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article number 724
article date 06-28-2018
copyright 2018 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
San Francisco - Work Projects Administration History: Part 2, Evolution of Our Pacific Port
by Work Projects Administration

From the 1940 Work Projects Administration book, San Francisco, The Bay and its Cities, with 1970’s updates.

This article is randomly decorated with pictures from the many sections of the [same] book.

* * *

Emporium of a New World

"San Francisco . . . the sole emporium of a new world, the awakened Pacific . . ." —RICHARD HENRY DANA.

HARDLY had the dead hand of Mexican rule been lifted from the Bay region when the Gold Rush struck it like a hurricane. The thousands who flocked to the shores of San Francisco Bay in 1848 at first asked little.

But when the excitement died down the little gold frontier town had become a city, and its people demanded much: wharves, and dry paved streets; homes and stores, with firm foundations on which to build them; and a transportation system that would encompass not only the land about the Bay, but the Bay itself.

Almost overnight the fleet of steamers and sailing ships which glutted with the manufactured products of Eastern merchants the wharves of San Francisco, Stockton, and Sacramento established the Bay’s maritime supremacy on the Pacific Coast.

Mining camps developed into towns and cities amid the rich agricultural lands of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys; and around the old pueblos of San Jose and Santa Clara the vast ranchos of the Mexicans and Spaniards became orchards, fields, and vineyards. From these, and from the soil of Sonoma County, from Napa Valley and from the counties of the contra costa, would come the “green gold” which a vast system of canneries and packing houses now prepares for distribution all over the world.

To supply this populous hinterland with commodities, and to bring down to the harbors of the Bay its tons of exports, a network of railroads and highways, bridges and improved inland waterways had to be established. Throughout almost a century Bay region industrialists, farmers, and shippers have had to struggle with problems of engineering to overcome deficiencies in an area otherwise ideally suited to the building of prosperous communities and metropolitan centers.

For all its magnificence and its utility, San Francisco Bay was, until completion of its two great bridges, an obstacle to transportation which prevented development of large sections of Marin County; and it isolated the industrial centers of the East Bay from financial and distribution facilities of San Francisco. Phenomenally rapid as its progress had been, the new unity created by the bridges assured a future of much more intense and orderly development for all communities of the Bay region.

Today, the San Francisco Bay region is the market place and workshop for a population of over 4,500,000 people—a great harbor ringed with industry, sheltering vessels from all ports of the globe, terminus for transcontinental railroads and a multitude of airlines, and, in spite of the postwar rise of the Port of Los Angeles, the Bay is still the Pacific Coast leader in the handling of general cargo, the 42 terminals of the Port of San Francisco alone handling such diverse products as cotton, grain, bananas, copra, paper, and industrial machinery of any and all kinds.

Since World War II, the Bay’s cargo trade has shifted from coastal and intercoastal shipping to one dominated by foreign trade; in 1960 the Bay handled nearly 30 per cent of the coast’s foreign trade, by dollar volume.

San Francisco as seen from the air, circa 1970?

World Port

John Masefield’s “dirty British coaster with salt-caked smokestacks” is but one of the myriad craft, from nations all over the world, which have come and gone through the Golden Gate since Lieutenant Manuel de Ayala’s little ’San Carlos’ first dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay in 1775.

Across the racing tides of that narrow channel have swept the white sails of the clipper ships that brought the Argonauts; through it have steamed side-wheelers and modern freighters, sleek liners and palatial yachts, naval armadas and army transports, fishing boats and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers; and over it have passed the silver wings of the great China Clippers, supersonic fighters, and the immense jetliners of today.

The pioneer Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s 1,000-ton side-wheeler, ’California,’ already had sailed from New York for the Pacific Coast by way of Cape Horn, with no passengers, when the news of the discovery of gold in California reached the East. When the ’California’ anchored at Panama on January 30, 1849, she found hundreds of frenzied gold-hunters who had made their way across the Isthmus awaiting her.

On February 28, top-heavy with several times her capacity of 100 passengers, she steamed through the Golden Gate—the first vessel to round Cape Horn under her own steam and sail into the Bay of San Francisco.

