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A Short History of San Francisco

A Short History of San Francisco

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A Short History of San Francisco

4/5 (2 Bewertungen)
237 Seiten
2 Stunden
Jul 1, 2014


This is the story of San Francisco, a unique and rowdy tale with a legendary cast of characters. It tells of the Indians and the Spanish missions, the arrival of thousands of gold seekers and gamblers, crackbrains and dreamers, the building of the transcontinental railroad and the cable car, labor strife and political shenanigans, the 1906 earthquake and fire, two World Wars, two World’s Fairs, two great bridges, the beatniks and hippies and New Left—a story that is so marvelous and wild that it must be true. A new afterword from the author brings The City into the twenty-first century: a time just as hectic, experimental, and opportunistic as its rambunctious past.
Jul 1, 2014

Über den Autor

Tom Cole has been a keen military modeller for many years. A former Royal Air Force Engineering Officer, he has always modelled in small scale and has a particular passion for British and Commonwealth forces of World War II.

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A Short History of San Francisco - Tom Cole


Third Edition


Foreword by Malcolm Margolin

Heyday • Berkeley, California

© 2014 by Tom Cole

All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from Heyday.

First edition published in 1981 by Lexikos Press. Second edition, 1988, Don’t Call It Frisco Press. Third edition, 2014, Heyday.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

Cover Photo: Wayne Tilcock

Cover and Interior Design/Typesetting: Ashley Ingram

Printing and Binding: Thomson-Shore Dexter, MI

Orders, inquiries, and correspondence should be addressed to:


P.O. Box 9145, Berkeley, CA 94709

(510) 549-3564, Fax (510) 549-1889

To M.

(and Em, and Ty, too)

















Malcolm Margolin

What a delight to update and republish Tom Cole’s spirited gift to San Francisco. When this short history first came out in 1981, it was a revelation. There was a freshness to it, a breezy, sophisticated irreverence, so different from the official, self-congratulatory histories that preceded it. It was the history of San Francisco told by one of us, someone who spoke the language of our times and could use it to tell a good story. A man of manifest good nature and friendliness, Tom was clearly having great fun on his excursions into the past, and he was glad to share it with us. We in turn were glad to give ourselves over to him for a whirlwind tour of how San Francisco came to be.

If by short history we mean page count, what we have before us does indeed qualify as short. So many wonderful stories packed into so few pages—condensed, invigorating, intelligent, and told with flair. You never know who’ll show up. Emperor Norton? William Randolph Hearst? beatniks and hippies? In the current vernacular, You couldn’t make this stuff up. What amazing theater captured in such deft sketches!

Cities—when they work—are to my mind the most splendid, the zaniest, the most astonishing creation of the human imagination, and San Francisco is unrivaled. Harriet Lane Levy, who grew up in San Francisco toward the end of the nineteenth century, described the downtown area on a Saturday night, the people a vibrating mass excited by the lights and stir and the gaiety of the throng.…We walked through avenues of light in a world hardly solid. Something was happening everywhere, every minute, something to be happy about… We walked and walked and still something kept happening afresh. That excitement still holds.

I visited San Francisco briefly in 1967, during the Summer of Love, and it was clearly a place where something was happening. Even more, it seemed a place where everything was happening. After two more years of travel—odd jobs, unstructured days, living on beaches in Mexico and Canada—my wife, Rina, and I headed back to San Francisco. Rina was pregnant with our first child, Reuben, and adulthood, long shunned, had issued a stern summons. The time had come to settle down and raise a family, to create a life. What better place to do so than San Francisco? What better time than 1969? The embers of the Summer of Love were still warm, and San Francisco, as songs on the radio, articles in magazines, and the word on the street kept reminding us, was the place to be.

As we neared our destination, I pulled our Volkswagen bus (yes, one with flowered curtains) into an overlook. In the distance were the twinkling lights of our city. I shut off the motor and stepped out of the bus to savor the moment fully. Those twinkling lights, I thought to myself, will be my home. There I will raise a family, make friends, and pursue my dreams of a literary life. There, if destiny favors me, I will gain fame, make my mark, and grow into old age. Ah, San Francisco! It felt momentous. I breathed deeply of the cool winter air, and awash in emotion, I climbed back into the bus, grabbed the wheel, and headed triumphantly toward my destiny. A great boundary had been crossed, and it was more than geographical.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that the galaxy of twinkling lights I’d been looking at that night wasn’t San Francisco; it was the town of Vallejo.

Clearly, the San Francisco that I saw from the overlook was a San Francisco of my imagination. But in truth, all great cities—Paris, Venice, London, New York, Timbuktu, Rio, Kyoto, Samarkand, etc.—are at least partly creations of the imagination, alive perhaps more in their stories than in their streets, parks, and buildings. What had propelled me toward San Francisco that winter day was not the hope of a job, not the city’s architecture, parks, or climate; I had come to pay homage to the wealth of stories that is San Francisco’s unique and irreplaceable heritage, and to add my own story to it as well.

