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Chapter VIII. San Francisco: The Master Plan

First Impressions

Saturday 26 May 1855. On this date the S.S. Sierra Nevada arrived in San Francisco from San Juan del Sud, Nicaragua, bringing 664 passengers. Among them was a tall and sturdily built, black-bearded and somber-faced young man of 34 - Dr. Cooper of Peoria, Illinois. His bold and furtive plan to found a medical school in San Francisco had governed his every move for the past year, and was constantly in his thoughts during the long sea voyage. Now that he had at last reached his destination on the Pacific Coast, his whole concern was to take decisive steps toward his ultimate goal without delay.

He inquired aboard ship about a hotel in the city that would best serve as a temporary base of operations and was advised to try the new Rassette House. He went there directly from the pier as soon as the steamer had berthed. The choice could not have been more fortunate. The original Rassette House was a five-story frame structure that escaped the great fires of 1850 and 1851, but burned to the ground in 1853. It was then rebuilt on a grand scale at the same site on the corner of Bush and Sansome Streets. Situated in the heart of the commercial district, the new Rassette House was an impressive edifice and the largest private building in town devoted to a single business. [1]

One block distant, on the corner of Bush and Battery Streets, was the fashionable Oriental Hotel where the Democratic Party was holding a political rally. Standing in front of the Rassette House on his first evening in San Francisco, Cooper witnessed a multitude of boisterous Democrats, numbering about 3000, milling around the Oriental and marching through the streets in torchlight procession, carrying banners and preceded by music. What he saw confirmed his belief that San Francisco was a up and coming city where he could realize his ambitions. [2] [3]

image of Dr. Elias S. Cooper in San Francisco

Sunday, 27 May 1855. This was Cooper's first morning in San Francisco. He left no account of the impressions and emotions that flooded his mind when he viewed the dazzling expanse of city and Bay from his window in the Rassette House. But we are not entirely at a loss to visualize the scene and fathom his thoughts on that occasion.

Four years later another perceptive traveler, Richard Henry Dana, gazed out on the same resplendent panorama from the nearby Oriental Hotel. We have previously told how he entered San Francisco Bay for the first time aboard the sailing ship Alert in 1835. Twenty-four years later Dana, now a Boston attorney, returned to the Bay on Saturday August 13th 1859 He arrived on this occasion aboard the superb steamship, Golden Gate, and engaged a room at the Oriental Hotel. The vista of San Francisco and the Bay from his hotel window on the following Sunday morning, and the emotions he felt, must have been much the same as those experienced by Cooper four years earlier on the Sunday morning of May 27th 1855. Dana described the scene in words that Cooper himself might well have chosen: [4]

When I awoke in the morning, and looked from my windows over the city of San Francisco, with its storehouses, towers and steeples; its courthouses, theatres, and hospitals; its daily journals; its well-filled learned professions; its fortresses and lighthouses; its wharves and harbour, with their thousand-ton clipper ships, more in number than London or Liverpool sheltered that day; itself one of the capitals of the American Republic, and the sole emporium of a new world, the awakened Pacific; when I looked across the bay to the eastward, and beheld a beautiful town on the fertile, wooded shores of the Contra Costa; and steamers, large and small, the ferry boats to the Contra Costa, and capacious freighters and passenger-carriers to all parts of the great bay and its tributaries, with lines of their smoke in the horizon - when I saw all these things, and reflected on what . . .now surrounded me, I could scarcely keep my hold on reality at all, or the genuineness of anything, and seemed to myself like one who had moved in "worlds not realized."

During the next few days Cooper explored his new surroundings eagerly and discovered a city unrivaled among the ports of the world for the grandeur of its prospect on rolling hills overlooking a majestic bay. The astounding prosperity of the Golden Era from 1849 to 1855 had brought incredible material progress to San Francisco. In the six-years following the Gold Rush of 1849, the city changed from a disorderly encampment of unsightly tents, shanties and rickety wooden shacks to a flourishing city of 50,000. Permanent buildings of wood, and over 600 of stone or brick, supplanted the former temporary structures that had been repeatedly consumed in devastating fires. By 1855 cobblestones were replacing planks on the main roads, and a gas works was in operation, furnishing lights for major streets. Omnibuses were running between key points in the city, steamboats plied the inland waterways tributary to the Golden Gate, and ferries made morning and evening runs to Oakland 10 miles across the Bay. At portside were a dry dock and a vast array of wharves and warehouses. Manufactories included foundries and boiler works; several oil, candle and soap works; four sawmills and eleven flour mills; a sugar refinery; distilleries and over a dozen breweries. [5]

Downtown, only a few blocks distant from the port, there were some 160 hotels (including the Rassette House and the Oriental) and hostels, 60-odd restaurants, and ample bakeries and markets. Drinking and gaming were popular pastimes of the miners and footloose immigrants who flocked to the Gold Coast. Because of the prevalence of drunkenness, the Christian Advocate undertook in 1853 to determine the availability of strong drink. It was found by actual count that there were 527 places in the city where liquor was sold. Of these 83 were retail drinking saloons, 52 were wholesale stores, 144 were restaurants, 154 were groceries, 46 were gambling houses, and 48 were fancy and dance houses. In a word, alcohol was everywhere plentiful, and copiously imbibed. Gambling was a prominent feature of San Francisco night-life and one of the main branches of business. The gamblers had the best buildings and paid the highest rents. Their halls were on the level with the street and were crowded from dark till late at night. Orchestras and vocalists provided music, and the bar, liquor. At one time prior to 1855 a dozen large gambling houses were open, each with five to fifteen tables, making nearly a hundred tables in all - and the "take of the house" in gold and silver coin, and not infrequently nuggets and bags of gold dust, was prodigious. [6]

