Huge debts burden San Francisco

John W. Geary, 1st Mayor of San Francisco

The cost involved in the incredible growth of San Francisco from a small Mexican village to a large cosmopolitan city in only a few short years, even at fair, honest rates, should have been huge, but due to official mismanagement the new city paid two or three times the going rate for nearly every purchase and was fleeced in almost every part of it鈥檚 administration. In August of 1849 during his inaugural message, the new Alcalde and soon to be first Mayor, John W. Geary, announced that there wasn鈥檛 a dollar in the city鈥檚 treasury.

While San Francisco was deeply in debt there were no city offices or even a building to house them in. Not a single police officer or watchman walked the streets nor was there a jail fit to confine a prisoner for even an hour. For those in need there was no hospital or medical service of any kind and if these unfortunates passed on there was no place to bury them. In short there was not a single requirement necessary for the promotion of prosperity, the protection of property, or the maintenance of order. Yet nowhere on earth could there be another city where a tax for the support of municipal government could be so justly imposed. Real estate, both with improvements and without, had, in only a short span of time, increased a thousand fold and produced rents that generated the highest income on record.

ships loading in San Francisco 1850

Geary recommended that the funds necessary to run the city thus be acquired by a tax on real estate and auction sales, licenses on merchants, traders and storekeepers, and on boats, lighters and drays used to transport merchandise or passengers to or from vessels in the harbor, and finally by a tax or license on gambling and billiard tables. With the first of these funds the city bought the Graham House for one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to use as a city hall, and purchased and converted the brig Euphemea for use as a municipal prison.

Prison ship Euphemia and the Apollo Saloon


  1. I can only imagine how San Franciscans felt as they became a city back then. 馃榾

    • Yes, Jack, I don’t think any other city has grown so fast and yet had so much trouble as San Francisco. It shows a distinct strength of character in many of those who came to California in the early years of the gold rush.

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