The City That Was
A Requiem of Old San Francisco
By Will Irwin
"I'd rather be a busted lamp post on Battery Street, San Francisco, than
the Waldorf-Astoria."—Willie Britt.
The old San Francisco is dead. The gayest, lightest hearted, most pleasure
loving city of the western continent, and in many ways the most
interesting and romantic, is a horde of refugees living among ruins. It
may rebuild; it probably will; but those who have known that peculiar city
by the Golden Gate, have caught its flavor of the Arabian Nights, feel
that it can never be the same. It is as though a pretty, frivolous woman
had passed through a great tragedy. She survives, but she is sobered and
different. If it rises out of the ashes it must be a modern city, much
like other cities and without its old atmosphere.
San Francisco lay on a series of hills and the lowlands between. These
hills are really the end of the Coast Range of mountains, which stretch
southward between the interior valleys and the Pacific Ocean. Behind it is
the ocean; but the greater part of the town fronts on two sides on San
Francisco Bay, a body of water always tinged with gold from the great
washings of the mountain, usually overhung with a haze, and of magnificent
color changes. Across the bay to the north lies Mount Tamalpais, about
3,000 feet high, and so close that ferries from the waterfront take one in
less than half an hour to the little towns of Sausalito and Belvidere, at
Tamalpais is a wooded mountain, with ample slopes, and from it on the
north stretch away ridges of forest land, the outposts of the great
Northern woods of Sequoia sempervirens. This mountain and the mountainous
country to the south bring the real forest closer to San Francisco than to
any other American city. Within the last few years men have killed deer on
the slopes of Tamalpais and looked down to see the cable cars crawling up
the hills of San Francisco to the south. In the suburbs coyotes still
stole in and robbed hen roosts by night. The people lived much out of
doors. There is no time of the year, except a short part of the rainy
season, when the weather keeps one from the fields. The slopes of
Tamalpais are crowded with little villas dotted through the woods, and
these minor estates run far up into the redwood country. The deep coves of
Belvidere, sheltered by the wind from Tamalpais, held a colony of "arks"
or houseboats, where people lived in the rather disagreeable summer
months, coming over to business every day by ferry. Everything there
invites out of doors.
The climate of California is peculiar; it is hard to give an impression of
it. In the region about San Francisco, all the forces of nature work on
their own laws. There is no thunder and lightning; there is no snow,
except a flurry once in five or six years; there are perhaps half a dozen
nights in the winter when the thermometer drops low enough so that in the
morning there is a little film of ice on exposed water. Neither is there
any hot weather. Yet most Easterners remaining in San Francisco for a few
days remember that they were always chilly.
For the Gate is a big funnel, drawing in the winds and the mists which
cool off the great, hot interior valleys of the San Joaquin and
Sacramento. So the west wind blows steadily ten months of the year; and
almost all the mornings are foggy. This keeps the temperature steady at
about 55 degrees—a little cool for the comfort of an unacclimated
person, especially indoors. Californians, used to it, hardly ever think of
making fires in their houses except in a few days of the winter season,
and then they rely mainly upon fireplaces. This is like the custom of the
Venetians and the Florentines.
Give an Easterner six months of it, however, and he, too, learns to exist
without chill in a steady temperature a little lower than that to which he
was accustomed at home. After that one goes about with perfect
indifference to the temperature. Summer and winter, San Francisco women
wear light tailor-made clothes, and men wear the same fall-weight suits
all the year around. There is no such thing as a change of clothing for
the seasons. And after becoming acclimated these people find it hard to
bear the changes from hot to cold in the normal regions of the earth.
Perhaps once in two or three years there comes a day when there is no fog,
no wind, and a high temperature in the coast district. Then follows hot
weather, perhaps up in the eighties, and Californians grumble, swelter and
rustle for summer clothes. These rare hot days are the only times when one
sees women in light dresses on the streets of San Francisco.
Along in early May the rains cease. At that time everything is green and
bright, and the great golden poppies, as large as the saucer of an
after-dinner coffee cup, are blossoming everywhere. Tamalpais is green to
its top; everything is washed and bright. By late May a yellow tinge is
creeping over the hills. This is followed by a golden June and a brown
July and August. The hills are burned and dry. The fog comes in heavily,
too; and normally this is the most disagreeable season of the year.
