Gold Towns: San Francisco

In January 1847, the little coastal hamlet of Yerba Buena changed its name to San Francisco. At the time, it perhaps had 500 residents, several of whom were maritime merchants. A year later, gold was discovered at Coloma some 140 miles inland. The effect on the mud-brick village was electric. A flood of treasure seekers from all nations sailed into its seaport, needing everything from mining supplies to food to draft animals. Arriving crews deserted their ships, leaving a forest of masts in the harbor. Entrepreneurs hustled to open hotels, restaurants, saloons, and shops. By December 1849 the population had swelled to 25,000, but between then and June 1851, San Francisco endured seven terrible fires, which ultimately motivated the residents to rebuild in more durable materials. By 1851 wharves extended the harbor out into the bay and underwater lots were for sale. The social climate was chaotic. Legitimate businessmen and respectable families coexisted with all manner of criminal riffraff—the Barbary Coast section of town, in particular, gained notoriety as a haven for criminals, prostitution, and gambling. This, and other noxious practices, led to the formation of Committees of Vigilance in 1851 and again in 1856, in response to crime and government corruption. Cholera epidemics and race riots took their toll, but during the 1860s – 1880s San Francisco gradually began to transform into a major city, starting with massive expansion in all directions and the creation of new neighborhoods such as the Western Addition. Before 1901 San Francisco was the eighth-largest city in the United States, already known for its flamboyant style, stately hotels, ostentatious mansions on Nob Hill, and a thriving arts scene. 

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