Prosperity in early San Francisco

Montgomery Street 1852

Had San Francisco not been one of the most active, progressive and wealthy cities of its size anywhere in the world it is unlikely that it could have ever withstood the epic strains made upon it. While swept from one side repeatedly by huge fires and robbed of its property by some of its unscrupulous citizens, the city not only continued to grow but also prospered. By the middle of 1852 California had a population of over two hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants and over thirty-six thousand of them, or one seventh, resided in San Francisco. Most of the others were scattered throughout the foothills of the mountains in the gold country although Sacramento, Stockton, Marysville, Los Angeles, and a few other places were doing well. San Francisco was the metropolis where everyone had to go, and through which nearly all the business of the coast had to be done.

San Francisco harbor 1851

The mines continued to yield incredible returns, in 1852 alone over a million dollars in gold a week for a total of fifty-nine million for the year. Passenger arrivals at the port of San Francisco numbered sixty-seven thousand while departures were only twenty-three thousand. Most of the clothing, supplies of every kind, and almost all of the provisions used in the state had to be imported through the city鈥檚 harbor. The amount of traffic was huge. San Francisco had quickly grown to be one of the chief commercial centers of the United States and one of the most important in the world.


  1. In my great grandfathers journals, he speaks of a visit made to San Francisco in the 1870’s when he was serving aboard the Royal Naval ship HMS Shah. The one thing that amazed him was being able to take a ride in an elevator in one of the cities buildings. 馃檪

    • After the rash of fires San Francisco rebuilt as a world class city. That would have included elevators in the buildings [after their invention of course] and they must have been something pretty special back then. Now elevators are everywhere, even on our ships.

  2. Harold Grice says

    The price of gold in 1850 was $18.93, so a million then would about ten million now. That’s pretty high cotton.

    • The amount of money in California was astounding, but business was volatile. People could make a fortune in almost no time and lose it all just as quickly. It must have been an incredible time to be in San Francisco.

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