September brings a day or two of gentle rain; and then a change, as sweet
and mysterious as the breaking of spring in the East, passes over the
hills. The green grows through the brown and the flowers begin to come
As a matter of fact, the unpleasantness of summer is modified by the
certainty that one can go anywhere without fear of rain. And in all the
coast mountains, especially the seaward slopes, the dews and the shelter
of the giant underbrush hold the water, so that these areas are green and
pleasant all summer.
In a normal year the rains begin to fall heavily in November; there will
be three or four days of steady downpour and then a clear and green week.
December is also likely to be rainy; and in this month people enjoy the
sensation of gathering for Christmas the mistletoe which grows profusely
on the live oaks, while the poppies are beginning to blossom at their
feet. By the end of January the gentle rains come lighter. In the long
spaces between these winter storms, there is a temperature and a feeling
in the air much like that of Indian summer in the East. January is the
month when the roses are at their brightest.
So much for the strange climate, which invites out of doors and which has
played its part in making the character of the people. The externals of
the city are—or were, for they are no more—just as curious.
One usually entered San Francisco by way of the Bay. Across its yellow
flood, covered with the fleets from the strange seas of the Pacific, San
Francisco presented itself in a hill panorama. Probably no other city of
the world, excepting perhaps Naples, could be so viewed at first sight. It
rose above the passenger, as he reached dockage, in a succession of hill
terraces. At one side was Telegraph Hill, the end of the peninsula, a
height so abrupt that it had a one hundred and fifty foot sheer cliff on
its seaward frontage. Further along lay Nob Hill, crowned with the Mark
Hopkins mansion, which had the effect of a citadel, and in later years by
the great, white Fairmount. Further along was Russian Hill, the highest
point. Below was the business district, whose low site caused all the
Except for the modern buildings, the fruit of the last ten years, the town
presented at first sight a disreputable appearance. Most of the buildings
were low and of wood. In the middle period of the '70's, when, a great
part of San Francisco was building, the newly-rich perpetrated some
atrocious architecture. In that time, too every one put bow windows on his
house to catch all of the morning sunlight that was coming through the
fog; and those little houses, with bow windows and fancy work all down
their fronts, were characteristic of the middle class residence districts.
Then the Italians, who tumbled over Telegraph Hill, had built as they
listed and with little regard for streets, and their houses hung crazily
on a side hill which was little less than a precipice. The Chinese,
although they occupied an abandoned business district, had remade their
dwellings Chinese fashion, and the Mexicans and Spaniards had added to
their houses those little balconies without which life is not life to a
Yet the most characteristic thing after all was the coloring. The sea fog
had a trick of painting every exposed object a sea gray which had a tinge
of dull green in it. This, under the leaden sky of a San Francisco
morning, had a depressing effect on first sight and afterward became a
delight to the eye. For the color was soft, gentle and infinitely
attractive in mass.
The hills are steep beyond conception. Where Vallejo street ran up Russian
Hill it progressed for four blocks by regular steps like a flight of
stairs. It is unnecessary to say that no teams ever came up this street or
any other like it, and grass grew long among the paving stones until the
Italians who live thereabouts took advantage of this herbage to pasture a
cow or two. At the end of four blocks, the pavers had given it up and the
last stage to the summit was a winding path. On the very top, a colony of
artists lived in little villas of houses whose windows got the whole
panorama of the bay. Luckily for these people, a cable car scaled the hill
on the other side, so that it was not much of a climb to home.
With these hills, with the strangeness of the architecture and with the
green-gray tinge over everything, the city fell always into vistas and
pictures, a setting for the romance which hung over everything, which has
always hung over life in San Francisco since the padres came and gathered
the Indians about Mission Dolores.
