Temple Emanu-El of San Francisco:
A Glory of the West
WITHIN two years after the discovery at Sutter’s Mill, the rush for California gold had achieved worldwide proportions. By 1850 upwards of 5,000 immigrants were arriving each month, some of them overland through the Nevada desert and the passes of the Sierras, but the majority by the less arduous sea routes. Around the Horn, or via the Isthmus, or across the Pacific from Australia, the Argonauts in search of the fleece of gold sailed to San Francisco.
The city had been a trading station of less than a thousand inhabitants before gold was found, but now its permanent population was estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000, not including transients traveling to and from the mines. By 1853 these figures would rise to 50,000: one-seventh the population of the young state. Like most boom-towns of the frontier, San Francisco at first was composed largely of shanties and tents: a wood and canvas city which six times in the eighteen months between December 1849 and June 1851 was virtually burned to the ground. Each time it was rebuilt on a more ambitious scale. Its unbridled vice and crime were notorious among respectable people everywhere, not excepting the increasingly impatient respectable people of San Francisco itself. Inflation was extreme: the smallest coin in circulation was the dime; new clothes were no more expensive than the cost of laundering old ones. The harbor was filled with ships whose crews, to a man, had deserted to seek fortune in the diggings. The mire in the streets was in places so deep that mules and drunken men drowned in it. On the rough boardwalks, in the saloons and gambling hells, in the theaters and lavishly furnished hotels, mingled a cosmopolitan crowd, almost entirely male, young, and vigorous, and in many cases highly educated. The San Franciscans, with their taste for fine food and wine, differed considerably from the plainer men and women who opened the Middle Border. They came not only from the eastern and southern states, but from all the nations of Europe, from Turkey, Brazil, and China. Even after the transcontinental railroad in 1869 brought St. Louis and Chicago nearer than New York, London, and Paris, and ended the pioneer phase in California history, San Francisco retained its international character. Much of the city’s charm today resides in the variety of its people’s origins and in the openness and dignity with which that variety is displayed.
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