Gold rush San Francisco

In 1833 a half dozen sailboats plied the Pacific coast, trading in otter and beaver pelts, tallow and hides. The Mexican Presidio near the entrance to San Francisco Bay had 250 soldiers led by Captain Mariano Vallejo. The first building in what would become San Francisco was a tent made from an old sail erected beside the Yerba Buena Cove in 1835. Four years later John Sutter arrived at the tiny village and by 1844 there were a dozen houses and 50 people living there. Then on July 9, 1846 Captain Montgomery sailed into the small cove and the American flag was raised over the town square which was renamed Portsmouth Square for Montgomery’s ship. In 1847 six ships anchored in Yerba Buena Cove and the first newspaper, the California Star, was published. The town grew to 459 souls and its name was changed to San Francisco. The next January James Marshall found gold.

The Presidio of San Francisco, 1817

As news of the strike spread San Francisco bloomed. In 1849 alone 40,000 people arrived by boat and the population grew to 25,000. By September 1851 there were 12 wharves along the cove. The Central Wharf was 2000 feet long. Howison Pier at the end of Sacramento Street was 1100 feet. Cunningham Wharf ran 350 feet out from Battery Street and had a 330-foot tee at the end. But the heart of the city was still Portsmouth Square. Fancy hotels climbed three stories high. The Parker House, the Empire, the Jenny Lind Theater all catered to the rapid wealth the mines produced. Gambling became an industry and Brown’s Hotel was the center. Gamblers could pay $10,000 a month rent.  $16,000 in gold was lost on one play at a faro table. Gamblers were the richest, most influential people in town.

San Francisco harbor 1851

But in spite of their opulence, the buildings were made of wood and at six in the morning on Christmas Eve 1849 a fire broke out at Dennison’s Exchange on the east side of the square and quickly spread. On May 4, 1850 another early morning fire broke out at the United States Exchange. Three blocks and 300 buildings were destroyed. At eight o’clock on the morning of June 14th a flue in the bakery of the Merchant’s Hotel on Kearny burst into flame. Fed by a stiff wind the fire burned to the water’s edge and did $3,500,000 in damage. Then on September 17th the Philadelphia House on Jackson Street erupted in flame. The new fire department jumped into action and would have saved more buildings had they an ample water supply. But on top of the ashes new businesses grew and so did a city fueled by gold.

Portsmouth Square 1851



  1. Hi John – Thanks for your comment on the article about my MP library performance. The evening went wonderfully – 70 people (kids and adults) in the audience! I followed the link to your blog, fabulous photos and images — I’d like to add your blog to my list of curriculum resources that I give to teachers (most of my performances have been so far in schools), and also put it on my Twitter page. – Laura Steuer a.k.a. Miss Suzannah

    • Thanks, Laura – I look forward to seeing you as Miss Suzannah someday. I understand you will be at the Fiddletown Living History Day on May 21. It sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday.
      Please, do add a link to my blog where you can, I will appreciate it.
      I admire you for what you are doing. Keep up the good work! John Putnam

  2. Great post and wonderful photographs. SF is an especially colorful example of boomtowns of the period. Fire was almost a given.

    • They built the town so fast, Ron, that inside walls were covered in cloth instead of wood or plaster. From the end of 1849 till the middle of 1851 there were six huge fires that burned multiple blocks and each time the crooks would come out of their camps in the Barbary Coast and rob the homes of those out fighting the fires. Finally they replaced most buildings with brick and ran the crooks out of town. A lot of those brick buildings fell down in the 1906 quake.

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