And it was a city of romance and a gateway to adventure. It opened out on
the mysterious Pacific, the untamed ocean; and through the Golden Gate
entered China, Japan, the South Sea Islands, Lower California, the west
coast of Central America, Australia. There was a sprinkling, too, of
Alaska and Siberia. From his windows on Russian Hill one saw always
something strange and suggestive creeping through the mists of the bay. It
would be a South Sea Island brig, bringing in copra, to take out cottons
and idols; a Chinese junk after sharks' livers; an old whaler, which
seemed to drip oil, home from a year of cruising in the Arctic. Even the
tramp windjammers were deep-chested craft, capable of rounding the Horn or
of circumnavigating the globe; and they came in streaked and picturesque
from their long voyaging.
In the orange colored dawn which always comes through the mists of that
bay, the fishing fleet would crawl in under triangular lateen sails; for
the fishermen of San Francisco Bay are all Neapolitans who have brought
their customs and sail with lateen rigs stained an orange brown and
shaped, when the wind fills them, like the ear of a horse.
Along the waterfront the people of these craft met. "The smelting pot of
the races," Stevenson called it; and this was always the city of his soul.
There were black Gilbert Islanders, almost indistinguishable from negroes;
lighter Kanakas from Hawaii or Samoa; Lascars in turbans; thickset Russian
sailors, wild Chinese with unbraided hair; Italian fishermen in tam o'
shanters, loud shirts and blue sashes; Greeks, Alaska Indians, little bay
Spanish-Americans, together with men of all the European races. These came
in and out from among the queer craft, to lose themselves in the
disreputable, tumble-down, but always mysterious shanties and small
saloons. In the back rooms of these saloons South Sea Island traders and
captains, fresh from the lands of romance, whaling masters, people who
were trying to get up treasure expeditions, filibusters, Alaskan miners,
used to meet and trade adventures.
There was another element, less picturesque and equally characteristic,
along the waterfront. San Francisco was the back eddy of European
civilization—one end of the world. The drifters came there and
stopped, lingered a while to live by their wits in a country where living
after a fashion has always been marvellously cheap. These people haunted
the waterfront and the Barbary Coast by night, and lay by day on the grass
in Portsmouth Square.
The square, the old plaza about which the city was built, Spanish fashion,
had seen many things. There in the first burst of the early days the
vigilance committee used to hold its hangings. There, in the time of the
sand lot troubles, Dennis Kearney, who nearly pulled the town down about
his ears, used to make his orations which set the unruly to rioting. In
later years Chinatown lay on one side of it and the Latin quarter and the
"Barbary Coast" on the other.
On this square the drifters lay all day long and told strange yams.
Stevenson lounged there with them in his time and learned the things which
he wove into "The Wrecker" and his South Sea stories; and now in the
centre of the square there stands the beautiful Stevenson monument. In
later years the authorities put up a municipal building on one side of
this square and prevented the loungers, for decency's sake, from lying on
the grass. Since then some of the peculiar character of the old plaza has
The Barbary Coast was a loud bit of hell. No one knows who coined the
name. The place was simply three blocks of solid dance halls, there for
the delight of the sailors of the world. On a fine busy night every door
blared loud dance music from orchestras, steam pianos and gramaphones, and
the cumulative effect of the sound which reached the street was chaos and
pandemonium. Almost anything might be happening behind the swinging doors.
For a fine and picturesque bundle of names characteristic of the place, a
police story of three or four years ago is typical. Hell broke out in the
Eye Wink Dance Hall. The trouble was started by a sailor known as Kanaka
Pete, who lived in the What Cheer House, over a woman known as Iodoform
Kate. Kanaka Pete chased the man he had marked to the Little Silver
Dollar, where he halted and punctured him. The by-product of his gun made
some holes in the front of the Eye Wink, which were proudly kept as
souvenirs, and were probably there until it went out in the fire. This was
low life, the lowest of the low.
