Bikes on Market: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

The photograph below was taken a year or two before the April 18, 1906 earthquake and the subsequent firestorm, but the scene should feeling familiar to San Franciscans of today. From Market and Powell Streets, off in the distance, the baroque-domed Call Building survives in sadly modernized form as the Central Tower on the southwest corner of 3rd Street. On the south side of Market the classical façade of the Emporium department store is now the entry of the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall. On the left edge of the view is the Flood Building, where tourists buy chinos from the Gap before lining up to ride the Powell Street cable car.

Market and Powell, circa 1904
Pre-Earthquake view east down Market Street from Powell Street. (Courtesy of a private collector).

While the bowler hats, the horses pulling a carriage, and the cable cars running on Market Street are out of rhythm with the twenty-first century, the flow of people and transit is recognizable, especially the two bicyclists navigating the space between curbside and traffic.

The rise, fall, and re-ascension of bicycle use in American city life would plot out as a silhouette of Twin Peaks. In the 1880s and 1890s, improvements in bicycle technology led to a boom in popularity. Bicycle shops blossomed all over town. The smooth pathways of Golden Gate Park became packed with weekend riders. Bicycling became an obsession for young men, from casual rides about town, to fifty-mile weekend treks to San Jose, to marathon races in new velodromes (check out the facility that stood beside the panhandle). Women also took to riding, which caused an unending series of concerned editorials and pubic outcries on the propriety of women wearing bloomers and facing the indecorous possibility of perspiring. “Wheel clubs” organized to lobby for good roads. (An 1896 night rally ride for better paving resulted in a scrum near Powell and Market when outside hoodlums began rioting—some things never change.)

Across the nation, bicycles were used for pleasure, for deliveries by businesses, for exercise and sport.

Then came the automobile. Bike shops transitioned to car repair shops and wheelmen became motorcyclists and tinkering automobilists. As the twentieth century progressed in America, bicycling was shunted to children’s play, an occasional vacation activity, and the niche athletic endeavor.

Stanyan Street near Page Street, circa 1920
Men horse around with old bikes on Stanyan Street near Page Street about 1920. (Courtesy of a private collector).

Over the last few decades the bicycle has roared back in the United States, at least in forward thinking cities with good weather like San Francisco. Bicycling as an adult leisure activity—even as a way to commute to work!—was rediscovered in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in colleges and in the counter-culture, in hippie periodicals like the Whole Earth Catalog and in best-selling paperback manuals.

Soon everyone had a ten-speed, or mountain bike for Mount Tamalpais trails. I had friends earning a precarious existence as downtown bike messengers. Critical Mass rides started in the early 1990s, the San Francisco Bike Coalition suddenly had real political power, and it became normal for desk workers to lug their rides through office hallways.

Now, the SFMTA digital bike counter at 10th and Market Streets tallies an average of almost 2,000 riders each weekday. Where two riders passed a photographer in 1904, now a river of hundreds, even thousands, of helmeted 9-to-5ers pedal past each morning and evening.

Read some west side bicycle history, including the story of the “Lady Falcons.”

Market and Montgomery, 1961
Market Street near Montgomery, April 1961. Not the first Critical Mass… (Courtesy of a private collector).

Rise of the Phoenix: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

One hundred and eleven years ago, in the early morning of April 18, San Francisco shook and trembled through a massive earthquake. Stone buildings shed their skins. Chimneys and brick walls collapsed on streets and adjoining buildings. Roadways split and sunk. People were gravely injured or killed by crumbling boarding houses, apartments, and warehouses. (See our 1906 earthquake-related OpenSFHistory images as a gallery and marked on a map.)

The disaster became much worse as fires broke out from the Embarcadero to Hayes Valley and, aided by wind and inept attempts to create fire breaks with explosives, joined into larger maelstroms that gobbled up almost 500 city blocks of cottages, factories, tenements, hotels, stores, banks, and government buildings over the next three days.

Market Street on fie, April 18, 1906.
Market Street on fire. Looking east to the Ferry Building from Fremont Street, April 18, 1906. (Willard E. Worden photograph. Glass negative courtesy of a private collector).

San Francisco speedily rose again and again from fire in its early boomtown days, as the Argonaut William Shaw described in his 1851 book, Golden Dreams and Waking Realities: “…ere the ground had cooled, the charred mass of cinders had disappeared, contracts were made, and hundreds employed in laying the foundations of new edifices.” The phoenix reborn from ashes is a central element of the city’s seal, and San Franciscans pride themselves on their resilience. In the OpenSFHistory collection are numerous views of humble encampments and street kitchens named with good humor after the 1906 earthquake: “Camp Cheerful,” “House of Mirth,” and “Hotel St. Francis.”

