Riptides

In the fall of 1848 San Francisco was in a curious state of suspension.

Gold had been discovered in January, but the San Franciscans hadn't put much faith in it; they had kept on with their business -- the filling in of the shoreline along Montgomery Street, the new school, putting up homes and warehouses -- and looked forward to the day when California would be a state and their town would be the great seaport metropolis of the Pacific Coast.

Then in May they had seen the gold dust. They had talked with men who had come from the diggings and had heard from these men fantastic and incredible stories about the wealth that lay in the Sierra foothills, waiting there in the red earth and the river beds and ready to make a millionaire of the first man to come along.

San Franciscans stared at the glinting dust. The traveler's words rang in their ears. Then all at once life in San Francisco lost all point. What, they asked themselves, are we doing here? We could be digging gold out of the ground!

In that month of May one of every four adult male San Franciscans felt what one of them put into words after gazing at the contents of a miner's poke: "I looked for a moment, a frenzy seized my soul; unbidden, my legs perform some entirely new movements of polka steps. I was soon in the street in search of necessary outfits. Piles of gold rose before me at every step. Castles of marble — myriads of fair virgins contending with each other for my love — these were among the fancies of my imagination. The Rothschilds, Gerards and Astors appeared to me but poor people. In short, I had a very violent attack of the gold fever."

The half built homes could wait. They were off to the diggings.

"About the end of May," wrote the authors of "The Annals of San Francisco," "we left San Francisco almost a desert place, and such it continued during the whole summer and autumn months."

It is perhaps safe to say that by the middle of October at least half the adult male population of San Francisco had gone to the mines, which would leave the number remaining in the community at about 500. And of these about 50% were women and children.

Ranged up the side of the Clay Street hill and Telegraph Hill and as far north as Vallejo Street and as far south as California Street and not much farther west than Stockton Street, were the 200 buildings of the settlement, 35 adobes and about 160 woodframe structures.

There were three wharfs, at the foot of Broadway, Clay Street and California Street, and on their planks piles of merchandise lay exposed to wind and rain for want of men to move them. Out in the bay, several ships — forerunners of the great gold rush fleet that would arrive the next year — swung at anchor with the tides, sails furled, silent and left to the rats by their gold-hungry crews.

Cows grazed on Portsmouth Square, where stood the little red schoolhouse and the one-story, four room adobe customs house. With the coming of the fall rains, the streets had turned into boulevards of mud, deep enough to swallow a horse and wagon. "It was no uncommon occurrence," noted one writer of the period, "to see at the same time a mule stalled in the mud of the street with only his head above the mud and an unfortunate pedestrian who had slipped off the plank sidewalk being fished out by a companion."

The summits of the hills then were bare except for the thin grass and the grotesquely stunted oaks through whose twisted branches whistled the bitter, sand-laden winds from the dunes and the sea to the west. Across these hills meandered two trails, one of which passed Washerwomans Lagoon on its way to the Presidio. The other led off to the southwest and the dilapidated adobes of Mission Dolores.

Not everything had ceased with the spring departure for the foothills. In August, Presidio guns boomed and tar barrels blazed to celebrate the news of peace between the United States and Mexico. In September, the town's first brick house (at Clay and Montgomery) was finished. On October 3, 158 voters took part in the town election and chose Dr. T.M. Leavenworth as their alcalde, and six days later enough councilmen had returned from the diggings to enable the town council to hold its first meeting since May.

Even so, there wasn't much to do with so many men away from home, and certainly no one dreamed that by the end of next year San Francisco would be a bedlam town of 25,000 souls.

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