Until the last decade almost anything except the commonplace and the
expected might happen to a man on the waterfront. The cheerful industry of
shanghaing was reduced to a science. A citizen taking a drink in one of
the saloons which hung out over the water might be dropped through the
floor into a boat, or he might drink with a stranger and wake in the
forecastle of a whaler bound for the Arctic. Such an incident is the basis
of Frank Norris's novel, "Moran of the Lady Letty," and although the novel
draws it pretty strong, it is not exaggerated. Ten years ago the police,
the Sailors' Union, and the foreign consuls, working together, stopped all
Kearney street, a wilder and stranger Bowery, was the main thoroughfare of
these people. An exiled Californian, mourning over the city of his heart,
"In a half an hour of Kearney street I could raise a dozen men for any
wild adventure, from pulling down a statue to searching for the Cocos
Island treasure." This is hardly an exaggeration, it was the Rialto of the
desperate, Street of the Adventurers.
These are a few of the elements which made the city strange and gave it
the glamour of romance which has so strongly attracted such men as
Stevenson, Frank Norris and Kipling. This life of the floating population
lay apart from the regular life of the city, which was distinctive in
The Californian is the second generation of a picked and mixed ancestry.
The merry, the adventurous, often the desperate, always the brave,
deserted the South and New England in 1849 to rush around the Horn or to
try the perils of the plains. They found there a land already grown old in
the hands of the Spaniards—younger sons of hidalgo and many of them
of the best blood of Spain. To a great extent the pioneers intermarried
with Spanish women; in fact, except for a proud little colony here and
there, the old, aristocratic Spanish blood is sunk in that of the
conquering race. Then there was an influx of intellectual French people,
largely overlooked in the histories of the early days; and this Latin
leaven has had its influence.
Brought up in a bountiful country, where no one really has to work very
hard to live, nurtured on adventure, scion of a free and merry stock, the
real, native Californian is a distinctive type; as far from the Easterner
in psychology as the extreme Southerner is from the Yankee. He is easy
going, witty, hospitable, lovable, inclined to be unmoral rather than
immoral in his personal habits, and easy to meet and to know.
Above all there is an art sense all through the populace which sets it off
from any other population of the country. This sense is almost Latin in
its strength, and the Californian owes it to the leaven of Latin blood.
The true Californian lingers in the north; for southern California has
been built up by "lungers" from the East and middle West and is Eastern in
character and feeling.
Almost has the Californian developed a racial physiology. He tends to
size, to smooth symmetry of limb and trunk, to an erect, free carriage;
and the beauty of his women is not a myth. The pioneers were all men of
good body, they had to be to live and leave descendants. The bones of the
weaklings who started for El Dorado in 1849 lie on the plains or in the
hill-cemeteries of the mining camps. Heredity began it; climate has
carried it on. All things that grow in California tend to become large,
plump, luscious. Fruit trees, grown from cuttings of Eastern stock,
produce fruit larger and finer, if coarser in flavor, than that of the
parent tree. As the fruits grow, so the children grow. A normal, healthy,
Californian woman plays out-of-doors from babyhood to old age. The mixed
stock has given her that regularity of features which goes with a blend of
bloods; the climate has perfected and rounded her figure; out-of-doors
exercise from earliest youth has given her a deep bosom; the cosmetic
mists have made her complexion soft and brilliant. At the University of
California, where the student body is nearly all native, the gymnasium
measurements show that the girls are a little more than two inches taller
than their sisters of Vassar and Michigan.
The greatest beauty-show on the continent was the Saturday afternoon
matinee parade in San Francisco. Women in so-called "society" took no part
in this function. It belonged to the middle class, but the "upper classes"
have no monopoly of beauty anywhere in the world. It had grown to be
independent of the matinees. From two o'clock to half-past five, a solid
procession of Dianas, Hebes and Junos passed and repassed along the five
blocks between Market and Powell and Sutter and Kearney—the "line"
of San Francisco slang. Along the open-front cigar stores, characteristic
of the town, gilded youth of the cocktail route gathered in knots to watch
them. There was something Latin in the spirit of this ceremony—it
resembled church parade in Buenos Ayres. Latin, too, were the gay costumes
of the women, who dressed brightly in accord with the city and the
climate. This gaiety of costume was the first thing which the Eastern
woman noticed—and disapproved. Give her a year, and she, too, would
be caught by the infection of daring dress.
