A NEW CULTURE
AT THE GOLDEN GATE
CHAPTER 17

California’s gold rush remains a defining American epic. From many parts of the world, fortune-hunters flooded into the newly conquered province. In 1849 alone, more than 36,000 immigrants arrived in San Francisco by sea. In the next twenty years it became California’s first real city. But before “Frisco” could exchange its cultural primitiveness for cosmopolitan tastes, some pressing problems demanded action.

The fire hazard in San Francisco continued to grow because of a large number of flimsy wooden structures. The need for more permanent dwellings increased drastically. Six conflagrations swept over San Francisco in a period of eighteen months. The first great fire took place in December 1849. A second blaze occurred in May 1850. After an interval of scarcely a month came a third fire. Most damaging of all of was the inferno of May 4, 1851, which destroyed a large part of the town. Only later would San Francisco rebuild itself in brick and stone.

The air of uncertainty was also reflected in the city’s commercial market, where, after the gold rush, prices dropped sharply. Pickled beef and pork went from $60 to $10 per barrel; flour decreased from $800 to $20 per barrel. Quite suddenly, unwanted imports piled up at the wharfs and few items remained difficult to obtain.

The gold rush boom had coaxed bankers, traders, and merchants into speculations that were to prove their financial undoing. From 1849 to 1855, the steadily declining yield of gold from the placers decreased the influx of population, causing a reversal in property values. Housing sites that had cost $15 before the rush reached $8,000 during its height, only to plummet to less than $100 later.

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