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The Cradle of San Francisco - Commercial Street

244300410 orig 234x300  Map of San Francisco during the Gold Rush

The cradle of San Francisco, the source from which all urban blessings flowed in the city’s formative years, is a narrow little-known, nine-block byway called Commercial Street.

It is a lithograph of nineteenth-century buildings scaled to the human dimensions of a six-foot pioneer, raffish, smelly in places, vita and complicated with meaning for city explorers. On it you may well meet a portly man of business with a Rolls Royce of his own, or a workman trundling an open barrow of salted fish. Both are part of the continuum of San Francisco’s great banking, shipping, commodity, packing, produce and printing industries, which began humbly on or near Commercial Street when the lower half of it was the city’s first important wharf.

QA1DG00Z 300x225  Yerba Buena Cove

Early maps show it as Long or Central Wharf, extending from Montgomery Street some 2000 Feet into the bay. Sansome was once a plank walk leading to it. In 1962 the lower half of Commercial Street began a return to oblivion via the Golden Gateway Redevelopment. The upper part still offers the Walker a sense of historical perspective that is hard to come by this side of London.

The ideal time to begin this walk is late afternoon. The starting place is the Calle de la Fundacion, which is what Francisco de Haro called Grand Avenue in 1834 when he was alcalde of Yerba Buena. Not surprisingly, a plaque at 832 Grant announces that this site was the home of Capt. W. A. Richardson, first resident of the town.  It is usually hidden behind T-shirts and sweat pants in front of a Chinatown gift shop. Even when the store is closed the plaque is partially obscured by a gate.  Richardson’s Casa Grande survived the fires that devastated San Francisco in 1849, ’50, and ’51. In 1852 it was torn down and replaced with the Adelphi Theatre, which burned down six years later.

dwelling03 e1409540890930 300x267  THE BIRTHPLACE OF A GREAT CITY

Commercial Street however had more to do with his next door neighbor, Jacob P. Leese’s, resident number too. It began as a backdoor footpath from Leese’s home at Grant and Clay to a clapboard store he built in 1837 at Commercial and Montgomery.

Backdoor it remained for some of the buildings that front on Clay or Sacramento Streets. A notable example was the sausage factory of N. Uri and Sons, just below Leidensdorff, where you could peer thorough the windows between the meat hooks and could see the silhouette of a stuffed two headed calf and an alabaster maiden who has lost one hand, possible while reaching to a nearby sausage.

17912 300x300  823 Grant Ave, San Francisco

Today Commercial slips unobtrusively out of Grant. Just down Commercial a step or two watch for the establishment of the second oldest business in Chinatown, Mow Lee and Co. Grocers, who opened in 1856 nearby.

Grant is the highest point of Commercial and for years offered a pleasant view of the Ferry Building framed at the bay below. The only street other than market that did so.

4311758 300x225  Mow Lee and Co. Grocers; 774 Commercial Street, San Francisco

Pick any name out of the early San Francisco history – little Pete the tong dong, the Comstock kings, Miss Piggot the cromp, Sam Brannan, General William Tecumshe Serman, poet Bert Harte – all waked on Commercial and would feel at home on it today. The first block is non-tourist Chinatown.

Each successive block introduces knots of business, once ending with ship chandlers, union hiring halls, a sailors’ home, whorehouses and finally waterfront dies.

Landmarks, plaques, quixotic signs, architectural oddities and minutiae for the history buff are everywhere at hand and underfoot. Set into the concrete you may see street names of brass, or old lavender and green glass, sun discolored from original transparency. The neglect with has preserved this old pickled onion of a street is at an end. There are still vestiges of the unreconstructed roots of the business legacy that has nourished San Francisco – but walk it soon!

Montgomery Street in San Francisco

Montgomery Street in San Francisco

Montgomery_Street_from_Telegraph_Hill,_San_FranciscoFrom a distance the bastions of the San Francisco financial district, which cluster about the meshwork of city lanes abutting Montgomery near California , soar a sprat of that romantic skyline which has been called among other things, „an architectural zoo“ and the „most beautiful in North America“.