In this parade of tall, deep bosomed, gleaming women, one caught the type
and longed, sometimes for the sight of a more ethereal beauty—for
the suggestion of soul within which belongs to a New England woman on whom
a hard soil has bestowed a grudged beauty—for the mobility, the
fire, which belongs to the Frenchwoman. The second generation of France
was in this crowd, it is true; but climate and exercise had grown above
their spiritual charm a cover of brilliant flesh. It was the beauty of
With such a people, life was always gay. If the fairly Parisian gaiety did
not display itself on the streets, except in the matinee parade, it was
because the winds made open-air cafes disagreeable at all seasons of the
year. The life careless went on indoors or in the hundreds of pretty
estates—"ranches" the Californians called them—which fringe
San Francisco was famous for its restaurants and cafes. Probably they were
lacking at the top; probably the very best, for people who do not care how
they spend their money, was not to be had. But they gave the best fare on
earth, for the price, at a dollar, seventy-five cents, a half a dollar, or
even fifteen cents.
If one should tell exactly what could be had at Coppa's for fifty cents or
at the Fashion for, say thirty-five, no New Yorker who has not been there
would believe it. The San Francisco French dinner and the San Francisco
free lunch were as the Public Library to Boston or the stock yards to
Chicago. A number of causes contributed to this. The country all about
produced everything that a cook needs and that in abundance—the bay
was an almost untapped fishing pound, the fruit farms came up to the very
edge of the town, and the surrounding country produced in abundance fine
meats, game, all cereals and all vegetables.
But the chefs who came from France in the early days and stayed because
they liked this land of plenty were the head and front of it. They passed
on their art to other Frenchmen or to the clever Chinese. Most of the
French chefs at the biggest restaurants were born in Canton, China. Later
the Italians, learning of this country where good food is appreciated,
came and brought their own style. Householders always dined out one or two
nights of the week, and boarding houses were scarce, for the unattached
preferred the restaurants.
The eating was usually better than the surroundings. Meals that were
marvels were served in tumbledown little hotels. Most famous of all the
restaurants was the Poodle Dog. There have been no less than four
establishments of this name, beginning with a frame shanty where, in the
early days, a prince of French cooks used to exchange ragouts for gold
dust. Each succeeding restaurant of the name has moved further downtown;
and the recent Poodle Dog stands—stands or stood; one mixes his
tenses queerly in writing of this city which is and yet is no more—on
the edge of the Tenderloin in a modern five story building. And it
typified a certain spirit that there was in San Francisco.
For on the ground floor was a public restaurant where there was served the
best dollar dinner on earth. At least, if not the best it ranked with the
best, and the others were in San, Francisco. There, especially on Sunday
night, almost everyone went to vary the monotony of home cooking. Everyone
who was anyone in the town could be seen there off and on. It was
perfectly respectable. A man might take his wife and daughter to the
On the second floor there were private dining rooms, and to dine there,
with one or more of the opposite sex, was risque but not especially
terrible. But the third floor—and the fourth floor—and the
fifth! The elevator man of the Poodle Dog, who had held the job for many
years and who never spoke unless spoken to, wore diamonds and was a heavy
investor in real estate. There were others as famous in their way—the
Zinkand, where, at one time, every one went after the theatre, and Tate's,
which has lately bitten into that trade; the Palace Grill, much like the
grills of Eastern hotels, except for the price; Delmonico's, which ran the
Poodle Dog neck and neck to its own line; and many others, humbler but
great at the price.
Listen! O ye starved amidst plenty, to the tale of the Hotel de France.
This restaurant stood on California street, just east of Old St. Mary's
Church. One could throw a biscuit from its back windows into Chinatown. It
occupied a big ramshackle house, which had been a mansion of the gold
days. Louis, the proprietor, was a Frenchman of the Bas Pyrenees; and his
accent was as thick as his peasant soups. The patrons were Frenchmen of
the poorer class, or young and poor clerks and journalists who had
discovered the delights of his hostelry. The place exuded a genial gaiety,
of which Louis, throwing out familiar jokes to right and left as he mixed
salads and carried dishes, was the head and front.
