The quantity of imports that arrived in San Francisco in 1849 was enormous, especially for such a new city, and increased for years afterward. Day after day the vast amount of goods unloaded in Yerba Buena Cove, when coupled with both a lack of storage space and buyers who lacked significant credit, had to be disposed of at once, and for cash. This resulted in a great auction business, not uncommon in those days, and which gave a start to a number of firms that would later become quite large. Also, by the end of 1849, there were between three and four hundred ships at anchor in the bay, never destined to go to sea again as their crews had deserted for the gold mines, and by the middle of 1850 the number grew to over 500, not counting about a hundred more at Benicia, Sacramento, and Stockton.
Shipping was such a primary concern to the city that even early in 1849 the firm of Sweeny and Baugh, proprietors of the Merchants Exchange, saw fit to erect a small observation post at the top of Telegraph Hill, a place that could be easily seen from all parts of the city and where there could be gained an unrestricted view of the Golden Gate, the channel through which ships must enter the bay. On top of this building was placed a tall, black pole with two black arms that could be raised or lowered at will. When a ship approached from the ocean these arms would be raised to certain positions to indicate the type of vessel arriving. The signal for a side-wheel steamer, like a Pacific Mail steamship, was to have the two arms extended opposite each other at right angles to the pole. When this signal was seen in town there would be great excitement and people would either rush to the wharf to meet the ship or to the post office to await their mail.
So familiar was everyone with this particular symbol that after the observation post had been in operation a while, at a performance of the play Hunchback before a packed house in a local theater, when Master Walter, dressed all in black, rushed into the light colored drawing room, threw his arms wide and exclaimed, “What does this mean,” there came a shocked silence for a brief moment then, from the gallery, a voice roared out, “Side-wheel steamer,” and the audience broke into peals of laughter so riotous that Master Walter had to wait many minutes to continue. Thus the post at Telegraph Hill was so successful that soon a second station was built on Point Lobos where the ocean could be scanned from Point Reyes in the north to Point San Pedro in the south and as far west as the Farallon Islands.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.