San Francisco, California in 1916

By Inez Haynes Irwin in 1916


San Francisco, 1849

San Francisco, 1849

San Francisco! San Francisco!

Many people do not realize that San Francisco tips a peninsula projecting west and north from the coast of California. Between that peninsula and the mainland lies a blue arm of the blue San Francisco bay. So that when you have bisected the continent and come to what appears to be the edge of the western world, you must take a ferry to get to the city itself.

I hope you will cross that bay first at night, for there is no more romantic hour in which to enter San Francisco; the bay spreading out back of you a-plash with all kinds of illuminated water craft and the city lifting up before you ablaze with thousands of pin point lights; for San Francisco’s site is a hilly one and the city lies like a jeweled mantle thrown carelessly over many peaks. You land at the Ferry building – surely the most welcoming station in the world – walk through it, come out at the other side on a circular place which is one end of Market street, the main artery of the city. If this is by day, you can see that the other end of Market street is Twin Peaks – a pair of hills that imprint bare, exquisitely shaped contours of gold on a blue sky – with the effect somehow of a stage-drop. If you come by night, you will find Market street crowded with people, lighted with a display of electric signs second only in size, number, brilliancy and ingenuity to those on Broadway. But whether you come by day or by night, the instant you emerge from the Ferry building, San Francisco gets you. Market street is one of the most entertaining main-traveled urban roads in the world. Newspaper offices in a cluster, store windows flooded with light, filled with advertising devices of the most amusing originality, cars, taxis, crowds, it has all the earmarks of the main street of any big American city, with the addition, at intervals, of the pretty “islands” so typical of the boulevards of Paris and with, last of all, a zip and a zest, a pep and a punch, a go and a ginger that is distinctively Californian. I repeat that California throws her first tentacle into your heart as you stand there wondering whether you’ll go to your hotel or, plunging headforemost into the crowds, swim with the current.

Imagine a city built not on seven but a hundred hills. I am sure there are no less than a hundred and probably there are more. Certainly I climbed a hundred. On three sides the sea laps the very hem of this city and on one side the forest reaches down to its very toes. That is, when all is said, the most marvelous thing about San Francisco – that the sea and forest come straight to its borders. And as, because of its peninsula situation they form the only roads out, sea and forest are integral parts of the city life. It accounts for the fact that you see no city pallor in the faces on the streets and perhaps for the fact that you see so little unhappiness on them.

On Sundays and holidays, crowds pour across the bay all day long and then, loaded with flowers and greens, pour back all the evening long. As for flowers and greens, the hotels, shops, cafes, the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants are full of them. They are so cheap on the streets that everybody wears them. Everybody seems to play as much as possible out of doors. Everybody seems to sleep out of doors. Everybody has just come from a hike or is just going off on one. Imagine climate rainless three-quarters of the year, which permits the workingman to tramp all through his vacation with the impedimenta only of a blanket, moneyless if he will, but with the certainty always that the orchards and gardens will provide-him with food.

Through the city runs one central hill-spine. From this crest, by day, you look on one side across the bay with its three beautiful islands, bare Yerba Buena, jeweled Alcatraz and softly-fluted Angel Island, all seemingly adrift in the blue waters, to Marin county.

Telegraph hill from Vallejo Street Wharf, Lawrence and Houseworth, 1866

Telegraph hill from Vallejo Street Wharf, Lawrence and Houseworth, 1866

The waters of the bay are as smooth as satin, as blue as the sky, and they are slashed in every direction with the silver wakes left by numberless ferryboats. Those ferryboats, by the way, are extremely graceful; they look like white peacocks dragging enormous white-feather tails. By night the bay view from the central hill-spine shows the cities of Berkeley and Oakland like enormous planes of crystal tilted against the distance, the ferryboats illuminated but still peacock-shaped, floating on the black waters like monster toys of Venetian glass. In the background, rising from low hills, peaks the blue triangle of Mt. Diablo. In the foreground reposes Tamalpais – a mountain shaped in the figure of a woman-lying prone. The wooded slopes of Tamalpais form the nearest big playground for San Franciscans – and Tamalpais is to the San Franciscan what Fujiyama is to the Japanese. Would that I had space to tell here of the time when their mountain caught fire and thousands – men, women and children – turned out to save it! Everybody helped who could. Even the bakers of San Francisco worked all night and without pay to make bread for the fire-fighters.

By day, on the city side of the crest, you catch glimpses of other hills, covered for the most part with buildings, like lustrous pearl cubes; for San Francisco is a pearl-gray city. At night you can look straight down the side streets to Market Street on a series of illuminated restaurant signs which project over the sidewalk at right angles to the buildings. It is as though a colossal golden stairway tempted your foot.

Perhaps after all the most breath taking quality about San Francisco is these unexpected glimpses that you are always getting of beautiful hill-heights and beautiful valley-depths. Sunset skies like aerial banners flare gold and crimson on the tops of those hills. City lights, like nests of diamonds, glitter and glisten in the depths of those valleys.

Then the fogs! I have stood at my window at night and watched the ragged armies of the air drift in from the bay and take possession of the whole city. Such fogs.

Not distilled from pea soup like the London fogs; moist air-gauzes rather, pearl-touched and glimmering; so thick sometimes that it is as though the world had veiled herself in mourning, so thin often that the stars shine through with a delicate muffled luster. By day, even in the full golden sunshine of California, the view from the hills shows a scene touched here and there with fog.

As for the hills themselves, steep as they are, street cars go up and down them. What is more extraordinary, so do automobiles. The hill streets are cobbled commonly; but often, for the better convenience of vehicles, there is a central path of asphalt, smoothly finished. I have seen those asphalt planes by day when a flood, first of rain and then of sun, turned them to rivers of molten silver; I have seen them by night when an automobile, standing at the hilltop and pouring its light over them, turned them to rivers of molten gold.

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