First on the bill of fare was the soup mentioned before—thick and
clean and good. Next, one of Louis' three cherubic little sons brought on
a course of fish—sole, rock cod, flounders or smelt—with a
good French sauce. The third course was meat. This came on en bloc; the
waiter dropped in the centre of each table a big roast or boiled joint
together with a mustard pot and two big dishes of vegetables. Each guest
manned the carving knife in turn and helped himself to his satisfaction.
After that, Louis, with an air of ceremony, brought on a big bowl of
excellent salad which he had mixed himself. For beverage, there stood by
each plate a perfectly cylindrical pint glass filled with new, watered
claret. The meal closed with "fruit in season"—all that the guest
cared to eat. I have saved a startling fact to close the paragraph—the
price was fifteen cents!
If one wanted black coffee he paid five cents extra, and Louis brought on
a beer glass full of it. Why he threw in wine and charged extra for
after-dinner coffee was one of Louis' professional secrets.
Adulterated food at that price? Not a bit of it! The olive oil in the
salad was pure, California product—why adulterate when he could get
it so cheaply? The wine, too, was above reproach, for Louis made it
himself. Every autumn, he brought tons and tons of cheap Mission grapes,
set up a wine press in his back yard, and had a little, festival vintage
of his own. The fruit was small, and inferior, but fresh, and Louis
himself, in speaking of his business, said that he wished his guests would
eat nothing but fruit, it came so cheap.
The city never went to bed. There was no closing law, so that the saloons
kept open nights and Sundays at their own sweet will. Most of the cafes
elected to remain open until 2 o'clock in the morning at least.
This restaurant life, however does not express exactly the careless,
pleasure-loving character of the people. In great part their pleasures
were simple, inexpensive and out of doors. No people were fonder of
expeditions into the country, of picnics—which might be brought off
at almost any season of the year—and of long tours in the great
mountains and forests.
Hospitality was nearly a vice. As in the early mining days, if they liked
the stranger the people took him in. At the first meeting the San
Francisco man had him put up at the club; at the second, he invited him
home to dinner. As long as the stranger stayed he was being invited to
week end parties at ranches, to little dinners in this or that restaurant
and to the houses of his new acquaintances, until his engagements grew
beyond hope of fulfilment. Perhaps there was rather too much of this kind
of thing. At the end of a fortnight a visitor with a pleasant smile and a
good story left the place a wreck. This tendency ran through all grades of
society—except, perhaps, the sporting people who kept the tracks and
the fighting game alive. These also met the stranger—and also took
Centres of man hospitality were the clubs, especially the famous Bohemian
and the Family. The latter was an offshot of the Bohemian; and it had been
growing fast and vieing with the older organization for the honor of
entertaining pleasing and distinguished visitors.
The Bohemian Club, whose real founder is said to have been the late Henry
George, was formed in the '70s by newspaper writers and men working in the
arts or interested in them. It had grown to a membership of 750. It still
kept for its nucleus painters, writers, musicians and actors, amateur and
professional. They were a gay group of men, and hospitality was their
avocation. Yet the thing which set this club off from all others in the
world was the midsummer High Jinks.
The club owns a fine tract of redwood forest fifty miles north of San
Francisco on the Russian River. There are two varieties of big trees in
California: the Sequoia gigantea and the Sequoia sempervirens. The great
trees of the Mariposa grove belong to the gigantea species. The
sempervirens, however, reaches the diameter of 16 feet, and some of the
greatest trees of this species are in the Bohemian Club grove. It lies in
a cleft of the mountains: and up one hillside there runs a natural out of
doors stage of remarkable acoustic properties.
In August the whole Bohemian Club, or such as could get away from
business, went up to this grove and camped out for two weeks. On the last
night they put on the Jinks proper, a great spectacle in praise of the
forest with poetic words, music and effects done by the club. In late
years this has been practically a masque or an opera. It cost about
$10,000. It took the spare time of scores of men for weeks; yet these 750
business men, professional men, artists, newspaper workers, struggled for
the honor of helping out on the Jinks; and the whole thing was done
naturally and with reverence. It would not be possible anywhere else in
this country; the thing which made it possible was the art spirit which is
in the Californian. It runs in the blood.
