Gold Rush

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

San Francisco was created by the American Gold Rush.

Gold was discovered by James Marshall, January 1848, at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The event was not well known until that March when an industrious man named Sam Brannan entered a sandy lot of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco and waved a bottle of Gold Dust over his head and cried out, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” In true entrepreneurial fashion Mr. Brannan, prior to his announcement, had stocked up on picks, gold pans, and shovels to sell to the newly energized populace who wanted to be miners. Within two years after his announcement, the small city of 1,000 exploded 20 times – to a population of 20,000!

Today, standing in the Portsmouth Square among the bustle of humanity surrounded by cement and steel buildings it is hard to imagine that on this location in 1848 one man’s announcement about gold ignited a worldwide migration of people to America.

The square has a number of plaques that are worthwhile to find, some include: In 1846 the U.S. Marines first raised the Stars and Stripes over San Francisco; the marines had disembarked from the USS Portsmouth and christened the square with the name of their ship. Also, this place was the location of California’s first public school, constructed in 1848 – the same year Sam Brannan made his announcement about gold. Also here is a marker dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, who often visited here to overlook the bay. Possibly some of the characters in his books were inspired by the sailing ships and the salty characters who sailed upon them.

Leaving Portsmouth Square I headed south just a few steps to Commercial Street. Commercial Street had a long history of business. One of the early establishments here was a branch of the Hudson Bay Company, a fur trading business that was involved in exploring North America during the 1600-1700s as well as California in the early 1800s. While walking down the street look for a little green space; this small area marks the location of Emperor Norton’s Imperial Palace, an eccentric character endowed with the title, “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico” who for decades charmed locals. He was so beloved by the city that it is reported his funeral was the largest in San Francisco’s history. While here also check out the Chinese Historical Society and the Pacific Heritage Museum. The site of the Pacific Heritage Museum was the original location of the US Branch Mint. It was here that gold from the Mother Load was housed from 1855 until 1874.

Walk to the end of Commercial Street to the corner of Montgomery and observe the topography around you, it’s really flat. Now, instead of cement at your feet imagine a sandy shoreline, deconstruct the buildings, move the people away, and un-pave the streets.  In front of you is a bay with several dozen wooden sailing vessels anchored in the shallow waters. Why then is the shoreline located 3/4 of a mile from where it is today? To find out walk to the Wells Fargo Bank History Room – a treasure box for those curious about America’s Gold Rush history.

As you enter the glass doors it is hard to miss the refurbished Abbot-Downing “Concord” Stagecoach – the same kind you see on the Wells Fargo TV commercials. You can get up close and see the details in the woodwork. It is hard to believe that 9 people could have been stuffed inside – and another 9 on top! At the history room, you can also see beautifully crafted precision scales for measuring gold, solid gold nuggets, treasure boxes and photographs from the Gold Rush time.

Kids can ride a Pony Express exhibit and have their photo taken as the newest Pony Express rider. On this exhibit, they have a mochilla, a unique looking saddlebag designed to fit over any saddle and that could be easily transferred between riders. The mochilla could carry up to 20 pounds of mail in four pouches. People often do not think of San Francisco as being on the Pony Express route, but it was the final destination of many of those letters. It is amazing to think that these letters made a 1,966-mile journey by horseback from Missouri to California in just 10 days!

Upstairs you can sit in the body of a stagecoach and listen to an account from a rider who traveled by stage to the west coast. Just listening to this audio makes a person very appreciative of our modern conveniences. Also upstairs are a number of letters and photos from the mid to late 1800s. I personally enjoyed a drawing called the “Birds Eye View of San Francisco” (shown with the abandoned ships in the foreground) which illustrates the hundreds of ‘ghost ships’ that choked the waterfront of San Francisco. Here is why the shoreline is not where it used to be; as the ships anchored in the bay hundreds were abandoned as sailors jumped-ship and traveled to the gold fields in search of fortune. As the number of ships grew this ‘graveyard of ships’ became new real estate and created the foundations of buildings, wharves, and streets as the city grew to fill in the shallow bay, entombing the ships that brought so many to these shores.

Leaving the museum and walking just a few short blocks back on Montgomery, past Commercial Street to the corner of Clay Street is the Transamerica Pyramid Building. Make a quick walk up Clay Street to view a plaque marking the final station of the Pony Express.

At the Transamerica Pyramid Building look up and appreciate the unique architecture of this 48 stories tall skyscraper. It’s hard to imagine that during the Gold Rush, as the bay lands were filled, a building called the Montgomery Block once stood here. It was reportedly a hangout for famous names as Mark Twain, Jack London, and Robert Louis Stevenson. One story about this place tells how Mr. Clemens (Mark Twain) met a hulky and red-headed firefighter who intrigued him and the two became friends. The firefighter was named Tom Sawyer.

On the eastern side of the skyscraper is a lush area known as the Transamerica Redwood Park. It is a pleasant oasis of trees, fountains, and greenery in the middle of the city. Enjoy a sculpture of six children running and playing called, “Puddle Jumpers.” The sculpture’s message about jumping is reinforced by nearby frogs which are in honor of Mark Twain’s book, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Keep an eye open for a marker about two saloon dogs who were inseparable friends. They were named “Bummer and Lazarus” and the two roamed freely in the 1860s.

The park was a good place to rest before continuing on with the next section of the Barbary Coast Trail – into the heart of the old Barbary Coast. Today, an area of upscale establishments and businesses, it was once a place of “too many men, too much gold, and too little civilization.”

>> Continue with Part 4: Barbary Coast

Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

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