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Smelt Some Bullets in SoMa

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Public spaces change fast here in San Francisco, and for better or worse, it can be pretty crazy when you see what the City used to look like. Every week, we'll bring you Then & Now, a comparison of historic photos of the Bay Area with current views from the same perspective. Have a suggestion for a photo comparison that looks totally different (or shockingly the same)? Drop us a tip in the Curbed Inbox or leave a comment after the jump.

Quick note: See that vertical green bar in the middle of the then and now photos? You can move it horizontally to see the photos side by side.

[Then photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY/ Now photo: Google Maps] In the early 1850s, the sand hills around Market, Mission, and Howard streets were leveled to fill in the bay's tidelands, and the Rincon Hill area south of Folsom became the wealthy and fashionable with palatial mansions and estates. But east of First Street, the area forming by the bay fill became industrial, housing blacksmith shop and iron foundries. One of the most prominent (and hard to miss) was the Selby Smelting and Lead Company at the corner of Howard and First streets.

Thomas H. Selby, 13th mayor of San Francisco, formed the Selby Smelting Company in 1865. Primarily dealing in lead refining, the facility at First and Howard streets contained a 200-foot shot tower, in addition to the large-scale manufacturing warehouse used to make lead pipe, sheet metal, and other lead products (the lead itself was refined and smelted at the their North Beach location at today's Aquatic Park). The shot tower was used to make bullets: molten lead was raised up and poured down through the tower, and depending on the size sieve it went through, it was classified "B", "BB", etc. The bullets then cooled, perfectly round, in a tank of water at the bottom.


In 1879, Selby purchased the Pacific Refining and Bullion Exchange, getting into the gold and silver game. They went on to be the only private refinery in the west and the only refinery producing precious metals outside of the US Mint. By 1885, the city started to complain about the pollution from the North Beach refinery, so it was relocated to the upper northwest corner of Contra Costa County, near the Carquinez Strait and Crockett. That plant was later the site of our favorite crazy robbery story involving a former employee digging a tunnel under the vault and hiding $250,000 worth of gold (that's about $6.6M today) under water in the bay.

Article on the Selby vault robbery, 1901 (click the photo credit to see the full article) [Photo: California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside]

The shot tower in Soma remained in production despite the move, until it was severely damaged in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. The site was rebuilt without the tower as warehouses, later being used as a clothing warehouse. In 2003, the entire block was razed for the The Orrick Bldg at 405 Howard Street.
· Shot Towers [Old Industry]
· Happy Valley [Found SF]
· The Bay of San Francisco: the metropolis of the Pacific Coast and its suburban cities [Google Books]
· Hidden Histories: Selby Smelting Robbery Tunnels [Curbed SF]
· Then & Now: Latham Mansion/666 Folsom Street [Curbed SF]