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Even by “New World” standards, San Francisco was a late discovery. Several explorers sailed past the “golden gate” before the first Spanish missionaries arrived overland and colonized the peninsula in 1775. San Francisco was first known as Yerba Buena for the herb found there. Two Spanish institutions were the seeds of San Francisco: the Mission San Francisco de Asís (now Dolores) and The Presidio military garrison. Richard Henry Dana described the usually-quiet and sanguine days of San Francisco's and California's early 19th century in his maritime chronicle, "Two Years Before the Mast" (1834-36).
San Francisco and Alta California became part of Mexico when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. The small trading post of Yerba Buena, as it was known then, was beginning to attract a confluence of non-Hispanic peoples as well, drawn by the lure of the frontier. Americans increasingly settled in Spanish-speaking California. In 1846, President James Polk started the war with Mexico, which ended in 1848, with annexation of Texas, and the sale of California and New Mexico. In California in 1846, Marines from the warship, the Portsmouth, seized the Mexican flagpole and raised the American flag at the central plaza, which now bears the warship's name. Yerba Buena was rechristened San Francisco in 1847, and the previous name reserved for the cove on which the town was built.
In 1848, gold was discovered at John Sutter’s Mill on the American River in Coloma. With that discovery, 150,000 fortune seekers from around the world and by 1849 -- "49ers" -- swept into San Francisco and swarmed the hills of California, forever changing the fate, face and character of sleepy San Francisco.
Following the Gold Rush were years of riches and ruin. The influx of capital and the new railroad -- courtesy of Huntington, Hopkins, Stanford and Crocker (The Big Four) -- helped build what many considered to be "the Paris of the Pacific”. However, this wealth also fueled the vice and debauchery of the infamous Barbary Coast . This lawless neighborhood and red-light district (occupied by the present-day Financial District and North Beach) was the playground of the nouveau-riche miners and those who preyed upon them. Drunken revelers who loitered were “shanghaied” or kidnapped to be crew for abandoned trading ships. (All sailors/49ers who could, raced for the gold mines once they reached port, leaving behind hundreds of sailing vessels, most of which are still buried under San Francisco’s since-extended waterfront -- always grist for present-day news stories when a builder exhumes one upon breaking ground for a modern high-rise.)
Later, there was the gentleman robber Black Bart, who held-up stagecoaches, leaving behind poetry for the Wells Fargo detectives. "Vigilantes" were a major force in extra-legal "law enforcement" in the 19th century, summarily meting out frontier justice, hanging accused thugs and criminals on the spot.
The prosperity, growth and excesses spurred by the Gold Rush were literally wiped off the map on April 18, 1906, and the ensuing days. San Francisco was devastated by a massive earthquake and subsequent fires that destroyed nearly the entire city. Yet this catastrophe was surmounted by San Franciscans. In just nine years, a rebuilt San Francisco was able to host its own world’s fair, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. A vestige of this is the triumphant and flamboyant Palace of Fine Arts, which stands today at the foot of the Presidio. Other vestiges of the post-earthquake days are the massive connections -- at Aquatic Park and other sites along the waterfront -- for San Francisco's unique saltwater earthquake firefighting system, ever-ready to be hooked up to San Francisco's fireboat fleet, in the event of another "Big One".
While The City did rise again, nearly all of its original buildings were destroyed, making it difficult for today’s visitor to get a sense of pre-1906 San Francisco. The following locations will give history buffs a window into those early years: The Maritime Museum at the Aquatic Park details The City’s role as a major seaport. The Wells Fargo Museum (420 Montgomery St.) exhibits early banking and gold rush artefacts. And the Barbary Coast Trail (a self guided tour that begins the Old Mint at 5th and Mission St.) leads you to bronze sidewalk plaques at 20 historic sites of The City’s frontier days. The sole watering-hole from the Barbary Coast days to survive the fires of 1906 is The Saloon (est 1886) located at 1232 Grant Ave.
A major historical theme in San Francisco in the early 20th century was the contentious -- sometimes riotous and bloody -- waterfront labor movement. Today, nearly all port activity is containerized, mechanized, and long-since moved to Oakland. San Francisco's waterfront Embarcadero, once the scene of drama and the start of many a Pacific voyage -- as well as an ugly multi-level freeway viaduct -- now stands renovated and refreshed, and served by a fleet of antique streetcars that connect Market Street, the Ferry Building and Fisherman's Wharf.
The magnificent Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge are two San Francisco and international icons to emerge from the Depression era, along with dozens of murals commissioned throughout the city, including a popular one at Coit Tower in North Beach. Today, the cantilevered section of the Bay Bridge is being replaced because of seismic concerns -- history in the making.
After WWII, a lot of families left the City for the suburbs to the south, east and north. The Castro (formerly called Eureka Valley) featured large Victorian homes that had once belonged to large, working class families of Northern European descent. Buyers (frequently gay men) were attracted to the beautiful homes at affordable prices. Activism in the 60s and 70s forged a strong sense of community, but tolerance for homosexuality was not without its struggles in San Francisco. In 1978, Mayor George Moscone and openly gay city Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed at City Hall by Dan White, another city supervisor. Milk's work and legacy became synonymous with gay rights and the story of his life was turned into an Oscar winning film.
In the 1960's San Francisco also became a magnet for young people, musicians and experimentalists. Many congregated in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood near Golden Gate Park, where rents were cheap and old Victorians could house lots of young kids under one roof. In 1967 marked the famous "Summer of Love" in San Francisco, when over 100,000 people descended upon the Haight.
San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley have been home to technology and innovation for decades, some would say ever since pioneers Bill Hewlett and David Packard starting tinkering in their garage when they were students at Stanford in the 1930s. Since then, some of the world's most recognized and influential tech brands have been born or set up shop here - Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook. Not surprisingly, the industries that support tech - such as venture capital and patent/intellectual property law- also call the Bay Area home. While the dot com craze and subsequent bust were devastating to the area and contributed heavily to the economic "nuclear winter" that began in early 2000, start-ups have returned with gusto and both San Francisco and Silicon Valley are experiencing a huge resurgence of start-ups, large valuations and optimism.
Throughout its history, San Francisco has been defended: first by the Presidio (which served as the 6th U.S. Army headquarters in the mid-20th century) then by Fort Point, then by World War I, World War II, and cold war - Nike nuclear missile - installations. The abandoned infrastructure is plain to see, climb and explore along the San Francisco, Marin County and Angel Island bluffs. Much of this land has since become known as the Bay Area's "Emerald Necklace", primarily managed as the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, headquartered at Fort Mason, which was once the major depot supplying U.S. military activity in the Pacific.
The unique term "The City" (always initial caps), - and never, ever, never San Fran - used on this and other "Inside" pages, is common usage in San Francisco. Those who do not know San Francisco's history might believe that "location, location, location" is the reason. San Franciscans know that the term is also hard-earned.