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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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1. View of Alcatraz

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(415) 561-4900
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Before the jailhouse rocked.

2. North Beach, from Telegraph Hill

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North Beach
San Francisco, CA

A look at a bald North Beach.

3. View down Stockton Street

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1701 Stockton St
San Francisco, CA 94133

Looking north toward Marin.

4. Telegraph Hill, as seen from Stockton and Sacramento

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Telegraph Hill
San Francisco, CA

Already one of the city’s most charming neighborhoods.

5. Russian Hill, as seen from Telegraph Hill

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Russian Hill
San Francisco, CA

Another scene of homes dotting the landscape.

6. Montgomery Street’s eastern side

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Montgomery St
San Francisco, CA

Most of these dwellings are no longer standing.

7. Kearny Street

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Kearny St
San Francisco, CA

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

8. Custom House

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444 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94111

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.

9. Merchants’ Exchange

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423 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94111

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

10. 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.”

11. Portsmouth Square, former post office

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733 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 982-6353
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Onetime post office in what would later become Chinatown.

12. San Francisco City Hall

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716 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94111

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

13. “Fort Vigilance”

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Two Embarcadero Center, 2 Embarcadero Center
San Francisco, CA 94111

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

14. View down Sacramento Street

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585 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108

Sacramento street was always a looker.

15. St Mary’s Cathedral

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651 California St
San Francisco, CA 94108

The church that still stands today.

16. View from Rincon Point

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Rincon Point
San Francisco, CA 94105

Near the coastline at the Rincon Hill/Embarcadero border.

17. California Street

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California St
San Francisco, CA

Unidentified strip of buildings along California.

18. Happy Valley (now South of Market)

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111 Minna St
San Francisco, CA 94105

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

19. South Park

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South Park
San Francisco, CA 94107

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

20. Mission San Francisco de Asís

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Mission Dolores
San Francisco, CA

Also known as “the old Mission.”

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1. View of Alcatraz

San Francisco, CA 94133

Before the jailhouse rocked.

2. North Beach, from Telegraph Hill

North Beach, San Francisco, CA

A look at a bald North Beach.

North Beach
San Francisco, CA

3. View down Stockton Street

1701 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94133

Looking north toward Marin.

1701 Stockton St
San Francisco, CA 94133

4. Telegraph Hill, as seen from Stockton and Sacramento

Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, CA

Already one of the city’s most charming neighborhoods.

Telegraph Hill
San Francisco, CA

5. Russian Hill, as seen from Telegraph Hill

Russian Hill, San Francisco, CA

Another scene of homes dotting the landscape.

Russian Hill
San Francisco, CA

6. Montgomery Street’s eastern side

Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA

Most of these dwellings are no longer standing.

Montgomery St
San Francisco, CA

7. Kearny Street

Kearny St, San Francisco, CA

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

Kearny St
San Francisco, CA

8. Custom House

444 Washington St, San Francisco, CA 94111

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.

444 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94111

9. Merchants’ Exchange

423 Washington St, San Francisco, CA 94111

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

423 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94111

10. Firehouse, Monumental Engine Company

San Francisco, CA 94111

”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.”

11. Portsmouth Square, former post office

733 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108

Onetime post office in what would later become Chinatown.

733 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108

12. San Francisco City Hall

716 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94111

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

716 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94111

13. “Fort Vigilance”

Two Embarcadero Center, 2 Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, CA 94111

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

Two Embarcadero Center, 2 Embarcadero Center
San Francisco, CA 94111

14. View down Sacramento Street

585 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108

Sacramento street was always a looker.

585 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108

15. St Mary’s Cathedral

651 California St, San Francisco, CA 94108

The church that still stands today.

651 California St
San Francisco, CA 94108

16. View from Rincon Point

Rincon Point, San Francisco, CA 94105

Near the coastline at the Rincon Hill/Embarcadero border.

Rincon Point
San Francisco, CA 94105

17. California Street

California St, San Francisco, CA

Unidentified strip of buildings along California.

California St
San Francisco, CA

18. Happy Valley (now South of Market)

111 Minna St, San Francisco, CA 94105

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

111 Minna St
San Francisco, CA 94105

19. South Park

South Park, San Francisco, CA 94107

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

South Park
San Francisco, CA 94107

20. Mission San Francisco de Asís

Mission Dolores, San Francisco, CA

Also known as “the old Mission.”

Mission Dolores
San Francisco, CA