These were the beginnings of San Francisco. Burned to the ground three times in the early years of its existence, the city displayed an invincible fortitude and each time capitalized disaster to build anew with larger faith in its destiny. When again, in 1906, earthquake and fire devastated the city its phoenix spirit came to life. The Argonauts lived once more, magnificent in their resolution. The renaissance was a prodigy that made onlookers exclamatory. Jules Jusserand, Ambassador of France to the United States, phrased the wonder of it in majestic prose:
“The page written by the inhabitants of San Francisco on the moving ashes of their city is not one that any wind will ever blow away.”
Stand at the Ferry Building, looking up Market street, and imagine the beginning of the city that spreads before you. First of all you must realize that this point of observation would, in those days, have been offshore, on the shallow water of Yerba Buena Cove. To the right is the scarp of Telegraph Hill, from which ships coming through the Golden Gate were sighted, and to the left is the lesser Rincon Hill, which is being cut away to provide a light manufacturing district. These marked the headlands of the cove, and the waterfront curved inland as far as what is now the site of the Donahue monument to mechanics at Market and Battery streets.
Seeking survivals of the past, you must realize that San Francisco is one of the most modern of the comparatively old American cities. Most of the area that saw its beginning and early history has been wiped clean by fire. The San Francisco of today may be said to date from its rebuilding following 1906, since which time something like a half billion dollars’ worth of new construction has been done. Yet something of early San Francisco remains, either beyond the reach of the devastation of eighteen years ago or in miraculous islands of safety in that sea of fire.
The Presidio, beside the Golden Gate, is several miles from the area that burned. It is one of the largest military posts in the United States, 1,500 acres of forested hills between the inner and the outer harbor. The adobe building in which Rezanov, envoy of the Czar, wooed Senorita Arguello, daughter of the commandante of the Presidio, is preserved in the center of the reservation. You can read about this sad romance in Bret Harte or in Gertrude Atherton.
Over the hills southward from the Presidio, in a sheltered valley, where it was spared from the fire, stands Mission Dolores, with its ancient churchyard and headstones. The old mission, whose adobe walls are four feet thick, stands beside a new church of Spanish architecture. Near the entrance to Mission Dolores, set in red tiles on the floor, is a marble slab marking the tomb of the Noe family, Spanish grandees. Interesting relics are in evidence. Early mission bells hang in the facade of the old building. The tomb of Don Luis Arguello, first governor of California under the Mexican regime, is in the churchyard. Inscriptions on many of the stones in this burial place are footnotes to San Francisco’s early history.