I still am still here, and it continues to be a joy.

Alternately, short history might mean that the book covers a short time span. Although the first chapter deals with the Indian, Spanish, and Mexican eras, the major part of it discusses the period from the Gold Rush to the present, in essence yesterday. Let me reminisce a bit. I was born in 1940, and when I was young I knew several people who had firsthand memories of the Civil War. I remember in particular Millie Fields, who regaled us kids with tales of how she made blankets for her brothers in the Grand Army of the Republic. Millie was born in the 1850s, only a few years after the fateful discovery of gold in the American River. And as she was growing up, the adults around her would all have been alive during the Gold Rush era.

In short, I can’t think of the Gold Rush as all that long ago. The daguerreotypes of miners show people with body language and clothing not all that different from ours. The writings and paintings of the period also don’t seem to me all that distant in content and sensibility. This history has happened in the blink of an eye, yet how rich it is! Thumb through the book’s index: Alcatraz Island, Argonauts, Barbary Coast, Bear Flag Revolt, beatnik, Ambrose Bierce, Big Four, Bloody Thursday, cable cars, Herb Caen, Enrico Caruso, Chinatown, City Lights Bookstore, Comstock Lode, James J. Corbett, Lotta Crabtree, Charles Crocker, and twenty-three more letters to go. So much fascinating, anecdotally rich history crammed into so few years, all of it as contemporaneous as the daily newspaper. Perhaps these stories entertain us so because they are stories of such a recent past inhabited by people so very much like ourselves.

Yet there is a longer history that might be looked at, too. Tom Cole is correct in saying that the first Indian settlements in San Francisco date back to about 5,000 years before the present. But wandering nomads were here at least as far back as 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, arriving at the end of the Pleistocene. With so much of the Earth’s water frozen into glaciers then, the sea level was much lower than it is today. The first humans to have set foot on what is now San Francisco would not have been able to see the ocean: a great plain extended past the Farallons, which would have appeared like a distant ridge of low-lying hills. There was no San Francisco Bay, either, only a great valley. A river, gorged with melt-off from the glaciers of the Sierra, flowed through this valley toward an opening in the Coast Ranges. Here, at what would later be known as the Golden Gate, was a massive waterfall, one that in its power, volume, and presence may well have rivaled Niagara Falls. The roar of its waters would have been heard for miles.

When these first humans arrived, strange and wonderful animals still held sway, although their age of maximum abundance was waning. Columbian mammoths, herds of camels, horses, bison, and llamas spread over the landscape. They were hunted by dire wolves, short-nosed bears, American lions, saber-toothed cats, and other predators. Breck Parkman, an archaeologist with California State Parks, marvels: What we would have seen in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late Pleistocene was grander than anything imaginable. The closest comparison might be the famous Serengeti Plains of East Africa as described in early historic times.

The world has certainly changed since then, and as we try to peer beyond the accelerated climate crisis of our day and the unimaginable technological developments that seem probable in the years ahead, we will undoubtedly find great changes in the future. As the Japanese poet Issa teaches us: This world is but a dewdrop world. And yet…

And yet, indeed. What a lovely, impermanent, high-spirited, dewdrop world this compact history of San Francisco lays before us. What a startling and astonishing cast of characters Tom Cole has assembled, cheek by jowl, all together in such a tight space. What a wonderful host he is, taking us around and introducing us to everyone. There will be other dewdrop worlds in the future, but this one is unique. Let’s get in there, let’s join the party, let’s add our own stories, and let us cherish this most elaborate and delightful dewdrop world.

What a splendid feast Tom Cole has prepared for us. Let us not fail to enjoy it fully.


From the top of a San Francisco hill, from a boat in the Bay, on a map or in memory, San Francisco Bay and its lands seem changeless. The hills are solid and the shore appears permanently etched. But what we call the Bay Area is permanent only to our scurrying human senses. In geologic time it is not much more than a sandbar on a beach, shifting, disappearing, forever being built and destroyed.

The full geological history of the Bay Area is impossible to know, and what is known is numbingly complex. The land has risen and fallen many times, the sea has invaded and retreated. It has been the bottom of a vast ocean and the marshy foraging ground of long-extinct creatures. But what of today’s landscape, however fleeting scientists tell us it is?

The hills and waters and beaches of the Bay Area are the result of three natural forces, all of them, whether waxing or waning, still potent and active.

First was the eroding force of the Sacramento River, flowing south from its source near Mount Shasta, close to the Oregon border. Over the millennia the Sacramento has coursed over 250 miles down the flat Central Valley, ennobled along its route by run-off water from the countless streams and rivers that drain the western rampart of the Sierra Nevada. Today the mouth of the Sacramento is the Carquinez Strait, in the far northeast part of the Bay. But most scientists believe that during the Pleistocene Epoch, some 2.5 million years ago, the Sacramento flowed south and westward from the Carquinez, eroding a valley that is now the Bay. It kept flowing, theory has it, through what is now the Golden Gate, and met the ocean a few miles to the west of the present shoreline of the Pacific.