Pacific Mail promptly hurried completion of two sister ships; but these were not enough. Its fleet rapidly grew to 29 steamships destined to carry 175,000 people to San Francisco within a decade.

During the height of the Gold Rush, however, demand so far outdistanced supply in the maritime industry that chaos reigned, retarding for several years development of regular and systematic commercial facilities. The rapid increase in population—from about 860 to almost 42,000 by the end of 1852 in San Francisco alone—brought a wide and insistent demand for manufactured goods, tools, machinery and food products which undeveloped local industry could not supply.

Eastern shippers, without accurate knowledge of local requirements, sent tons of merchandise for which San Francisco could find no use. The market was glutted; prices crashed; goods of every description were left to rot in the holds of ships, on the wharves, and in the city streets.

Fully as demoralizing to maritime commerce was the wholesale desertion of ship’s crews, who joined the wild rush to the mines. San Francisco Bay in the early fifties presented a sight seldom seen in the history of the world: a veritable forest of masts rising from hundreds of abandoned ships.

With the gradual stabilization of trading conditions, however, maritime commerce was revived until the rapid increase in shipping made necessary the immediate building of extensive piers and docking facilities. Prior to the Gold Rush all cargoes had been lightered ashore in small boats, usually to the rocky promontory of Clark’s Point at the foot of Telegraph Hill.

When in the winter of 1848 the revenue steamer ’James K. Polk’ was run aground at the present intersection of Vallejo and Battery Streets—at that time part of the water front—the narrow gangplank laid from deck to shore was considered a distinct advance in harbor facilities.

The brig ’Belfast’ was the first vessel to unload at a pier: she docked in 1848 at the newly completed Broadway Wharf—a board structure ten feet wide.

Others were soon built. By October 1850, 6,000 feet of wharfage had been constructed at a cost of $1 million. As the tidal flats were filled in, the piers were extended: Commercial Wharf, at first extending only 30 feet into waters only two feet deep, became Long Wharf as it was lengthened to 400 feet to provide docking facilities for deep water shipping.

Ships in the Bay during the Gold Rush. Their crews were off to the mines. A sketch published in the New York Tribune. August 28, 1849.

During the boom years of the 1850’s competition between Eastern shippers became so sharp that a type of sailing vessel faster than the old schooners and barques constructed on the lines of whaling ships had to be built. Between 1850 and 1854, 160 fast clipper ships were launched on the Eastern seaboard to supply the demand for speed and more speed to the Pacific Coast.

“On to the mines” was the order of the day for both passengers and Cargoes landed on San Francisco’s water front. The fastest way to the mines was by water—through San Pablo Bay, Carquinez Strait, and Suisun Bay, and up the San Joaquin River to Stockton, or up the Sacramento to the town named for it.

The first steamboat in the Bay, the 37-foot side-wheeler ’Sitka,’ imported in sections from the Russian settlement at Sitka, Alaska, and reassembled, had already attempted the trip to Sacramento, requiring six days and seven hours. Vessels better equipped for the journey were soon imported.

Meanwhile, lighter craft were pressed into traveling service. Since 1835, when William A. Richardson had begun operating two 30-ton schooners with Indian crews to transport the produce of missions and ranches from San Francisco and San Jose to trading vessels anchored in the Bay, a variety of small vessels had plied the waters inside the Golden Gate.

In 1850 Captain Thomas Gray’s propeller steamer ’Kangaroo’ began the first regular run, twice weekly, between San Francisco and San Antonio Landing (now Oakland) in the East Bay.

On September 2, 1863, the San Francisco and Oakland Railroad Company, first in the Bay region, began running the ’Contra Costa’ six times daily from its Oakland wharf to Broadway Wharf in San Francisco; and the following year, the San Francisco and Alameda Railroad Company inaugurated train-ferry service from Alameda Wharf with the ’Sophie McLane.’

At the Alameda Wharf, on September 6, 1869, the steamer ’Alameda’ took on the first boatload of passengers arriving on the Pacific Coast by transcontinental railroad.

After the opening of ferry slips at the two-mile Oakland Long Wharf in 1871 and at a new San Francisco passenger station at the foot of Market Street four years later, the ferry fleet grew rapidly in size.

