Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Bus Ride through San Francisco in 1859

A "Yellow Line" omnibus in front of Gilbert's Melodeon at Clay and Kearny, about 1860. Detail of a photo held by the Bancroft (Online Archive of California)

The horse-drawn omnibus was the first form of mass transit through the streets of San Francisco. This description was written by "The Dictator at the Dessert," a somewhat pompous columnist for the Hesperian, a women's journal in San Francisco.

An omnibus is a type of life. Like the stage it has its entrances and its exits. Passengers come in and go out all along the track, as humanity commences and ends its existence. At each street corner some one pulls the strap. The fee is paid, the cost of the ride is settled with the driver, and the passenger moves by you to the door, as people move to the grave. A little rustling of silk, a compression of crinoline, a staggering along between rows of people who give place to the departing, and each thinking over an obituary; the passenger goes down the steps into that great grave, the city; the door is shut, and on the omnibus moves again like life, until the next one’s time and place are reached, when the same process is re-enacted.

Meanwhile, like life, the vacant seat is soon occupied by another taken up by the wayside; and so the omnibus, like the great congregation of existence, is varying ever, never so full that there is not room for more. If you keep your seat until near, or quite to the station, like him who reaches the “three score years and ten,” the chances are that few or none of those that started with you are still your companions, and you must go down the steps alone, and no one misses you. All along the way you see new faces, and forms, and fashions; no two alike; each on a different errand, each for a different destination; some, the workers, with a little bundle, some with hard hands, some with unsoiled gloves.

Look out of the window as you ride, and life is passing you this way and that; the pedestrian who keeps abreast, or falls behind; the equestrian who dashes by your slow motion like High Flyer or Lecompte; and there, too, is the toiling drudge harnessed to his cart and heavy load, or the donkey beneath his disproportioned burden. You pass the splendid mansion and its luxurious inhabitants; you pass, too, the hovel and its squalid inmates. Your city is humanity, the street you travel is life’s avenue, along which the wheels of destiny still roll you onward. Now the late shower of prosperity may have lain in the dust, or a hot sun may have dried it, and a fresh breeze, or a squall may roll the stifling particles through the open windows—just like life. Close the windows and you stifle with pent up air, and respiration becomes a burden. Open the sashes and the chill winds comes whiffing in, full of colds, cramps, and rheumatism.

Opposite, sits beauty in satin and ribbons, and by your side, ugliness with a disagreeable breath. Here is a subject of sympathetic instinct that makes the ride pleasant, and you regret to see the fair, small hand raised to pull the string; and there is your antipathy, whose touch makes you shrink with aversion, and you bless the fortune that puts him down at the corner—just like life. I often ride in an omnibus for the lessons it teaches me, for the views I get of humanity in that democratic coach—the royal carriage of the people. There I am the equal of the millionaire, and I see him move from the noisy conveyance to the marble steps of his palace with as much indifference as I do the poor Irish servant with her bundle to find entrance to the kitchen by the side door. I listen to the vapid panegyrics of a prim gentleman, in elegant attire, as he talks morality and essays possession of exquisite taste. And I am not surprised if, when looking back after him when he has jauntingly stepped down from the ignoble car, to see him pull the bell at the door where virtue never enters—just like life.

... Yes, the omnibus is a moving panorama; a life on wheels; an age spent in a half hour’s ride; an education at a bit charge; an experience for which you hand the driver a half dollar and get as change, a ride, eight tickets, and – in the evening – a short quarter from the knavish driver. … 

For more on the Hesperian and its editor, Hermione Day, see Marion Tingling, (1980/1981) "Hermione Day and the Hesperian," California History 
59 (4):282-289. 

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