san francisco after the gold rush -- 1/06/20

Today's selection -- from Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands. The town of San Francisco skyrocketed in growth after the discovery of gold in 1848:

San Francisco, the Queen City of the Gold Rush, was unique among American cities. Eastern cities had grown slowly. Boston was two centuries old before its population reached fifty thousand. San Francisco passed that milestone in less than two years. Eastern cities connoted stability and permanence. In Philadelphia, the headquarters of the second Bank of the United States was a monument of marble modeled on Greek temples and intended to last as long as they had. San Francisco was a cara­vansary, a stopping point on the path to the gold fields. Its struc­tures were tents, flimsy wooden buildings thrown up in haste, even abandoned ships in the harbor, left crew-less when the men went over the rail in search for gold. Too hurried to dismantle the ships and reuse the timbers, enterprising hoteliers and restaurateurs sim­ply built rickety walkways over the water to their new places of business. In time, sand from dunes behind the city was hauled in and piled around the vessels; an expanding shoreline beached them forever. In the twenty-first century, construction crews would oc­casionally unearth hulks from the days of the gold rush, buried and forgotten as the city continued to grow.

"Sarah Royce experienced San Francisco in its headlong phase. She was a rarity among the forty-niners, a woman. She had crossed the continent with her husband and their young daughter and be­gun to create a home in the gold country. She thought she had seen a lot on the journey west, but she never saw anything like the frenzy that characterized San Francisco. 'In the immense crowds flock­ing hither from all parts of the world there were many of the worst classes, bent upon getting gold at all hazards, and if possible with­out work,' she remarked. 'These were constantly lying in wait, as tempters of the weak. A still greater number came with gold-getting for their ruling motive yet intending to get it honestly, by labor or legitimate business. They did not intend, at first, to sacrifice their habits of morality, or their religious convictions. But many of them bore those habits and held those convictions too lightly; and as they came to feel the force of unwonted excitement and the pressure of unexpected temptation, they too often yielded, little by little, till they found themselves standing upon a very low plane, side by side with those whose society they once would have avoided. It was very common to hear people who had started on this downward moral grade, deprecating the very acts they were committing, or the prac­tices they were countenancing; and concluding their weak lament by saying, "But here in California we have to do such things."'

Portsmouth Square near harbor in 1851 — San Francisco during the Gold Rush.

"Journalist Frank Soule was more worldly than Sarah Royce, but even he was shocked at what passed for normal in San Francisco. 'No place in the world contains any thing like the number of mere drinking-houses' -- as contrasted to restaurants -- 'in proportion to the population, as San Francisco,' Soule observed. 'This, perhaps, is the worst feature of the city. The quantity of ardent spirits daily consumed is almost frightful. It is peddled out in every gambling­room, on the wharves, at almost every comer, and, in some streets, in almost every house. Many of the taverns are of the lowest possi­ble description -- filthy dens of vice and crime, disease and wretch­edness. Drunken men and women, with bloated bodies and soiled garments, crowd them at night, making the hours hideous with their bacchanalian revels. Americans and Europeans, Mexicans and South-Americans, Chinese and even negroes, mingle and dis­sipate together, furnishing a large amount of business for the po­lice department and the recorder's court.'

"Gambling was a favorite sport of the San Franciscans, which was unsurprising in that the entire gold rush was, for its partici­pants, a grand gamble. Bayard Taylor was a writer in the service of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley would become famous for the admonition, 'Go West!' given to a young man asking career advice. For now he realized that the Cal­ifornia gold rush was the biggest story of the age, and he sent Tay­lor to California to gather and recount it for the Tribune's readers. Taylor tested the gambling scene in San Francisco. 'Denison's Ex­change, the Parker House and Eldorado stand side by side; across the way are the Verandah and Aguila de Oro; higher up the plaza the St. Charles and Bella Union; while dozens of second-rate es­tablishments are scattered through the less frequented streets,' Taylor reported. 'The greatest crowd is about the Eldorado; we find it difficult to effect an entrance. There are about eight tables in the room, all of which are thronged; copper-hued Kanakas, Mex­icans rolled in their sarapes and Peruvians thrust through their ponchos, stand shoulder to shoulder with the brown and bearded American miners. The stakes are generally small, though when the bettor gets into "a streak of luck," as it is called, they are allowed to double until all is lost or the bank breaks. Along the end of the room is a spacious bar, supplied with all kinds of bad liquors, and in a sort of gallery, suspended under the ceiling, a female violinist tasks her talent and strength of muscle to minister to the excite­ment of play.'

"Taylor's observation that the gambling halls -- or 'hells,' as they were often called -- didn't discriminate among customers on racial or ethnic grounds reflected the fact that money trumped other considerations in the gaming trade. A Mexican's gold was as good as that of anyone else. Yet Taylor noted a difference in the gam­bling styles of the different groups. He reported from the Aguila de Oro, where the game was monte -- favored in California because the odds were fairer to the players and the game was less prone to cheating. 'The dealer throws out his cards with a cool, nonchalant air; indeed, the gradual increase of the hollow square of dollars at his left hand is not calculated to disturb his equanimity. The two Mexicans in front, muffled in their dirty serapes, put down their half-dollars and dollars and see them lost, without changing a muscle. Gambling is a born habit with them, and they would lose thousands with the same indifference.' Americans reacted dif­ferently. 'Their good or ill luck is betrayed at once by involuntary exclamations and changes of countenance, unless the stake should be very large and absorbing, when their anxiety, though silent, may be read with no less certainty. They have no power to resist the fascination of the game. Now counting their winnings by thou­sands, now dependent on the kindness of a friend for a few dollars to commence anew, they pass hour after hour in these hot, un­wholesome dens. There is no appearance of arms, but let one of the players, impatient with his losses and maddened by the poisonous fluids he has drank, threaten one of the profession, and there will be no scarcity of knives and revolvers.'"



H.W. Brands


Dreams of El Dorado


Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC


Copyright 2019 by H.W. Brands


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