Earthquake refugees in Golden Gate Park, 1906.
Mrs. R. Lucas’ “Camp Cheerful” in Golden Gate Park in 1906. (Glass negative courtesy of a private collector).

We admire and remember fondly the optimism and fortitude of our ancestors, who had so much pride in being San Franciscans that they preferred to stay and rebuild a city of rubble and ashes instead of starting life over in Oakland, Portland, or Los Angeles. Yearly commemorations are held at Lotta’s Fountain on Market and Kearny Streets at 5:12 in the morning, and at 20th and Church Streets, where participants paint the “golden hydrant” that produced water to save the Mission District and Noe Valley from the flames. These gatherings celebrate the city’s enthusiasm to endure.

But in the face of this boastful narrative it’s important to remember that the 1906 earthquake and fire was a real disaster that killed thousands and left many more homeless. The view below, of a crowd gathered in Hamilton Square in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake surrounded by the few belongings they could drag with them, shows the shock, bewilderment, and worry in people’s faces.

Hamilton Square refugee camp
Hamilton Square refugee camp, Geary near Steiner, looking southwest to Hamilton Grammar School, Girls High School, and Calvary Cemetery on Lone Mountain, April 19, 1906. (wnp15.1033,glass negative courtesy of a private collector).

A closer view of the refugees in Hamilton Square, April 19, 1906. (wnp15.1033,glass negative courtesy of a private collector).

A closer view of the refugees in Hamilton Square, April 19, 1906. (wnp15.1033,glass negative courtesy of a private collector).

A closer view of the refugees in Hamilton Square, April 19, 1906. (wnp15.1033,glass negative courtesy of a private collector).

Why is it important to remember disaster and deprivation alongside the can-do spirit of rebirth? Because what happened in 1906 will happen again. A massive earthquake is coming, as early as this afternoon. Attendant woes of destructive fires, landslides, inundation, and disease from broken sanitation systems are all possible, even likely. We must be prepared to not only rebuild the city of San Francisco, but to aid the destitute, the injured, and the homeless. The phoenix rises from the ashes not only as new buildings, streets, and businesses, but also as new life for the poor, helpless, and the not to be forgotten.

End of the Trail: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was a typical worlds fair of its time. Commercial, political, and industrial powers filled palaces for horticulture, machinery, and “food products.” Establishment art, architecture, and culture were spotlighted, and the public got an over-the-top recreational experience of amusements, parades, and electric light displays. (View our OpenSFHistory photo gallery.)

Held in San Francisco, the PPIE was meant to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, but was as much a celebration of San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire. Some 18 million people visited it over the course of 1915, with 459,022 coming just on closing night.

Two years after the fair, as this Department of Public Works photograph taken on April 15, 1917 shows, the revelry and wonderment of the PPIE had given way to a muddy hangover.

Statues from PPIE stored on future Marina Green.
Statuary from Panama-Pacific International Exposition stored on future Marina Green, April 15, 1917. (wnp36.01558, DPW Book 19, Image 4231 by Horace Chaffee. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector).

James Earle Fraser’s iconic “End of the Trail” statue—a slumped, oblivion-facing American Indian and horse—stands on the bay fill amid a field of classical detritus. The rider keeps company with more stalwart chargers and a divinity awkwardly reclined with dancing acolytes. Fraser’s sculpture would be moved to a park in Visalia, California, and eventually to a cowboy museum in Oklahoma.

Another view from the same day shows, on the left, the city jewel that is the Palace of Fine Arts, which was saved and restored—and has had to be saved and restored a couple of more times in the intervening century. On the right is the fair’s California Building, doomed to destruction after plans to make it a state teachers college fell through. In between the two is the base of the Column of Progress. Once situated among the broad boulevards and fantastical architecture of the PPIE, it survived at the foot of Scott Street while the plans began for the winding streets and Mediterranean flats of the Marina District. Progress accomplished, the city demolished the column as a traffic hazard in 1924.

Marina Blvd West near Scott Street.
Marina Blvd looking west near Scott Street, April 15, 1917. Palace of Fine Arts, Column of Progress, and California Building. (wnp36.01559, DPW Book 19, Image 4232 by Horace Chaffee. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector).

