At the time of statehood San Francisco had about twenty-five thousand people. Growth, mostly due to the gold rush, had been phenomenal. The tents and shanties from 1848-49 were gone from the business section of town and many of the ramshackle frame buildings, with walls lined with cotton sheeting or paper, had been replaced. However a number of frail, flimsy houses still remained along the outskirts, but both the population and business was growing rapidly, extraordinary improvements were being made. Progress was incredible, perhaps unprecedented.
The first city charter, passed on April 1th, 1850, set the southern boundary two miles from Portsmouth Square and parallel to Clay Street, and the western line a mile and a half from the same square and parallel with Kearny Street. It was an area of about five square miles but very little of it was level or suitable for building without change, either by excavation or filling in. Fortunately most of the hills and ridges were made of sand, about fifty feet high, and easily moved. These hills were graded level and the material used to elevate hollows and fill in mud flats and other low points.
Huge quantities of wooden piles were brought in from the forests of California and used to build wharves that extended the city front far into the bay. In June of 1849 Broadway Street wharf had been built two hundred and fifty feet into the water and by the end of the year another wharf ran along the line of Commercial Street eight hundred feet into the water from Montgomery Street. It partially burned in June but was quickly rebuilt and then extended until it ran out some two thousand feet and was known as Long Wharf. Many other wharves were soon built, first from Market Street, then California, Sacramento, Clay, Washington, Jackson and Pacific Streets all were extended. Howison’s Pier ran between California and Sacramento Streets and Cunninghan’s Wharf and Lewis’ Wharf were near the foot of Green Street.
In all there were over six thousand feet of wharves at a cost of over a million dollars and all mostly extensions of the streets for which they were named. And as they progressed the underwater lots between them were filled with piles and capped with buidings and gradually the lower part of the city advanced over Yerba Buena Cove and between the pilings and under the buildings and wharves ebbed and flowed the tides of the bay. As the sand hills were flattened and the mud flats of the bay filled then the wharves became streets and the buildings rested not only on their piles but also now on a foundation of sand. Many of these piles and wharves fell victim to the marine worm known as the teredo, the ship worm, and were seriously weakened. A number of buildings would collapse and sink into the mixture of brine and ooze that was San Francisco’s waterfront.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.