francisco began its greatest year ever the next attack on its prosperity was launched by no less than John Bigler, the governor of California, in his annual message on January 5, 1853. He called attention to the enormous liabilities of the state, an impending debt of over two million dollars, an expected expenditure of over one million dollars for 1853 alone with an expected receipt for the same year of less than one-half million. To reduce the cost to the state Bigler proposed to restrict the amount of time the legislature was in session, cut a number of jobs and reduce salaries in others. This, he claimed, would reduce the expenditures to about a half million dollars and bring them in line with the revenue. Then he proposed to extend the waterfront of San Francisco six hundred feet into the bay and sell the additional lots thus created to repay the debt.

John Bigler

Unfortunately all of this property, though still underwater, was already involved in legal issues from what had come to be called the Peter Smith swindle, and if it truly was a swindle then the extension act business was a even greater swindle. The opponents claimed it would injure the state, the city and all the property owners in the area under consideration, called the red line, plus it would do incalculable harm to the harbor by shoaling the water. In San Francisco strong protests were made by all but the few who would profit from this wild scheme. But Governor Bigler carried on and by April 1st the legislation passed the assembly.

1853 map of San Francisco

The bill reached the Senate on April 5th. The debate was long and bitter, but it was unlikely that anything said swayed one vote in either direction. Those for the extension had a certain number of adherents and could get no more. On April 26th as the bill came up for final passage a motion was made to postpone it indefinitely. After a roll call vote thirteen senators voted for and thirteen against. That left the deciding vote to the Lieutenant Governor, Samuel Purdy, who, without hesitation voted against the bill thereby killing it. Purdy soon became the most popular man in California. San Francisco was spared a great loss and California saved from a huge disgrace.



  1. Harold Grice says

    but didn’t they extend into the bay, or the tide area? Seems to me, I remember seeing, for sale signs in water?

    • First they sold water lots. Then they filled them in. Yerba Buena Cove was filled with the debris from the first 6 fires as well as the sand dunes that stood near Rincon Point and on the west side of the cove. A lot of the Mission District is fill. All of this was in the first few years or so of statehood.

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