Emporium of the Pacific
came down after a year or so in the mines freezing your butt off, working
like a dog, living under absolute primitive conditions. And here you got
in San Francisco, a boat ride away, one of the great metropolises with
everything available to you, and you just went crazy. You gambled, you
bought, you whored around and you drank. And the people who took your
money were the ones who got rich. It's just the way it was."
I landed here with my little company there were but three families in
the place and now the improvements are beyond all conceptions. Homes in
all directions, business brisk and money plenty. Here will be the great
emporium of the Pacific and eventually the world.
In the fall of 1849, the village of San Francisco had barely 2,000 residents. Just one year later, the population had grown to nearly 35,000, and it had become the West’s first full-fledged city. A single house lot on Portsmouth Square grew in price from $16.50 to $45,000 in just three years. Everything was brought in by sea at first -- whisky, shovels, lumber all the way from the forests of Maine, even a cargo of cats, ferried in to take on the rats that ruled the waterfront.
"It was one of the world's great commercial empires, one of the world's great cities within a matter of 4 or 5 years. The simple reason was gold. There's no other way to explain it. Half a billion dollars worth of gold was pulled out of California's mines and streams between 1849 and 1860. Half a billion dollars in 19th century money. That's an extraordinary amount of money. It absolutely defined what the city was."
Most of the gold the miners extracted from rivers, streams and hillsides washed into the pockets of merchants and bankers -- cooks, lawyers, stagecoach operators, saloonkeepers, madams -- anyone who filled their needs.
Levi Strauss, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, turned up in San Francisco with a bolt of cotton duck he thought would be perfect for making tents. It turned out to be the wrong material, but Strauss used it to make a miner a pair of durable trousers. Soon other miners were asking for "those pants of Levi's."
On the corner of Washington and Grant Streets, an enterprising Chinese immigrant named Wah Lee opened California's first large hand laundry, charged five dollars a dozen to wash shirts -- and made a killing.
Joshua Abraham Norton arrived in San Francisco with $40,000 in his pocket, and swiftly turned it into a quarter of a million by shrewd investments. But when prices collapsed, Norton was ruined. His mind snapped under the strain.
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of the United States, I Joshua Norton, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.
San Franciscans were delighted. Norton was given a special uniform to wear while he wandered the streets, bowing graciously to citizens he was convinced were his loyal subjects. Bartenders gave him free drinks. The city directory listed him as "Norton, Joshua, Emperor." And when he died, 30,000 of his former "subjects" turned out for his funeral.
town had a great sense of transience. Well, transience always carries
with it an air of possibility and that is one of the great characteristics
of San Francisco in the Golden Era. It was still a time when a person
could arrive and and seek out the possible. Everything did seem possible.
There were so many stories of people who had risen from nothing to complete
dominance. People who'd arrive in San Francisco with 100 dollars in their
pockets and ended up building huge business blocks five years later. This
was repeated over and over and over again so that the town took on an
air of a kind of rarified demonstration of what the American Dream was
all about, condensed, packed into a few golden years."
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© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA