If the definition of a port is a place where ships come to enact commerce, then the beginnings of San Francisco as a port date to the 1820s, when, after California became part of Mexico in 1822, trade with foreign countries was allowed.
Ships from the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Peru would enter San Francisco Bay and anchor in Yerba Buena Cove, the best-protected inlet along the northern waterfront of the San Francisco peninsula. There they would exchange manufactured goods for the hides and tallow provided by California’s missions and ranchos.
This trade, including that conducted from Yerba Buena Cove, the northernmost California trading post, is admirably described in Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.
In 1835 a naturalized citizen of Mexico, William Richardson, set up on the cove as the customs collector and as a private merchant, thus beginning civil life in Yerba Buena (later to be called San Francisco). His initial mercantile activities were soon expanded by the arrival of other settlers on the cove; by mid-July 1846, there were 200 inhabitants living and working along the cove.
On July 9, 1846, Captain John B. Montgomery, USN, and his forces seized Yerba Buena as part of the Mexican-American War, which led to the annexation of California by the United States.
The modest number of ships that entered San Francisco Bay and Yerba Buena Cove from the early 1820s to the late 1840s suddenly exploded after the discovery of gold in 1848. Hundreds of ships left ports throughout the world, bringing tens of thousands of gold-seekers to the port closest to where gold was discovered—that of Yerba Buena.
Prior to the discovery of gold, there had been only four wharves on the cove, modest piers suitable for the limited commerce that had existed. But, beginning in 1849, private investors began to fill in the cove and to build wharves at the end of the streets that had been surveyed only a couple years earlier.
It was the military that took, early on, a jaundiced view of Yerba Buena as a port: it was situated on a peninsula, an inconvenient spot for movement throughout the area, and it was surrounded by steep hills and mountains. The Navy put its facilities at Mare Island and the Army its arsenal in Benicia—both in the East Bay—which they considered more appropriate locations.
Meanwhile, the population and economic explosion of San Francisco brought about the uncontrolled, aggressive expansion of the port facilities. The cove was filled in to the present waterfront by 1855. Numerous warehouses for the storage of goods were built. More wharves were constructed and existing ones were lengthened.
There were a host of problems with this expansion. How far into the Bay could the wharves be built? What would happen when wharves began to collide? Shoaling and silting were problems. The politically corrupt and debt-ridden city could not provide solutions, but continued to supply leases to capitalists who wished to exploit the port.
This exploitation aroused the citizens of San Francisco when something called “the Bulkhead Scheme” was proposed,giving a monopoly on the use of the port to a group of businessmen. The proposal was passed by the California legislature, but vetoed by the governor.
The year 1863 saw the termination of the port wharf leases that had been granted a decade earlier; in that year the State of California decided to take over control of San Francisco’s port. The state would be responsible for the maintenance and development of the port for 106 years. San Francisco’s port, beginning in 1863, would now be in public hands; control would be in the hands of the Board of State Harbor Commissioners, one elected, two appointed (and, eventually, all appointed by the governor).
During the more than a century that the Port of San Francisco was under state control, it went through many vicissitudes. The commissioners, who were political appointees, often lacked the experience and skills to run what was for many years the second largest port in the United States. They expanded the port, especially along the eastern side of the city. They established many improvements. And they adapted to the extraordinary changes wrought by depression and two world wars. However, absentee ownership took its toll, as did the fact that, as maritime and transportation technologies changed, the disadvantages of the port became more evident.
In the late nineteenth century, competition from other Pacific Coast ports began to erode San Francisco’s prominence. While Oakland marketed to the Far East to obtain the growing Pacific Rim business, San Francisco dawdled. And, while Oakland modernized its port facilities to accommodate container shipping, San Francisco’s port attempted a technology that was soon obsolete.
Just as the Port of San Francisco came under “home rule,” it collapsed into insignificance.
Some of my personal memories are of the vigorous, vibrant port of my youth: the lights and noises of the port activity, day and night; stevedores and longshoremen scrambling around the ships; the wharves; the warehouses; the clang of the Belt Railroad; the cargoes being loaded and unloaded in huge rope pouches.
When I first went to work on Montgomery Street in the early 1960s, when the port was still vibrant, I remember that between what was then the financial district and the waterfront, there were innumerable maritime businesses: chandlery shops, maritime insurance companies, elegant buildings that housed the headquarters of shipping companies such as Matson and Dollar.
And the most pungent of my memories: the scent of coffee beans being unloaded from the ships, and, a few blocks away, those beans being roasted by companies such as Folgers, Hills Brothers, and MJB.
Charles Fracchia majored in history at the University of San Francisco and did his graduate work at the University of San Francisco Law School and several other prestigious universities. After years as an investment advisor, during which he became one of the founders of Rolling Stone Magazine, he began to write and teach. He is the author of many articles and books, most recently When the Water Came Up to Montgomery Street, and San Francisco During the Gold Rush.