19th century San Francisco skyline: From a brand-new city to busy metropolis

19th century San Francisco skyline

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These vintage images of the 19th century San Francisco skyline vividly portray how the California city by the Bay changed over a few short decades in the 1800s.

Take a look below to see how the city grew and grew and grew — especially thanks to the Gold Rush.

A bird’s eye view of San Francisco in 1846-1847

1846 San Francisco

Young city of San Francisco in 1846

San Francisco 1846

19th century San Francisco skyline: Panorama from 1851

San Francisco in 1851

San Francisco in 1856

San Francisco 1856

Bird’s eye view of San Francisco in 1864

San Francisco 1864

San Francisco in 1875

San Francisco 1875

San Francisco bird’s eye view from 1878

San Francisco in 1878

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San Francisco panorama in 1900

San Francisco panorama 1900

19th century San Francisco skylines

Silhouettes of the city’s toplines at three periods (article from 1897)

The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, Calif.) – May 23, 1897

No words could so vividly portray the changes which forty years have wrought in the material face of San Francisco as do the silhouette outlines which are presented on this page.

The originals of these were taken from a point that threw the toplines of the city distinctly against the western sky.

The first illustration is drawn from a picture somewhat similar to it which was made in 1857. 

The second is reproduced from a photograph taken in 1887, thirty years later. The third is from a sketch made this week by a Call artist on the ferry-boat from San Francisco to Oakland.

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The hills of San Francisco in 1857

The hills of San Francisco in 1857

In the upper illustration appears little more than a range of sand hills. Looked at from a distance, say two miles, there was scarcely a mark or an object to distinguish them from any ordinary range of hills in California. The skylines were unbroken and comparatively smooth from a removed viewpoint.

Lower down there could be discerned several of the more prominent buildings of those early days — buildings long since permitted to crumble down in humble subjection to a loftier and more modern era of architecture and a greater commercial demand.

In the foreground, skirting the dull strip of earth, are scattered a cosmopolitan fleet of merchant vessels, which in those days had their noses pointed gold-ward and were as much miners of the sea as their human brother rovers of ’49 miners of the land.

The city of San Francisco in 1887

The city of San Francisco in 1887

In the middle view, representing a period three decades removed from that of the foregoing view, may be perceived a evidence of modern development in somewhat spasmodic or extreme architectural attempts. The Palace Hotel was in those awakening times the cynosure of eyes with an awe of magnitude and a reverence for cost.

The Hopkins and a few neighboring mansions arose on Nob Hill and began to disturb the hitherto even lines of the city’s silhouette.

The “new” City Hall, which ten years ago had outgrown the last human being who dared to predict that it would someday be finished, was then in the heyday of its newness, minus the tower and a few other incidental appurtenances.

The shot tower was towering away then as hard as it has ever towered since, and the shots were dropping through it a good deal more thickly and to a much better purpose than shot ever fell in the Greek and Turkish war.

Wharves and docks had taken the place of a scraggly beach. Larger and better ships had sailed through the Golden Gate. International commerce had laid its hand upon San Francisco, and was beginning to raise it to the prominence which it today occupies as a seaport metropolis.

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The modern city — San Francisco in 1897

The modern city -- San Francisco in 1897

The third view, when suddenly compared with the first, produces the effect of magic. What a wonderful transformation!

The even-topped hills have disappeared like the mists of morning before the summer sun, and in their places is a modern city of the first rank. And it is a beautiful city, with the grandest sky line in all the world. It is artistic in composition, and when seen against a glorious western sheet of clouds is sublime.

Ships in San Francisco Bay 1851

The valley which lay between the hills, the center of which is now Market Street, fairly bristles with lofty structures. These all rise from about the same level, so that the various heights can be compared when seen from across the bay.

The highest of these is, of course, The Call Building, now rapidly nearing completion. It rises, a graceful tower, from a group of splendid structures, to about 400 feet above the surface of the bay, or 315 feet from the sidewalk where it stands. This splendid structure forms the pyramid line of a group of buildings.

San Francisco Call Building 1899

Nearby is the Palace Hotel, which was large once, but now appears to have shrunk by comparison. Just opposite is the tower of the Chronicle Building, also looking less lofty now than it once did.

Right around this section of town tall buildings — commonly called “sky-scrapers” — stick up on all sides. There is the Crocker Building, in reality wedge-shaped, but appearing as a huge block in spite of the fact that many people claim to see in its outlines a suggestion of the shape of a slice of wedding cake.

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Almost mingling with the Crocker building is the Hobart block, occupied by the offices of the Southern Pacific Company. A little further to the north can be seen the Mills building. This structure seems to stand by itself, so much taller is it than its neighbors.

The Pacific Mutual and the Mutual Life buildings look like twins. They are not, of course, but such they must be conceded to be in the skylines.

On the south, the old shot-tower looks as it used to do a decade ago, but a change has come over that “new” City Hall — a greater change even than the architect-designer ever dreamed his work would be evolved into. But it is there, and the big dome rises proudly heavenward, looking just as though it had been built to furnish a jumping-off place for the angel on the top.

San Francisco in 1851

The tall buildings are for the most part graceful in outline and make good silhouettes. They form into good composition and make the finest kind of a background for the many ships that come through the finest gateway of a great nation.

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