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Montgomery Street in San Francisco

Montgomery Street from Telegraph Hill San Francisco 225x300  From a distance the bastions of the San Francisco financial district, which cluster about the meshwork of city lanes abutting Montgomery near California , soar a sprat of that romantic skyline which has been called among other things, „an architectural zoo“ and the „most beautiful in North America“.

The scale was closer to the human dimension in 1850 when the mail steamer Oregon landed, bringing the official news that California had been admitted to the Union. Every banker, broker and merchant on the street closed shop to watch or march in celebration. The reviewing stand was at California and Montgomery and the favorite tune of the day was “Yankee Doodle.”

Montgomery Street San Francisco from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views 2 300x185  Montgomery Street, San Francisco

Parades rarely come along Montgomery today but the street, from Columbus to Market is an interest walk at any time. On weekdays Montgomery awakens before daybreak, when trading stats on the “big board” in New York and becomes a world with its own language, laws, traditions and superstitions. By 9 am, the “catastrophe of skyscrapers”, as the world –famous architect Corbusier called them, absorbs enough brokers, bankers, insurance and clerical workers to populate Stockton. On Sundays it is an empty, echoing unroofed vault.

1852 san francisco montgomery st 300x241  1852 San Francisco Montgomery St

Compactness, always a fine feature of the financial district, makes it possible to see the bi new buildings there without seven league boots. San Francisco’s first significant office building, commonly known as the “Monkey Block”, stood for a hundred years on Montgomery and Washington. It was built in 1853 by “Old Brains”, General Henry W. Halleck, on a foundation of redwood logs.

Today the significant buildings are farther along the street. You can enjoy 420 Montgomery, where the Wells Fargo Bank has its history room. Here, as nowhere else in the city, the drama, humor, dignity, and sometimes all-too-human scale of Man’s pursuit of money, is revealed. Wells Fargo also has a stunning 1877 photographic panorama of San Francisco lining the walls of its 14th floor executive suite.muybridge panorama

Eadward Muybridge 152x300  The photographer was Eadward Muybridge, famous today as the father of the motion picture. It was he who photographed horses trotting so Leland Stanford could win a bet. In his own time Muybridge was well known or shooting his wife’s lover in the cold white heat of premeditation. A jury acquitted him with the comment from its foreman: “Hell, we’d done the same thing!”

Montgomery Street east side from Pine to California Street San Francisco from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views 300x150  Montgomery Street, east side from Pine to California Street, San Francisco

Downtown the offices are usually as inaccessible to the casual person as the castle was for Kafka, but there are free walking tours downtown, which magically opens flossy doors. They usually include some fairly distinguished quarters.

Some financial district buildings are visually exciting from the street. Since the industry has discovered that the best employees are especially those whose work is dull, go to the firms, which have the most pleasant surroundings. Gardens and fountains are in. Original Art is in the cafeterias, lobbies, and in the streets.

market st west 300x186  Montgomery Street has seen its share of stone faces, among them financiers Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, James G. Fair, James C. Flood, “Lucky” Baldwin, Darius O. Mills, and Senator William Sharon. The stoniest that ever showed up on Montgomery was that of the city’s first suicide, William Glen, Rae, one–time factor of a Hudson Bay Company trading post at Montgomery and Commercial. When Workmen were putting a sewer through this corner, they found Rae in a glass-covered coffin. His face was eerily identifiable through the oval glass. Some bystander admitted: “Alas, poor Willie, I knew him, Horatio,” or words to that effect.

San Francisco CA Montgomery Street Looking North 194x300  Another Montgomery ghost or might encounter if given to extrasensory perception is banker Billy Ralston, who swam to his death at Aquatic Park in the days of rough-tough speculation in Comstock mining stocks, Black Friday and Asbury Harpending’s great diamond hoax, all fantastic chapters in the city’s business life.

History has continued to walk the street. Until other Pacific ports can match it, anecdote for episode a, and inch for thousand dollar running inch of front footage, San Francisco will continue to be The City and the West coast stronghold of a freedom sometimes called Capitalism.