In 1879 the world’s largest ferry, the ’Solano,’ began transporting whole railroad trains across Suisun Bay from Benicia to Port Costa. The ferry system was extended until by 1930, the 43 boats operating between San Francisco and Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, Sausalito, and Vallejo comprised the largest transportation enterprise of its kind; in that year they carried more than 40 million passengers.

The lifting of the Mexican regime’s restrictive measures against foreign trading brought the Pacific whalers to San Francisco. As early as 1800, whaling vessels had begun to anchor in sheltered Richardson’s Bay, then known as Whaler’s Bay, off the site of Sausalito, where they took on wood and water.

The first captain of the port, shrewd William A. Richardson, had collected fees for piloting the whalers to their anchorage. But Mexican regulations and tariffs forced the whaling industry to base its operations in the Sandwich Islands.

After American occupation, San Francisco merchants, foreseeing profits to be gained from yearly outfitting of the whalers and their crews, made hardy efforts to center the industry here. They succeeded to such an extent that by 1865 a total of 34 whalers, with a combined tonnage of 11,000 tons, anchored in the Bay.

A view of the San Francisco waterfront, 1867.

As late as 1888, San Francisco was still Pacific Coast whaling head-quarters. But the whaling fleet dwindled rapidly after 1900—as tug-boats for pursuit (“killer” ships) and steam-driven processing plants (factory ships) supplanted sailing vessels—until in 1938 the California Whaling Company, sole survivor in the industry, called in for the last time its remaining ships.

Within two decades after the building of its first wharf, the tip of the San Francisco Peninsula was saw-toothed with piers. The water front had been pushed into the Bay as the shallow waters of Yerba Buena Cove were filled in.

In 1873, two years after control of the San Francisco water front had been acquired by the State, the construction of a great sea wall was begun by the State Board of Harbor Commissioners and in 1878, the 200-foot wide Embarcadero was laid out.

San Francisco’s great era of maritime commerce was entering into the full stride of its phenomenal development.

While shovels and picks and gold pans rusted in thousands of back yards, the State turned from gold mining to agriculture and manufacturing.

Sacramento and Stockton, great mining centers during the Gold Rush, became agricultural capitals of northern California. The two great rivers sweeping inland to these cities became arteries of commerce. Barges and river boats stopped at numberless docks and landings to pick up the diversified products of the rich land that swept for miles on either side of the broad rivers.

And the products of the great agricultural hinterland, flowing into San Francisco Bay, contributed heavily to its export trade. From 1860 to 1875 exports from San Francisco grew in value from $8.5 million to $33.5 million. By 1889 the figure had increased to $47 million and imports had grown correspondingly in value.

The era of the clipper ships, which had abandoned the San Francisco run and entered the China trade, had given way to a new phase of shipping which called for the transport of heavy industrial products and for the expansion of foreign trade.

Successors to the clipper ships were square-rigged sailing vessels, sturdily built, with spacious holds, for carrying heavy cargoes of freight, fish, and agricultural products. Only when displaced by the fast freight steamers of the late nineteenth century did the square-riggers pass from the shipping lanes and from San Francisco Bay.

The ships of the Alaska Packers’ fleet, last of these great windjammers were dismantled early in the 1930’s.

Meanwhile the first of the roving cargo carriers known as “tramp steamers” had passed through the Golden Gate in 1874. By the end of the following year more than 30 of these vessels had arrived. Their number increased rapidly until the rise late in the century of the great modern steamship lines, which absorbed the independent shippers who had dominated the pioneer era.

By the middle 1870’s the growth of logging camps and Sawmills in the timber regions of the State had also created a demand for large fleets of freighters.

Regular monthly service for freight and passengers was established between San Francisco and the Orient in 1867 by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which had for several’ years prior been transporting thousands of Chinese coolies to supply the demand for cheap labor during the building of the Central Pacific Railroad.

By 1878 the Pacific Mail had established regular sailings to Honolulu, carrying merchandise which was exchanged for raw sugar, pineapples, coffee, and hides. Five years later the Oceanic Steamship Company entered this lucrative field of trade, and in 1885 extended its service to the ports of Australia and New Zealand.

Within the following decade the names of William Matson and Robert Dollar were becoming known in maritime circles.

