A traveler arriving by boat to San Francisco in the 1850s would have been greeted by a weird sight: hundreds of square-rigged vessels drifting empty in the bay, abandoned by would-be gold hunters who had no further use for them.
San Francisco was discovered by the Spanish in 1769. A desolate area of sand dunes and hills, for nearly a century it boasted little more than a chapel and a few huts. In 1848 its population was around 500. In that year, gold was discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill, and by 1850, the sleepy village had exploded into a boomtown of 30,000 people.
The area was a natural port. The first prospectors to arrive lay planks between the wharves to serve as makeshift bridges; these soon became city streets. Beyond the wharves lay hundreds of tents and shacks constructed from boards ripped from abandoned boats. The buildings were connected by swampy dirt roads and hastily-constructed sidewalks made of flour sacks, old stoves, tobacco boxes, and in one instance, a grand piano.
By 1853 this shantytown was one of the biggest cities in the nation, with 46 gambling halls, 144 taverns and 537 places that sold liquor. Rowdy young men roamed the streets, looking to spend their gold as fast as they found it. Fortunes were made by those who sold goods and services to the miners; eggs went for a dollar apiece, a pound of butter for six dollars, a pair of boots for a hundred. Many of the newly-rich moved directly from shacks into mansions.
Ninety-two percent of the population were men between fifteen and forty-four years of age. The mere rumor of a female arriving in town could cause the saloons to empty and a crowd to gather at the docks. With only one woman to every dozen men, brothels flourished; the going rate was 100 dollars a night, roughly the price of a house.
Violence in the city was rampant; although a police system was put in place, disputes over land were most often settled by force. Mob rule prevailed, and vigilante groups defied public authority, intimidating or even abducting and imprisoning those foolish enough to serve as public officials. The murder rate hovered at about five murders every six days. It was a particularly dangerous place for new arrivals from Australia; viewed by the locals as rabble from a penal colony, they were often accused of crimes and hanged without the benefit of a trial.
Despite these wild-west tendencies, from the beginning San Francisco also had a strong progressive element. The opportunity for adventure and sudden wealth drew not only capitalists and criminals, but intellectuals as well. By 1853 the city supported a dozen newspapers and a strong community of writers, and was home to more college graduates than any other city in the United States. It quickly became the most cultured city on the West Coast, with many of the roughest-hewn gold prospectors also avid theatergoers. From its earliest days, San Francisco was tolerant, even fascinated, by anything different; then, as today, the city balanced peril with progressiveness, crime with culture.