The Sacramento River’s land-shaping was aided by the slow uplifting of the Coast Range, the second great force in the creation of the Bay. The Coast Range is a relatively low but dramatic mountain chain that confronts the sea along most of the California coast. As it rose, the Coast Range blocked all the waters of Northern California from the sea—all, that is, except the Sacramento River, which kept its channel at the Golden Gate open. The mountains were forced up by shifting faults, deep cracks in California’s unstable land. Those faults not only pushed up the Coast Range, but also buckled the land from north and south, deepening and defining the Sacramento’s valley.

Then came the third and final force in the formation of the Bay. Since the end of the most recent Ice Age, more than half of the earth’s ice has melted. As sea level gradually rose, the ocean infiltrated the old valley and created San Francisco Bay.

The three major bay-building forces are still at work, subtly so in the case of our changing climate. The drought of 1976-77, another in the late 1980s, and a series of droughts since then have given San Franciscans a lesson in the importance to the city, the state, and, in fact, the whole West, of those changes. The Sacramento River, backed up to the Carquinez by the ocean, is an important influence on the Bay’s ecological health, and the valley canyons the Sacramento carved thousands of years ago have become shipping channels.

But the most troubling geological reality for the Bay Area is its restless land. Like all of California, the region is streaked with faults, the most famous and deadly of which, the San Andreas, caused the earthquake (and helped cause the fire) that almost destroyed San Francisco in 1906. The San Andreas doesn’t touch San Francisco: it slithers into the ocean just south of the city and rejoins the mainland in Marin County, across the Golden Gate. There its path can be seen at narrow Tomales Bay, which was created by one of the fault’s innumerable lurches. The San Andreas is just one of many faults—like the Hayward, which runs along the Berkeley Hills across the Bay from San Francisco—that constantly menace the Bay Area.


The Bay’s waters stopped rising about four or five thousand years ago. The hills had long been forested and, without all the paraphernalia of modern times, the Bay Area looked much the same as it does today. There weren’t any eucalyptus groves—those came thousands of years later from Australia. And Alcatraz Island was still the nesting place of the pelicans for which it was named.

But the meadow-dappled hills were that soothing mix of browns and greens we know today. The waters changed mood and color endlessly, and elegant Mount Tamalpais watched over the land. Amidst all that beauty—almost surrounded by it—was a peninsula, the thumb of a cupped hand, and, at the tip of that peninsula, the less-than-fifty-square-mile area we now call San Francisco.

The ancestral San Francisco Peninsula was a counterpoint to the lushness around it. There were few trees and fewer meadows, and little of the wildlife that teemed elsewhere. It was—except for a few patches of verdure—a desolate and windy place. But most striking was the blanket of sand under which the site of today’s city was buried—sand eroded from the cliffs to the south, carried by local currents to San Francisco’s long beach, and from there blown across the upper peninsula by persistent westerly winds.

For ages the sand piled up: the longest sand dunes on the Pacific Coast stretched from Ocean Beach to—at one point near the anchorage of the Bay Bridge—the Bay itself, a distance of more than six miles. Sand drifts crested 600-foot Golden Gate Heights and covered much of Mount Sutro’s 900 feet. City Hall, five miles from the ocean, is built on 80 feet of the stuff. In fact, much of the relatively flat Sunset and Richmond Districts in the western part of the city would be as hilly as the rest of San Francisco were their contours not buried by sand.


About four or five thousand years ago, the Ohlone peoples arrived to make their home on the Bay’s shores, south to the Monterey Bay area, and inland to the Santa Clara and Salinas valleys.

When the Ohlone found the great Bay, it was still being filled. We know, or suspect, this because a few feet of some of the shellmounds the Indians left are below sea level: they were begun—the first of thousands of layers of shells, the residue of thousands of feasts—when the Bay’s waters were rising.

These shellmounds, cut, quartered, and dissected by generations of archaeologists and anthropologists, are a revealing signature of the Ohlone way of life. Over 400 mounds have been found on the shores of the Bay, some as much as 30 feet high, 600 feet long, and 200 feet wide. Anthropologists have long known—they have massive evidence—that the Ohlone had a taste for shellfish. Around the turn of the century, however, a scientist named N. C. Nelson listed some of the other animal remains he had found in the mounds.

Nelson’s catalogue opens our eyes to the marvelous variety of wildlife in and around the prehistoric Bay. He identified the bones of deer, elk, sea otters, beavers, squirrels, rabbits, gophers, raccoons, badgers, skunks, wildcats, dogs, seals, sea lions, porpoises, whales, canvasback ducks, geese, cormorants, waders, or some large birds, turtles, skates, thornbacks and other fish, wolves, and grizzly bears.

In addition to this wealth of animal life,

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