William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years, 1863-1910

By Ben Procter | Go to book overview

3 The Newspaperman

San Francisco in the 1880s was the "queen of the Pacific," the golden gate through which the hardy Argonauts of 1849 had funneled en route to the goldfields at Sutter's Fort and the American River. Already the ninth- largest city in the United States and recognized as the most important trading center west of Chicago--increasing in population from 34,780 in 1850 to almost 234,000 in 1880--San Francisco was "envied" by most Californians, historian R. Hal Williams observed, but "admired" by only a few. Like most cities of the post-Civil War era, it had a plethora of problems that needed to be solved. While city leaders in the 1870s had wisely expanded the school system, doubled the size of law enforcement, created public parks, provided electric fire and police alarms for emergencies, and, most importantly, established a street railway system (including a cable car route), the city government, as established in the 1850s, was resistant to change. And why? It was boss-riddled, with corruption and graft seemingly a fixed way of life. Because of its size and wealth, San Francisco dominated state politics for the benefit of its citizens and to the detriment of the rural areas. Hence a system of favors, of "spoils" for the victors, was a natural progression, of which Chris Buckley, "the blind boss of San Francisco," was the embodiment in the 1880s. 1

But more than any other American city, San Francisco was one of glaring contrasts. Since disproportionate numbers of the population were male, in the main transients and "unmarried members of a growing labor pool," and since the populace was approximately 40 percent foreign-born, the economic and cultural life fluctuated--between gentility or sophistication by the urban rich, and violence, aggressiveness, and at times lack of inhibitions by the frontier poor. The disparities of wealth were obvious and omnipresent: rich, powerful businessmen versus ambitious labor

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