Entertainment on a higher plane was provided by theaters and halls that commonly featured celebrated actors, actresses, singers and musicians from the East. Shakespeare was popular in San Francisco. The famous Edwin Booth played Hamlet, and toured the mining camps where the Bard's works were a rousing success. The Adelphi Theater was built in San Francisco in 1851, the Metropolitan in 1853. By 1855 the spacious Jenny Lind Theater had been converted to the City Hall. (Jenny Lind never came to California, but P. T. Barnum as her press agent made hers the most popular name in show business. [7] There were also the American Theater (seating nearly 2000), the Union Theater and three Halls: San Francisco, Musical and Turn Verein. San Francisco was from its earliest days the cultural center of the West.

Nor was social development laggard in other respects. In addition to a dozen and a half primary, grammar and other public schools, there were two girls' schools, a Jesuit school, and the San Francisco College that aspired to the university grade. Churches were, as usual in frontier America, among the first institutions on the scene. By 1855 there were 32 congregations in San Francisco embracing eight Protestant denominations, and six Catholic and two Jewish bodies. There was also a convent. Some of the congregations worshipped in Halls, but most possessed their own buildings, the most imposing being the catholic cathedral. The number of women had greatly increased since '49 and their influence in fostering normal family life and religious observances, where they set the example, tempered the reckless and exuberant spirit of the mining era. In addition to the churches, many benevolent associations were established, such as a dozen military companies (with ornamental as well as useful aims); seventeen semi-heroic fire brigades, including three hook-and-ladder companies; Free Mason and Odd Fellows Lodges; and Temperance Societies. These various organizations served to elevate the moral tone of the city and changed it from a community of reveling adventurers to one of high average respectability and intelligence - for a city on the very rim of civilization, that is.

Finally, like churches, newspapers normally sprang to life early and helped to shape the character of new American settlements. By Cooper's day in San Francisco there were thirteen daily and as many weekly newspapers, in half a dozen languages. We shall soon see to what use he put them. Several hospitals were already flourishing when he arrived: The German Hospital; the French Hospital; the San Francisco City and County Hospital (supervised by the Sisters of Mercy); and the U.S. Marine Hospital, one of the most imposing structures in the city. [8]

In his walks about the city, Cooper surveyed the streets and buildings with the shrewd judgement gained through real estate dealings in Peoria. Wherever he went he struck up a conversation with tradesmen who were eager to hear about conditions "back East," and to share with him their concern over the economic recession (California's first) that had devastated their business during the past year. The downturn had been precipitated by a sharp decline in the previous frantic pace of mining, commercial, and real estate activity. San Francisco's astounding prosperity during the period from the beginning of 1851 to the middle of 1853, with its spiraling prices and acute shortages of everything from shovels to rental property, was fueled by the surging growth of mining and gold production, accompanied by a massive influx of immigrants. This led to rampant overspeculation based on the belief that population, gold export, demand for commodities, and the value of real estate would continue to increase annually at the former rate. When this failed to occur, a severe panic seized the severely inflated banking, mercantile and real estate markets in early 1854. The failure in 1855 of Page, Bacon & Co., a major bank, and Adams & Co., the premier express company in California, wiped out thousands of investors and sent shock waves through San Francisco and the State. Cooper received this distressing news with quiet satisfaction. The depressed economic conditions played into his hands by reducing prices, and making it vastly easier and cheaper for him to find vacant property in a good location for his infirmary and clinic. [9]

In his talks with the man in the street, Cooper learned of yet another threat to the community's welfare. While frontier conditions still prevailed at mining camps on the foothills and rocky slopes of the Sierra to the east, and in the small settlements in the sparsely populated inland valleys, San Francisco had in the half-dozen years of the Golden Era from 1848 to 1854 become the western metropolis and chief port of trade on the eastern shore of the Pacific. But the very conditions responsible for the city's remarkable development also attracted a rapacious and lawless element that preyed on society. Ruffians had so far controlled the streets and the courts in San Francisco in 1851 that the First Vigilance Committee was organized by Sam Brannan and other leading citizens who were outraged by the unbridled wave of crime. The Committee set up its own constabulary and courts and meted out a swift and stern "justice" that included the hanging of four and the deportation of many other vicious felons. The Committee's methods were denounced by the city's corrupt judiciary but firmly supported by the aroused populace. Within six months the Committee had intimidated the outlaws and rebuked the servile city courts. It then suspended its activities without ever formally disbanding. It stood ready for instant recall should circumstances warrant. [10]

Although gun-toting desperadoes were less brazen, and law-abiding citizens somewhat less fearful of mugging on the streets of San Francisco when they ventured forth at night, crime in the city had not been greatly diminished. In the wake of the First Vigilance Committee professional scoundrels infiltrated the domain of politics where their control of city government by ruthless tactics went unchecked by the arm of the law. Finally, when James King of William, crusading editor of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, was shot down in the street on 14 May 1856 by a ballot-box stuffing politician named James P. Casey, confidence in civil authority again collapsed and tolling of the bell at Monumental Engine House called the Second Vigilance Committee into action. We shall later return to the role in these events played by Cooper and the men associated with him in the founding of his medical school. [11]

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