Yerba Buena Cove 1853: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

The negative we scanned in 2017 was exposed in the late 1990s. The photographer at that time was capturing a scrapbook print made by a Department of Public Works employee in 1923. Through his viewfinder, the DPW photographer had focused on a gelatin silver print made by photographer and copyist T. E. Hecht perhaps twenty years earlier. Before Hecht’s turn-of-the century print, before who knows how many intermediate copies, photographer William Shew dragged lots of equipment to a sandy outcrop and took the original daguerreotype. The view: a five-piece panorama of Yerba Buena Cove and the boomtown of San Francisco taken from Rincon Hill in 1853.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
First of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. Sutter House hotel, Sutter Iron Works, and home of Charles Hare visible in foreground. (wnp36.03149, DPW Book 34, image 9045. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

T. E. Hecht often scratched his own inscriptions on his copy negatives and sometimes made mistakes. “San Francisco in 1851 from Rincon Point,” inscribed above on the first plate of the panorama, is off by two years.

Patricia L. Keats, Library Director for The Society of California Pioneers, dissected an albumen print version of this same panorama in a 2008 article for The Argonaut, Journal of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. In her article, Pat noted various elements that accurately date the view from 1853. The Montgomery Block office building, constructed in 1853, is visible in the distance in the second image below. The local landmark survived the 1906 earthquake before being torn down for a parking lot. Today, the Transamerica Pyramid stands on the site. Another post-1851 clue are the side-wheel steamboats around the cove, such as the white one docked waterside at lower center. These distinctive craft didn’t begin being used as ferries on the bay until 1852.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
Second of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. Storeship, water lots, ferry steamer Kangaroo, and Nob Hill and Russian Hill in background. (wnp36.03147, DPW Book 34, image 9043. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

The Noah’s Ark propped up above the water in Yerba Buena Cove was one of many storeships in business in the early days of San Francisco. After disgorging their arriving gold seekers, many vessels were transformed into instant stores, saloons, or warehouses. In the distant background, almost unrecognizable because of their open ridgelines, are Nob Hill and Russian Hill.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
Third of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. Forest of masts of gold rush vessels, Telegraph Hill and Angel Island in distance. (wnp36.03148, DPW Book 34, image 9044. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

The center plate of the panorama (above) is a forest of masts. Behind is Telegraph Hill, with its actual telegraph station atop it, and in the distant right, Angel Island. A humble shack is under construction on a sandy outcrop in the foreground. The entire cove from this point westward, all the water visible in the previous two plates, would be filled in over the next five years. In fact, many “water lots” at this time were already for sale. The wood frames and rectangles set out in the cove designated lots available for purchase as future investment.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
Fourth of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. (wnp36.03146, DPW Book 34, image 9042. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

As we continue panning right in the panorama, there are more lines of ships at anchor with the open bay beyond, and on the far edge of the last plate is Goat Island, now called Yerba Buena Island. In the 1930s, Shew’s vantage point became the anchorage site of the Bay Bridge, which would arch across to that island.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
Fifth of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. Goat Island [today’s Yerba Buena Island] on far right. (wnp36.03145, DPW Book 34, image 9041. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

William Shew performed a kind of magic using chemicals, glass plates, an iron tripod, a heavy wood-frame camera, and, no doubt, high hopes that the weather and light would cooperate. From glass to paper to plastic film to pixels, the sight of the great city in its cluttered, raw childhood continues to fascinate.