Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The City of San Francisco's 164th Birthday

San Francisco standing tall 164 years later

By: Katie Worth
Examiner Staff Writer
April 16, 2010

Today’s issues are mere trivialities compared to those faced by San Francisco’s first city government, established 160 years ago today.
(AP file photo)

Think San Francisco has problems?
Today’s issues are mere trivialities compared to those faced by San Francisco’s first city government, established 160 years ago today. At that time, The City had grown tenfold in mere months, burned to the ground multiple times, lacked a water or sewer system, and had a pesky problem of people dying left and right and no one wanting to take responsibility for burying them.
The city of San Francisco was officially incorporated April 16, 1850. Just a few years before, The City existed as the quiet Mexican pueblo of Yerba Buena, centered around a plaza at what’s now Portsmouth Square in Chinatown.
After Capt. John Montgomery sailed into town and claimed it for the United States in 1846, there had been several makeshift governments hastily assembled by groups vying for power — at one point, there were three civil governments and one military government simultaneously competing for authority. Meanwhile, The City’s population grew from several hundred to 20,000 in little more than a year.
“There was very little law and order,” said professor Gray Brechin, a historical geographer at UC Berkeley. “It was sort of an overgrown mining camp with a harbor.”
The first charter — which would be replaced by new charters several times in the next decade — established the southern boundary of The City in the empty land approximately where 16th Street exists today, and the western boundary approximately where Webster Street runs today. It divided San Francisco into eight wards “so that each ward shall contain as near as may be, the same number of white male inhabitants.”
The City had just burned to the ground on Christmas Eve the year before — and was to burn six more times in the next year and a half — so fire abatement was of foremost concern to officials. The charter directed the government “to regulate the storage of gunpowder, tar, pitch rosin and all other combustible materials, and the use of candles and lights in shops, stables and other places.”
Though The City was bordered by water on three sides, it didn’t have many reliable water sources, a problem exacerbated by the mushrooming population, according to history professor Robert Cherny of San Francisco State University.
“They were housed in ships run aground, in tents, in whatever shanty was available,” he said. “Not surprisingly, there were no fire codes, so this was a very-flammable city.”
The first mayor of San Francisco, John Geary, spent much of his first State of The City address considering the fire problem.
The City’s first charter would not last long, Cherny said. By the next year, a group of vigilantes took over city government and insisted on a new charter. The same would happen again in 1856, he said.
Brechin said that period in San Francisco history is easy to romanticize, but the reality — a city filled with rats, prone to devastating fires, lacking sewage or water systems, and run by a constantly changing set of characters — is that it was a pretty ugly time.
“I’m glad I wasn’t there,” he said. “It must have been god-awful.”

City’s first ordinances

In the months after the incorporation of San Francisco, the Common Council of Aldermen and the mayor took on the issues of the day.
No. 7: Regulating Bar Rooms, etc.: All bar rooms and gaming tables in this city shall be closed at twelve o’clock, midnight, under a penalty of fifty dollars and not more than one hundred dollars.
No. 9: Relative to Supplying The City with Water Buckets: That the person or persons occupying any house or other building in this city shall keep in each of said houses or other buildings six water buckets marked with the initials of their names to be used upon occurrence of any fire.
No. 23: To Prevent Running Horses in the Public Streets: That no person or persons shall be allowed to race, ride or drive at such speed on any of the public ways within the limits of this city as to endanger or hazard the life or limbs of any person under penalty of not less than twenty nor more than fifty dollars at the discretion of the recorder.
No. 25: Against the Violation of the Sabbath: That no person or persons shall be allowed to play at any game of chance or hazard on the Sabbath under the penalty of not less than fifty nor more than five hundred dollars.


Mayor: John W. Geary
Population: 94,766
Leading industries: Mining, shipping
  • Several earthquakes felt throughout the year
  • City plagued by fires
  • Competing fire companies form; The City adopts rules for proper Fire Department organization
  • First dramatic entertainment, “The Wife,” at Washington Hall
  • Mygatt, Bryant and Co. opened first bath house on Maiden Lane
  • 500-pound grizzly bear caught near Mission Dolores
  • Mayor Geary welcomed new Chinese residents to San Francisco in a ceremony in Portsmouth Square
  • Presidio and other areas reserved for military purposes
  • Grand jury condemned gambling in The City as “a crying evil” and urged that something must be done about prize fighting, along with numerous houses of ill-repute
  • New sidewalk laid along Battery Street
  • Catholic Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany arrives


Mayor: Gavin Newsom
Population: 808,977
Leading industry: Tourism
  • City, schools cut services as budgets shrink
  • America’s Cup sailing race won
  • Mayor runs for state office
  • Crime lab scandal rocks city
  • Planned Transbay Transit Center will link with high-speed rail from L.A.
  • Santa Clara goes to ballot to steal 49ers
  • City breaks ground on Central Subway
  • U.S. Postal Service closes city branches
San Francisco Historical Society

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