The deplorable streets of 1849 San Francisco

The winter of 1849-50 had been an unusually wet one and so far, in all the short history of San Francisco, there had been no effort to improve the horrible condition of the streets. When the rains came it was impossible for a wagon to make way and even unladen and unharnessed horses and mules had difficulty. Quantities of brushwood cut from the surrounding hills and tossed into the worst locations proved only a limited and temporary fix. For most of the winter the streets were impassable. Stalling in the muck was a daily occurrence and only with a great deal of difficulty could the animals be pulled free and saved from sinking completely under the mud. On Montgomery, between Sacramento and Clay, two horses had to be abandoned and left to die in the street.

San Francisco 1849

Pedestrians also were forced to use extreme care when crossing. All too often someone lost their footing and fell headfirst into the muck. Again on Montgomery, this time between Washington and Jackson, three drunks slipped into the mire at night and suffocated. Further along Montgomery, in the most used portion between Clay and Jackson, there was a sidewalk of sorts that went on for some seventy-five yards. It was made partly of bags of Chilean flour pushed down into the mud, unused cook stoves, and a double row of tobacco boxes, all merchandise that for which, at the time, supply far exceeded demand, and when lumber was worth some five to six hundred dollars per thousand feet and in great demand. At other street crossings barrels of rotten and spoiled goods or the almost useless gold washing machines that were imported with almost every ship were scattered across the roads like stepping-stones.

The winter of 1849

Such conditions could not be tolerated in a city that was growing with unparalleled speed. Already the imports were larger than any other American port save New York. Something had to be done and work began that spring as soon as weather permitted. Sand and rock were used to grade out the roads and they were paved over with planking of the same kind as used on the wharves. In places where the wet spots were permanent, piles were driven and the street built on top of them. All the roads from Broadway to the north, Stockton on the west, Bush to the south and the wharves on the east were improved at a cost of a half million dollars. Of this amount the city undertook to pay a third and raised the rest by assessments on adjoining property.



  1. Great post, John. I enjoyed it. You’ve got quite a talent for writing short stories! My grandfather, J. L. Odom, often laughed with a big knee-slapping gesture when he saw Western movies depicting pristine streets filled with shiny bright buggies and wagons. In reality, Granddad said the streets of Palo Pinto were cesspools of mud and animal waste akin to filthy pigsties that not only ruined good shoes and pant legs but the stinch would take your breath away.
    Keep On A-Writing,

  2. Loved the post, John. Remember reading of a sign on a San Francisco street of the era that always makes me smile: “This street is impassable. Not even jackassable.”

    Best regards!

    • Hi Stan, great comment! You’ll be happy to know that things have improved a lot in San Francisco. Every time I go over there I see a lot of jackasses negotiating the streets quite well.

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