As sea-borne commerce expanded during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, other lines developed. Among these pioneers of American shipping on the Pacific Coast were the American-Hawaiian, United Fruit, and Panama-Pacific Lines.

The Kosmos Line, later absorbed by the Hamburg-American Steamship Company, inaugurated the first monthly sailings to Hamburg and other European ports in 1899.

By 1916 the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company’s fleet of 26 steamers with a capacity of 296,000 tons was said to be the largest tonnage under single ownership operating under the flag of the United States.

View from Telegraph Hill toward the Golden Gate in the 1880’s.

When the Panama Canal was opened in July 1914, the maritime commerce of San Francisco Bay entered its modern epoch of expansion. Along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, until the outbreak of the war at the end of 1939, were represented more than 175 steamship companies whose vessels, both of domestic and foreign registry, called at nearly every port of the seven seas.

Of these steamship companies, at least half were engaged in coastwise, intercoastal, or transatlantic trade service (via Panama Canal); the others trade with Mexico and Latin America, Hawaii, Australia and the Orient, the African coasts, or offered round-the world passenger service.

From Puget Sound to Madagascar are known the spread-eagle insignia of American President Lines ships (which superseded the huge dollar sign of the Dollar Steamship Company), the blue-and-white smokestacks of California and Hawaiian, and the Matson Line’s substantial “M.”

No less familiar to San Franciscans and other Bay region residents are neat Dutch liners and freighters bound for Rotterdam or Antwerp out of Batavia in the East Indies, for which San Francisco was a regular port-of-call.

Ships of Japan, the Bay region’s most valuable customer, ships of France, British ships of the P & O Orient line, ships of the Republic of the Philippines, ships from Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands can regularly be seen alongside piers of San Francisco’s waterfront, or in other harbors scattered around the Bay.

Among San Francisco’s variegated imports have been copra, sugar, coffee, radio and television parts, paper, rubber goods, and textiles.

Chief exports are industrial machines; petroleum products; chemicals; lumber; barley; canned and cured fish; and raw cotton.

Of the 87 million tons of inbound and outbound cargo cleared by Pacific Coast ports in 1940, San Francisco Bay handled 23 million tons or 26 per cent. Ranking fourth among the Nation’s ports in peacetime commerce, it cleared more military cargo than any other following Pearl Harbor.

United States naval vessels leaving San Francisco Bay, 1935.

At the height of the Nation’s war shipbuilding program, San Francisco was foremost. As the war ended the San Francisco Port of Embarkation, designated by its Commanding General ‘the most important port in the world,” was operating at new highs.

The Port of San Francisco is much more than the 18 miles of berthing space which flank San Francisco’s Ferry Building on either side. Actually it consists of the series of bays extending northeast from the Golden Gate to the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and southward almost to San Jose.

Harbor facilities are supplied by the half-dozen cities and industrial centers scattered along 100 miles of shoreline enclosing 450 square miles of water.

These ports within a port are as interdependent as are the economies of the different cities and towns of the Bay region.

Thus a vessel in from the Hawaiian Islands may discharge pineapple at San Francisco and raw sugar at Crockett before proceeding to the Port of Oakland to take on a cargo of canned and dried fruits for the Orient, or a coastwise vessel up from Nicaragua or Honduras with a hold full of green coffee will unload at San Francisco before crossing to Oakland for automobiles for South or Central America.

A tanker coming in through the Gate may steam directly to the Standard Oil docks at Richmond, or the Shell pier at Martinez; or it may make for the Selby Smelting Company’s wharf at Selby.

An air view of San Francisco Bay’s littoral—its miles of public and private wharfage; its manifold industrial plants crowding the water’s edge; its deep-water anchorage for warships; its airports and islands and dockyards—will alone reveal the stupendous picture of this port.

And in October 1936 travelers to and from San Francisco Bay were provided with such a view when Pan-American Airways launched the first transpacific commercial passenger flight to Manila.

To the historic roll call of ships that have sailed through the Golden Gate have been added the names of those that have flown over it—the China Clippers, the DC-3s, the DC-8s, the Electrajets, and the Boeing 727s.

Cleaning up oil slick on beach near Cliff House, 1971.
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