Sketching Gold Rush San Francisco

August 21, 1997 § Leave a comment

Frank Marryat was only 20, but already the adventurous young English aristocrat had traveled as a midshipman in the Royal Navy through Asia, then written and illustrated a book describing his journey. And so when gold was discovered that year in California, Marryat could not — and would not — resist the thrill of joining the rush. With a servant and three dogs in tow, he sailed in 1850 for Panama and on to San Francisco.

Marryat’s adventures and the spirit of the raucous San Francisco scene are recorded in his second book, Mountains and Molehills, published in 1855, which Harper’s Magazine for June 1855 declared a “fresh, racy, good-humored book.” Excerpts follow:

It was on June 14, 1850, that Marryat arrived in San Francisco, just as the town had again been consumed by fire for the third time in its two-year history. The Third Great Fire started in a bakery on Kearny Street, between Sacramento and Clay, and destroyed all buildings between California and Clay Streets from Kearny to the water’s edge.

When the burnt portion of the city was again covered with buildings, I had an opportunity of judging of the enormous strides the place had made since two years back, when it was, by all accounts, a settlement of tents. Three fires had checked its growth in this short space; but a daring confidence had laughed as it were at the obstacles, and any one who knew human nature might see, that so long as that spirit of energy animated every breast, the city would increase in size and wealth, in spite even of conflagrations so calamitous. For though many individually are ruined by the flames, and are forced to retire from the field, yet in a small community where all are armed with strong determination, the vacant ranks are soon filled up again, and, shoulder to shoulder, all march on in unity of purpose, and gain the victory at last, though at ever so great a sacrifice.

* * *

Twelve months back there was little else but canvas tents here, and a small shifting, restless, gambling population: who was it then, when all looked uncertain in the future, that sent away so many thousand miles for steam excavators, and tramways, and railway trucks? who were those, again, who sent from this hamlet of shanties for all the material for large foundries of iron and brass, for blocks of granite, bricks, and mortar, for pile-drivers and steamboats? I don’t know — but these things all arrived; and now, in eighteen hundred and fifty, the sand-hills tumble down as if by magic, and are carried to the water’s edge on a railroad where the pile-drivers are at work, and confine them to the new position assigned them on a water lot.

The clang of foundries is heard on all sides, as machinery is manufactured for the mines — brick buildings are springing up in the principal thoroughfares, steamers crowd the rivers, and thousands of men are blasting out huge masses of rock to make space for the rapid strides of this ambitious young city.

* * *

The most successful merchants of San Francisco were needy men, who by chance were on the spot when first the gold was discovered. The colossal fortunes that a few of these have reaped, sprung only from the chances that were open to all. Sam Brannan is probably the wealthiest of these speculators, and he commenced, they say, by levying a tax on the profits of a party of Mormons whom he piloted to the diggings. When the Mormons declined to pay the tax any longer, he called them a parcel of fools for having paid it so long, and then speculated in building-lots and real estate in San Francisco and other cities. The rapid rise in the value of this property elevated Sam to the top round of the ladder of fortune, where he will probably hold on as long as he can.

* * *

The stranger in San Francisco at this time is at once impressed with the feverish state of excitement that pervades the whole population; there is no attention paid to dress, and every one is hurried and incoherent in manner. Clubs, reading-rooms, and the society of women are unknown; and from the harassing duties of the day’s business, there is nothing to turn to for recreation but the drinking-saloons and gambling-houses, and here nightly all the population meet. Where the commerce engaged in fluctuates with every hour, and profit and loss are not matters of calculation, but chance — where all have hung their fortunes on a die, and few are of that class who bring strong principles to bear upon conduct that society does not condemn — the gambling-tables are well supported, and the merchant and his clerk, and perhaps his cook, jostle in the crowd together, and stake their ounces at the same table.

* * *

The banks of San Francisco are naturally important, as being the depositories of the wealth that thousands are hourly accumulating on the rich “placer” fields. These buildings are of brick, and have fireproof cellars; and although at the time they were erected the outlay was enormous, both for material and labor, it was a mere trifle in comparison with the profits of their owners. The banks line one side of Montgomery Street, the principal thoroughfare of the city; and as the space on all sides has been entirely cleared for some distance by the fire, this row of buildings stands alone just now and solitary, like the speculative “Terrace” with “extensive marine view,” that fronts an unpopular watering-place in England.

At the corner of a street is Burgoyne’s Bank; you enter and find it very crowded, and full of tobacco-smoke. Instead of the chinking of money, you hear a succession of thumps on the counter, as the large leathern bags of gold-dust come down on it. Some of the clerks are weighing dust, some are extracting the black sand with a magnet, and others are packing it in bags and boxes. The depositors are, generally speaking, miners who have come down from the diggings — fellows with long beards and jack-boots, and of an unwashed appearance, for the most part. However, many of these are not, by any means, what they seem. They have just arrived, perhaps, from a toilsome, dusty journey, and deposit their gold as a first precaution; and before the evening they will have been metamorphosed into very respectable-looking members of society, and will remain so until they return again to the diggings.

