Barbary coast

San Francisco is a city born in the gold rush. Within a short time it went from a small town of some 1.000 people to the biggest city on the West coast.

On March 28, 1776, the Spanish established the Presidio of San Francisco, an then built the Mission San Francisco de Asís, what is today Mission Dolores. Some years later, the first independent houses were built, and the settlement was then called Yerba Buena.

But it was the gold rush though that propelled it into a whole different league, when all the gold diggers made its population swell to 25.000 within a year. The city became the port of entry for all the lucky (and unlucky) prospectors for gold. And with it came the bars and shops, seedy hotels and brothels.

My friends and I followed a free guided tour along the initial coast line and explored the remnants of that old city, the few houses still standing, and listened to the stories of our guide.

It must have been one of the coldest days of that winter, and downtown with all its buildings is prone to some cold winds. But it was worth it!

Called Barbary coast – a reference to the North African coast infested with pirates – we walked along the initial coast line of San Francisco.

Today, the bay shore line is far from where it was back then. The city needed to grow, though the hills limited its growth, so the land was extended into the bay.

You can trace the former coast by following the bronze inlays in the streets. Or, as our guide explained, follow the foot of the hills. The new area is the flat land extended out into the bay.

As many more ships arrived in San Francisco harbor than ever left (as the crews, infected by the gold rush, deserted and tried to make their luck), the harbor was soon a sea of masts of abandoned ships.

Only about a third of the ships that arrived ever left San Francisco again.

Captains were eager and desperate to recruit new crew, sometimes by capturing them drunk in a bar, and when they were out on sea, sailing for Shanghai, the poor fellow’s only choice was to swim back, or stay… a practice that coined the term ‘shanghaiing‘.

The other ships just remained anchored in the bay. And some of them are still there, right on the spot where they sunk! They were filled with rubble, to extend the city into the bay, and built over.

Eerie to think that most of downtown in this earthquake haunted city is not build on land but on loose landfill.

Our guide took us to the few remaining buildings from that era, some beautiful low brick buildings that had survived the San Francisco Earthquake and the fires of 1906, as well as the massive redevelopment of the area in the 1960s and 70s.

San Francisco’s landmark building, the Transamerica Pyramid, is towering over them, maybe as a threat, a warning, or to protect them.

While the city’s first plaza, called Portsmouth Square, is now an epicenter of Chinatown and has little to nothing to do with the times of the gold rush, Jackson Street or small Gold Street are mostly original.

Most buildings today are little art galleries and expensive fashion or furniture shops.. by now, the few remaining houses are protected and will be preserved. Well, at least partially, sometimes it is only the facade that is protected and the interior has been redeveloped, but nonetheless, you’ll get a little glimpse into what San Francisco looked like, some 170 years ago.

I mentioned the brothels… indeed, women or children were hardly seen during these times in early San Francisco. The city was swarming with young men! One exception were the ladies for the entertainment.

To know more about them, SF City guides have developed a whole walking tour called Bawdy & Naughty, telling the stories of San Francisco’s early professional women.

Other tours include ghost walks, Alfred Hitchcock, the earthquake, Chinatown, art deco, murals, silent film, and pretty much every single neighborhood in the city by the bay. Next time I’ll visit, I’ll go on another one.