Wednesday, August 28, 2019

A Bus Ride from North Beach to South Park in 1857

The route of the North Beach to South Park omnibus is superimposed on a 1858 US Coast Survey map of San Francisco (courtesy of Wikipedia). In 1858, 16 horse-drawn omnibuses, working for two competing companies, carried 2,400 passengers a day along this route.

This description of the sights and sounds of an omnibus ride from North Beach to South Park in 1857 was written by H.L.N., a contributor to Hutching's Illustrated California Magazine. It makes an interesting pair with the more philosophical description of a similar ride from 1859 which I posted last month.

An omnibus waiting for passengers at the Plaza. Detail of a photograph from G.R. Fardon's San Francisco Album (Bancroft)


Jump in — only a shilling from North Beach to Rincon Point — the whole length of the city: twelve tickets for a dollar. Gentlemen, jump in — make way for the ladies — and, bless me! do crowd closer for the babies. One, two, three, four! actually seven of these dear little humanities. Here we go, right through Stockton Street. Four years ago this was one long level of mud in the rainy season — not such a luxury as an omnibus thought of. Tramp went the pedestrian the length and breadth thereof, thankful for side-walks. But now note the handsome private residences, the neat flower gardens, the fruit stands, the elegant stores in Virginia Block, the display in the windows both sides the way — dry goods, toys, stationery, tin ware, &c, &c.

The Cobweb Palace at the foot of Meiggs' Wharf, near where the omnibus started. (Bancroft)
But let us get in at the starting point. Leaving the promenade which makes Meiggs' wharf so pleasant of a summer morning, we step into one of the coaches, which are ready every eight minutes, according to the advertisement; run along Powell street a few squares, catching glimpses here and there of the greatest variety of architecture in the residences, and remarking upon the neatness of those recently erected; thence down a square into Stockton street, where the attention is distracted between the outside prospect and the protection of one's own limbs from the fearful thumping into divers holes which the ponderous vehicle encounters every few minutes.

Steady now — we have passed the worst part, and there is the State Marine Hospital, — quite a respectable amount of brick and mortar, patched at the rear with appurtenances of lumber, and which in its time has used up more "appropriations" than would comfortably have supported three times the number of sick within its walls. It is at present in the hands of the Sisters of Mercy.

Passengers in a London omnibus, by William May Egley, 1859. (Tate Gallery)
There! make room for the lady in hoops! only a shilling for all that whalebone! so now — let out the thin spare man, he fears suffocation — and the nervous gentleman too wants to alight; that baby has whooping cough, and annoys him. Poor bachelor! he cannot begin to comprehend infantile graces, and he votes the whole race a bore; while glancing satirically at the lady, he observes to his friend, the spare man, “Poor little sufferer, how it hoops.”

Stockton street, from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (Bancroft)
Rows of pretty cottages on one side the street — handsome brick buildings on the other — and at the corner of Stockton and Washington, a private garden laid out with exquisite taste and neatness. A refreshing fountain sends its spray over the blossoms of the sweet roses and verbena, while the graceful malva trees stand sentinel at the gateway. Only a passing glance, however, for the turn is accomplished, and down Washington street to Montgomery is generally a pretty rapid descent.

The Plaza (Portsmouth Square) in 1856, looking towards Washington street, along which the omnibus would have passed. (San Francisco Public Library)
That is a family market near the corner of Washington — quite convenient these — the nicest of vegetables, the best of meats, procurable at market prices. We up-towners could scarcely dispense with them. Past the Plaza — how well I remember that formerly as a receptacle for old clothes, cast off boots and shoes, cans, bottles, crockery ware, skeleton specimens of the feline race — dogs who had had their day — rats whose race was run, and various other abominations; but a treasure heap to the rag pickers, or bottle venders, who in those days were not. But now the Plaza has been smoothed into shape, and if the green things within its borders are perfected by sun and rain, it may yet flourish into grace and beauty.

Montgomery street, featuring the Montgomery Block, from Fardon's (1856) San Francisco Album (Wikipedia).
Montgomery street — look down the long avenue. Where can be found more substantial edifices? more elegant stores? a gayer promenade? Handsomely dressed ladies — gentlemen of business — gentlemen of leisure — mechanics — laborers — children— thronging the side-walks; glitter, and show, and wealth in the windows; equipages, omnibusses, horsemen, in the streets. Hundreds of human beings passing and repassing in an hour, and from almost every nation under heaven.

Montgomery Street, from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (Bancroft)
The Frenchman with his “bon soir” greets you; the Spaniard and Italian, the Chinese, German, Mexican. The rose, the thistle, and shamrock [i.e. England, Scotland, and Ireland] have each their representatives, and beside these many others born in remote regions are congregated in this great thoroughfare of cities.

The view up Second street from Rincon Hill towards Market; from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (Bancroft).
Past the fancifully arranged drugstores; past the tempting exhibitions of jewelry; past the attractive displays of dry goods, book and stationery establishments, banking houses, express buildings, lawyers’ offices, and here we are, turning into Second street. Whirling by the Metropolitan market, we drive down as far as Folsom street, and observe that the neat cottages in this part of the city have a more rural aspect than those in locations nearer to business. A tree is seen here and there, and vines clamber over the porches, and droop over the windows. At the corner of Second and Folsom a garden in luxurious bloom refreshes the sight, and the questioning stranger in the 'bus is informed that the house and grounds were formerly owned, and were the residence of the late Captain Folsom, whose remains now lie in Lone Mountain Cemetery.

The waterfront, viewed from Second and Folsom; from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (SFMOMA).
Adjoining this, on Folsom street, is another stately private residence — another lovely garden, where luxuriant flower growths may be seen at almost any season of the year. Nearly opposite is Hawthorne street. Ah! what associations of “Seven Gabled Houses” are connected with that name. But the eye rests upon none such — only a line of pretty cottages are peeped at ere we are driven past into Third street.

A Daily Alta California ad for one of the two omnibus companies in San Francisco (California Digital Newspaper Collection).
Another long avenue — grocery, dry goods, fruit, market — ever-recurring reminders that humanity has numberless wants, and that, for a golden boon, the supply is always equal to the demand. There are few handsome residences on Third, but many comfortable looking ones.

South Park looking west, from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (SFMOMA).
South Park — a passenger stops. There is a homelike appearance in this solitary row of uniform houses, charming to one who recalls images of long streets, whose “white marble steps” have no parallel in San Francisco. But beyond us is Rincon Point — and in view of the blue waters, the omnibus stops. Nurses and babies alight, and the inquiring passenger strolls, where? Perhaps I may tell you in my next.

By the early 1860s, the omnibus line had been replaced by horse-drawn streetcars such as this one (San Francisco Public Library).

For more on the history of San Francisco transit, see San Francisco's Transportation Octopus.

See Also:

A Bus Ride through San Francisco in 1859
A New York City Cab Ride in 1840
Streetcar Wars of San Francisco History, Vol. III
The Jitney Stand at 18th and Castro in 1915
A History of San Francisco's Cab Industry, in Advertisements

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