"Who's Who in America" is long on the arts and on learning and
comparatively weak in business and the professions. Now some one who has
taken the trouble has found that more persons mentioned in "Who's Who" by
the thousand of the population were born in Massachusetts, than in any
other state; but that Massachusetts is crowded closely by California, with
the rest nowhere. The institutions of learning in Massachusetts account
for her pre-eminence; the art spirit does it for California. The really
big men nurtured on California influence are few, perhaps; but she has
sent out an amazing number of good workers in painting, in authorship, in
music and especially in acting.
"High society" in San Francisco had settled down from the rather wild
spirit of the middle period; it had come to be there a good deal as it is
elsewhere. There was much wealth; and the hills of the western addition
were growing up with fine mansions. Outside of the city, at Burlingame,
there was a fine country club centering a region of country estates which
stretched out to Menlo Park. This club had a good polo team, which played
every year with teams of Englishmen from southern California and even with
teams from Honolulu.
The foreign quarters are worth an article in themselves. Chief of these
was, of course, Chinatown, of which every one has heard who ever heard of
San Francisco. A district six blocks long and two blocks wide, housed
30,000 Chinese when the quarter was full. The dwellings were old business
blocks of the early days; but the Chinese had added to them, had rebuilt
them, had run out their own balconies and entrances, and had given the
quarter that feeling of huddled irregularity which makes all Chinese built
dwellings fall naturally into pictures. Not only this; they had burrowed
to a depth of a story or two under the ground, and through this ran
passages in which the Chinese transacted their dark and devious affairs—as
the smuggling of opium, the traffic in slave girls and the settlement of
In the last five years there was less of this underground life than
formerly, for the Board of Health had a cleanup some time ago; but it was
still possible to go from one end of Chinatown to the other through secret
underground passages. The tourist, who always included Chinatown in his
itinerary, saw little of the real quarter. The guides gave him a show by
actors hired for his benefit. In reality the place amounted to a great
deal in a financial way. There were clothing and cigar factories of
importance, and much of the Pacific rice, tea and silk importing was in
the hands of the merchants, who numbered several millionaires. Mainly,
however, it was a Tenderloin for the house servants of the city—for
the San Francisco Chinaman was seldom a laundryman; he was too much in
demand at fancy prices as a servant.
The Chinese lived their own lives in their own way and settled their own
quarrels with the revolvers of their highbinders. There were two theatres
in the quarter, a number of rich joss houses, three newspapers and a
Chinese telephone exchange. There is a race feeling against the Chinese
among the working people of San Francisco, and no white man, except the
very lowest outcasts, lived in the quarter.
On the slopes of Telegraph Hill dwelt the Mexicans and Spanish, in low
houses, which they had transformed by balconies into a semblance of Spain.
Above, and streaming over the hill, were the Italians. The tenement
quarter of San Francisco shone by contrast with those of Chicago and New
York, for while these people lived in old and humble houses they had room
to breathe and an eminence for light and air. Their shanties clung to the
side of the hill or hung on the very edge of the precipice overlooking the
bay, on the verge of which a wall kept their babies from falling. The
effect was picturesque, and this hill was the delight of painters. It was
all more like Italy than anything in the Italian quarter of New York and
Chicago—the very climate and surroundings, the wine country close at
hand, the bay for their lateen boats, helped them.
Over by the ocean and surrounded by cemeteries in which there are no more
burials, there is an eminence which is topped by two peaks and which the
Spanish of the early days named after the breasts of a woman. The unpoetic
Americans had renamed it Twin Peaks. At its foot was Mission Dolores, the
last mission planted by the Spanish padres in their march up the coast,
and from these hills the Spanish looked for the first time upon the golden
Many years ago some one set up at the summit of this peak a sixty foot
cross of timber. Once a high wind blew it down, and the women of the Fair
family then had it restored so firmly that it would resist anything. It
has risen for fifty years above the gay, careless, luxuriant and lovable
city, in full view from every eminence and from every valley. It stands
tonight, above the desolation of ruins.
The bonny, merry city—the good, gray city—O that one who has
mingled the wine of her bounding life with the wine of his youth should
live to write the obituary of Old San Francisco!