Two years ago, the City of San Francisco celebrated the centennial of the fair. A “1915” light was displayed on the Ferry Building. Commemorative talks, books, and publications were issued. Local historians, elected officials, and business dignitaries wined, dined, and danced at a glittery soiree inside the Palace of Fine Arts.

We love anniversaries with a round number, and attention has moved on this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Silk gowns and peacock feather tiaras have given way to tie-dye and love beads. San Francisco Travel, the city museums, and brands from Levis to a British marmite manufacturer are all getting into the spirit of hippies, rock photography, and psychedelic fashion.

There’s another round number anniversary this year, not talked about as much. The week before the mudflat Marina photos were taken, Congress declared war on Germany, voting to put the United States into the heart of World War I. No doubt the 100th anniversary of our country’s march into mustard gas attacks, muddy trenches, and the war-that-didn’t-end-all-wars is a harder sell than a Summer of Love.

Liberty Bell on way to PPIE, July 17, 1915
Liberty Bell delivered to Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, July 17, 1915. (wnp30.0095, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).

Building a New San Francisco: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

In 2001, working from a tip, the City Attorney seized as city property nineteen photograph albums listed for sale at a public auction. Inside the albums were thousands of prints produced by employees of the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) to document the rebuilding of San Francisco in the decades after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

In the course of rescuing the albums from disappearing once more into private hands, some research was done and most of the rest of the original DPW collection was found stored in a city warehouse on Treasure Island. Each photograph depicted some part of an infrastructure improvement or civic building project: from the making of the Hetch Hechy reservoir in the Sierras, to construction of City Hall, to the installation of sewer pipe in the trackless sand dunes of the Sunset District.

Lowering pipe at 13th Street and Market, 1910
Workmen lowering pipe at 13th and Market Streets, November 26, 1910. (wnp36.00019, DPW Book 1, Image 164 by Horace Chaffee. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector).

The San Francisco History Center at the Main Library received it all for cataloging and preservation. More than two hundred of the images have been scanned and displayed on the library site with a finding aid to the albums. Researchers and the just plain curious can visit the San Francisco History Center to see them.

Sculpter Henri Crenier with his frieze for City Hall' entry pediment, March 31, 1914
Sculptor Henri Crenier with his frieze for City Hall’s entry, March 31, 1914. (wnp36.00432, DPW Book 8, Image 1803. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector).

In the OpenSFHistory collection, we have thousands of 2.75″ copy negatives of DPW photographs. The donor of these images created the negatives by meticulously photographing the original albums at the Department of Public Works in 1979, and again in 1990, years before the DPW collection ended up in storage on Treasure Island. At the same time, the collector copied out by hand an index of the image descriptions in the albums. Many of the copied photographs aren’t present in the material discovered and preserved at the San Francisco History Center.

Upper Hetch Hetchy Valley, June 17, 1913
Upper Hetch Hetchy Valley, June 17, 1913. (wnp36.00314, DPW Book 6, Image 1494 by Horace Chaffee. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector).

We prioritized scanning these negatives and this week posted the first 1,745 we’ve done. Our hope is that by putting online these views of road work, sewer piping, school construction, and general street scenes we are aiding researchers, urban planners, and architectural historians, while educating and exciting the general public. (Your house may be shown in one of these shots.) Much more work has to be done to improve the online mapping and review the descriptions by crosschecking the original albums the library holds. Plus, there’s likely more than a few typos in the transcribing (drop us a line if you see one).

Geary and Jones Streets, April 26, 1912
Cable cars, horse and wagon at Geary and Jones Streets, April 26, 1912. (wnp36.00158, DPW Book 3, Image 535 by Horace Chaffee. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector).

The Department of Public Works photographs were taken as documentation of the agency’s work. At first, just numbers were inscribed on the negatives that matched up to an index describing location and the project. Later, fuller descriptions with dates of the photographs were written on black borders. Over the past four decades, the private collector shared prints of his copy negatives with authors, community groups, streetcar fans, and historians. Many people are familiar with (and thankful for) those DPW inscriptions telling the where and the when.

There’s a thrill in seeing a well-known intersection dressed in the togs of yesteryear— period advertisements, long-vanished streetcars, mules harnessed to wagons, and working men wearing fedora/overall combinations—but there’s a special frisson in some of these stunning landscapes now vanished.

Enjoy, let us know what you think, and get ready for thousands more on the way.

46th & Vicente, August 12, 1912
46th Avenue and Vicente Street, August 12, 1912. (wnp36.00212, DPW Book 4, Image 612. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector).