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The Fisherman's Wharf Precursor Built by a Victorian Hustler

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Welcome to Hidden Histories, where we highlight a Bay Area location with a secret past. Maybe it's no longer there, maybe it's been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in Bay Area history—even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open, or you can leave a comment after the jump.

Today tourists flock to the Fisherman's Wharf like hungry seagulls, but more than 150 years ago, the waterfront started a few blocks inland at a place called Meiggs' Wharf, constructed by a real estate developer who happened to be one of the city's earliest hustlers. The area known today as Fisherman's Wharf got its early start about five blocks inland, near Powell and Francisco Streets, then known as Meiggs' Wharf. The wharf was the creation of sawmill owner and lumber dealer Henry Meiggs, who built the wharf in the 1850s in hopes of drawing the expansion of downtown closer to his real estate holdings in Telegraph Hill.

When Meiggs first got to the city in 1849 with a cargo ship full of lumber, most boats moored in Yerba Buena Cove down near Jackson Street. Meiggs traded his cargo for a huge piece of property and formed the California Lumber Manufacturing Company. After investing heavily in real estate and street grading in North Beach, he built his own wharf in attempt to entice ship owners to also start using his warehouses. His pitch was that his pier was closer to the Golden Gate, thus making a shorter trip for the boats. But since the water on the north side of the city was shallower, and the pier needed to extend into deep water in order to be of any use, it had to jut out about 2,000 feet, which was crazy long for its day.

The wharf was successful, continually packed with ships arriving from the East Coast and Asia, and with lumber ships from the Pacific Northwest. It was also home to our favorite long-lost saloon, the oddities bar Abe Warner's Cob Web Palace.

Turns out building up an entire neighborhood and a new waterfront was a pricey business, and by 1854 Meiggs found himself saddled with huge debts. In a bizarre and confusing plot, Meiggs took advantage of a lazy city controller and oblivious mayor to snag a book full of what were essentially signed blank checks to pay off his debt. When his money lenders realized the checks he wrote couldn't be cashed by the city, Meiggs was already on a ship to Valparaiso, Chile. The story goes that he left his home and all his property behind, telling people that he was just going out for a cruise on the bay. The US government tried to get him back, but without an extradition agreement with Chile there was nothing they could do.

The story has a happy ending, though. Meiggs made a small fortune building railroads in South America and paid back every cent he owed creditors in California. Ironically, he was considered a hero in South America for building railroads in seemingly impossible Andes passes and connecting previously isolated areas.

He tried to come back to San Francisco in 1873, with friends attempting to pass a bill pardoning him, but the governor's banker friend, the still very bitter William Ralston (yes, that one), recommended against the pardon. As for his wharf, the area was infilled and further developed, and Fisherman's Wharf finally arrived around the turn of the century.

· The Wharf that Transformed the Life of Henry Meiggs [Virtual Museum of SF]
· VIPS in the Port of San Francisco: Henry Meiggs [Maritime Heritage]
· Honest Harry Meiggs [SF Cityguides]
· Dream of a Hot Toddy at Warner's Cobweb Saloon [Curbed SF]
· A History of the Palace, San Francisco's Oldest Surviving Hotel [Curbed SF]