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Here’s what San Francisco looked like in 1856

Latter-day photos reveal show what SF looked long before the Great Quake

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When news of gold in the California River first touched off a frenzy in America in 1848, San Francisco was home to roughly 1,000 people.

Within two years the city swelled to some 25,000, a “speedy transition from a city of tents and shacks to one of brick and stone buildings, architecturally on a par with those of Atlantic seaboard cities,” as history site SF Museum puts it.

But what did the rough and tumble “instant city” look like in those day? It can be hard to imagine, since so much of 19th century San Francisco was lost to the 1906 earthquake and fire.

A series of photos from 1856—the year San Francisco County formed and first distinguished itself from San Mateo County, by which time SF was populated at roughly 30,000—shows a resolute and established metro by the bay, one that looks as if it had spent decades percolating.

These scenes, photographed by G.R. Fardon, appear in a number of collections, but in this case have been licensed to Curbed SF by Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library in Texas, here applied to a modern map to create a tactile sense of San Francisco as it existed at the height of gold fever.

Note that locations are approximate and modern street addresses are used to get map locales on the same block as historical sites rather than to pinpoint them precisely.

For more historic imagery of Baghdad by the Bay, check out Curbed SF’s 10 oldest photos of San Francisco, rare photos of days before the 1906 quake, and 150 years of Dolores Park.

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View of Alcatraz

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Before the jailhouse rocked.

North Beach, from Telegraph Hill

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A look at a bald North Beach.

View down Stockton Street

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Looking north toward Marin.

Telegraph Hill, as seen from Stockton and Sacramento

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Already one of the city’s most charming neighborhoods.

Russian Hill, as seen from Telegraph Hill

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Another scene of homes dotting the landscape.

Montgomery Street’s eastern side

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Most of these dwellings are no longer standing.

Kearny Street

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Got to love that hardware store signage—simple, elegant.

Custom House

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The current historical Custom House on Battery Street dates to 1911. This previous Battery Street locale was possibly the first seismically retrofitted building in U.S. history.

Merchants’ Exchange

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The first of three Merchants’ Exchange locales in San Francisco.

Firehouse, Monumental Engine Company

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”It was a magnificent building, originally two stones in height, the first having a granite front, the second being freestone, massive pilasters of Corinthian style supported cornices,” notes Guardians of the City about this firehouse. “In the facade was a large clock, which was illuminated by night. Over the pediment of the clock was a cupola the dome of which rested on eight Corinthian columns.”

Portsmouth Square, former post office

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Onetime post office in what would later become Chinatown.

San Francisco City Hall

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SF’s original City Hall, located just off Portsmouth Square.

“Fort Vigilance”

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This converted warehouse served as armory and headquarters for one of SF’s many vigilante gangs.

View down Sacramento Street

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Sacramento street was always a looker.

St Mary’s Cathedral

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The church that still stands today.

View from Rincon Point

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Near the coastline at the Rincon Hill/Embarcadero border.

California Street

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Unidentified strip of buildings along California.

Happy Valley (now South of Market)

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This onetime neighborhood started as a collection of gold miner’s tents in 1849.

South Park

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San Francisco’s oldest park’s, which still exists today.

Mission San Francisco de Asís

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Also known as “the old Mission.”

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View of Alcatraz

Before the jailhouse rocked.

North Beach, from Telegraph Hill

A look at a bald North Beach.

View down Stockton Street

Looking north toward Marin.

Telegraph Hill, as seen from Stockton and Sacramento

Already one of the city’s most charming neighborhoods.

Russian Hill, as seen from Telegraph Hill

Another scene of homes dotting the landscape.

Montgomery Street’s eastern side

Most of these dwellings are no longer standing.

Kearny Street

Got to love that hardware store signage—simple, elegant.

Custom House

The current historical Custom House on Battery Street dates to 1911. This previous Battery Street locale was possibly the first seismically retrofitted building in U.S. history.

Merchants’ Exchange

The first of three Merchants’ Exchange locales in San Francisco.

Firehouse, Monumental Engine Company

”It was a magnificent building, originally two stones in height, the first having a granite front, the second being freestone, massive pilasters of Corinthian style supported cornices,” notes Guardians of the City about this firehouse. “In the facade was a large clock, which was illuminated by night. Over the pediment of the clock was a cupola the dome of which rested on eight Corinthian columns.”

Portsmouth Square, former post office

Onetime post office in what would later become Chinatown.

San Francisco City Hall

SF’s original City Hall, located just off Portsmouth Square.

“Fort Vigilance”

This converted warehouse served as armory and headquarters for one of SF’s many vigilante gangs.

View down Sacramento Street

Sacramento street was always a looker.

St Mary’s Cathedral

The church that still stands today.