Classic Peninsula

How the Peninsula Made San Francisco

By Leslie A. Westbrook

The churning engine of brain power, talent and creativity pouring forth from Silicon Valley
has hypercharged San Francisco’s economy and culture for generations. But a century before
the region’s first computer scientists started dabbling in silicon, the Peninsula provided a mother lode of materials used to build, shape, create (and even rebuild) San Francisco as it transformed from a far-flung, Spanish-owned fishing outpost to a world-class city.

Photo credit: Online Archive of California.

Timber!

Like so many Bay Area stories, things really got cooking around the time of the San Francisco gold rush. Spurring one of the largest mass migrations in world history, gold fever had secondary symptoms, namely an instant (and ravenous) appetite for lumber. As San Francisco’s population exploded, home builders, saloons, houses of ill repute and even churches relied on Old Growth redwoods from King’s Mountain in San Mateo County. 

To satisfy the demand, 14 lumber mills cranked away at a blistering pace, carving up the forest to build everything from basic structures to some of San Francisco’s most coveted homes along the Gold Coast. The City’s boom was a bust for the ancient redwood forest, as thousands of acres of the stately trees disappeared seemingly overnight. By the 1880s, only the least accessible stands remained.

There’s a reason the city needed so much timber: San Francisco burned down a mind-boggling six times in two years between 1850 and 1852. These disasters increased the need for Peninsula timber, and more importantly, water — not only to douse the flames, but to sustain the exploding population.

More precious than gold

“Of all the [Peninsula] resources utilized by San Franciscans to build and make their city great, water was the most important,” says Mitch Postel, president of the San Mateo Historical Association. “By 1860, the population of 

San Francisco was approaching 78,000. Lumber, agricultural products and other food items could be imported. Water, however, could not.”

Cue the region’s spirit of innovation. Local entrepreneurs — sensing a lucrative business opportunity — sprang into action, and soon two million gallons of water per day were flowing into the City from San Mateo County by flume and tunnel. Lakes and dams sprouted on the Peninsula. Fortunes were won and lost. The biggest kid on the block was the Spring Water Company. During dry conditions, a bucket of the wet stuff could be sold for a $1 gold piece. 

When it was built in 1888, Redwood City’s Crystal Springs Dam was the largest of its kind (interlocking concrete block) in the world. Years later, water from Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy system poured into the reservoir before making its way to San Francisco via gravity feed. Today, locals still enjoy the open space set aside for the forested watershed around the reservoir.

Snapshots of yore, from when the Peninsula supplied San Francisco with vital resources, allowing it to grow from a sleepy coastal outpost into a metropolis of international renown. Photo courtesy of the San Mateo Local History Collection.

Bounty from the soil

“The Peninsula was important … well before the gold rush,” says Erica J. Peters, the author of San Francisco: A Food Biography. Peters notes that food resources from the Peninsula reach as far back as the late 1700s, during the early days of the Spanish missionary era.

As San Francisco grew, so did the Peninsula’s importance as a key provider of sustenance. Irish and Italian farmers on the Peninsula churned out potatoes and cabbage. The Steele family came to California and purchased a ranch in San Mateo County at Point Año Nuevo near Pescadero in 1855. There, they developed a successful dairy business selling cheese and butter. 

“Mining the miners” was fair game: The price of an egg was $1 (about $150 by today’s standards) and double or triple that at the gold mines; a $2 bath would cost you $200 in current dollars; a plate of oysters could cost $20 — or $600 today (don’t tell Swan Oyster Depot). 

Arid in 1850, the Peninsula’s newly irrigated landscape flourished just 10 years later, dotted with farms producing wheat, oats, beans and corn that fed the City’s insatiable appetite. “By 1892, Italian truck farmers from the Peninsula were delivering cabbages, lettuce, carrots, beets, leeks, turnips and tomatoes to the Colombo wholesale produce market at Front Street and Pacific, where the Sydney G. Walton Square Park is currently,” says Peters. 

The legacy of the Peninsula’s contribution to San Francisco cannot be underestimated, Postel stresses. Without a bountiful supply of goods and materials close by, the City might never have survived its infancy to become both the anchor of the region — and one of the world’s greatest cities.

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