* * *

There are no public lamps in the town, at this time, so that the greater part of it is admirably adapted for that portion of the population who gain their livelihood by robbery, and murder in those cases where people object to being robbed. But Commercial Street, which is composed entirely of saloons, is a blaze of light, and resounds with music from one end to the other. No expense is spared to attract custom: the bar-keepers are “artists” in their profession; rich soft velvet sofas and rocking-chairs invite the lounger; but popular feeling runs strongest in favor of the saloon that contains a pretty woman to attend the bar.

Women are rarities here; and the population flock in crowds and receive drinks from the fair hands of the female dispenser, while the fortunate proprietor of the saloon realizes a fortune in a week — and only has that time to do it in, for at the end of that period the charmer is married! A French ship arrived during my stay, and brought as passengers a large number of very respectable girls, most of whom were tolerably well looking; they were soon caught up by the saloon proprietors as waiting-women at salaries of about 50 pounds each per month, and after this influx the public became gradually inured to female attendance, and looking upon it as a matter of no moment.

* * *

Amidst all the din and turmoil of the crowd, and the noisy music that issues from every corner, two or three reports of a pistol will occasionally startle the stranger, particularly if they should happen to be in his immediate vicinity, and a bullet should (as is not uncommon) whistle past his head, and crack the mirror on the other side of him. There is a general row for a few moments; spectators secure themselves behind pillars and under the bar; there is a general exclamation of “don’t shoot,” which means, of course, “don’t shoot till we get out of the way;” but after the first discharges the excitement settles down, and the suspended games are resumed. A wounded man is carried out, but whether it is a “monte” dealer who has shot a player, or one gentleman who has drawn on another gentleman, in the heat of altercation, one does not learn that night, but it will appear in the morning paper; if the former, it will be headed “Murderous affray;” if the latter, “Unfortunate difficulty.”

* * *

Drinking is carried on to an incredible extent here; not that there is much drunkenness, but a vast quantity of liquor is daily consumed.

From the time the habitual drinker in San Francisco takes his morning gin-cocktail to stimulate an appetite for breakfast, he supplies himself at intervals throughout the day with an indefinite number of racy little spirituous compounds, that have the effect of keeping him always more or less primed. And where saloons line the streets, and you can not meet a friend, or make a new acquaintance, or strike a bargain, without an invitation to drink, which amounts to a command; and when the days are hot, and you see men issuing from the saloons licking their lips after their iced mint juleps; and where Brown, who has a party with him, meets you as he enters the saloon, and says, “Join us!” and where it is the fashion to accept such invitations, and rude to refuse them, what can a thirsty man do?

The better description of drinking-bars are fitted up with great taste, and at enormous expense. Order and quiet are preserved within them during the day; they are generally supplied with periodicals and newspapers, and business assignations are made and held in them at all hours. Every body in the place is generous and lavish of money; and perhaps one reason for so many drinks being consumed is in the fact that there is ever some liberal soul who is not content until he has ranged some twenty of his acquaintances at the bar; and when each one is supplied with a “drink,” he says, “My respects gentlemen!” and the twenty heads being simultaneously thrown back, down go “straight brandies,” “Queen-Charlottes,” “stone-fences,” “Champagne-cocktails,” and “sulky sangarees,” while the liberal entertainer discharges the score, and each one hurries off to his business. There is no one in such a hurry as a Californian, but he has always time to take a drink.

Marryat traveled from San Francisco to Benecia, then up through the Napa and Sonoma valleys. He spent time along the Russian River and in Sacramento before heading down through the foothills, where gold fever raged. In the spring of 1852 he left Stockton to head back to San Francisco, then sailed home for London, calling as he left, “I’ll soon be back, boys!”

True to his word, Marryat returned the following spring, joined by his new wife. But their ambitious plans were thwarted by an outbreak of yellow fever on the ship. The fever killed the crew and many of the passengers. The Marryats were left with barely enough strength to observe the massive change that had occurred in only a few months.
The couple almost immediately returned to England, where Marryat wrote Mountains and Molehills and composed his drawings from memory.

The book was published early in 1855 in London and New York to wide acclaim. Frank Marryat died in London on August 12, 1855, but his words and his art live on. In 1952, Stanford University Press reprinted a facsimile of the 1855 American edition of his work, from which this article is drawn. Mountains and Molehills remains available in public libraries throughout the state. Marryat’s drawings are in the permanent collection of the California Society of Pioneers in San Francisco.

— Prepared by Thomas Reynolds for the California Society of Pioneers newsletter.

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