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Rare Historic Photos of San Francisco in the 1850s

In the 19th century, San Francisco underwent a revolutionary transformation. In 1846, the city gained independence from Spain and became part of Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the United States control over California and other lands, including San Francisco. The Gold Rush began soon after the war, leading to significant population growth, including considerable immigration. San Francisco’s population increased from 1,000 to 25,000 between January 1848 and December 1849. Silver discoveries at the Comstock Lode in 1859 contributed to the rapid growth during the 1850s. City planning efforts struggled to keep up with this rapid expansion, resulting in narrow streets that still characterize the city today. Many Chinese workers came to work in the gold mines and later on the Transcontinental Railroad during the population boom.

Since California’s statehood in 1850, San Francisco has been the county seat of San Francisco County. The city limits extended west to Divisadero Street and Castro Street and south to 20th Street until 1856. Between 1855 and 1856, lawlessness and vigilantism erupted rapidly in California, so the county was divided. The tip of the San Francisco Peninsula was drawn north of San Bruno Mountain in a straight line. San Mateo County was formed south of the line, while San Francisco City and County were formed north of the line, to date, the only consolidated city-county in California.

The rapid growth of the city’s population during the Gold Rush considerably outpaced infrastructure development, including sanitation, leading to a severe cholera epidemic. Prior to the San Francisco cholera epidemic, the state was responsible for caring for the needy sick. However, state legislature delegated this responsibility to the counties, setting a precedent for the county hospitals for the poor that still exist today. Following San Francisco’s cholera epidemic of 1855, the Sisters of Mercy (a religious institute of Catholic women) were contracted to run the State Marine and County Hospital, the first county hospital in the city. In 1857, the order opened the first Catholic hospital west of the Rocky Mountains, St. Mary’s Hospital, on Stockton Street.

Here are some rare historical photos that show San Francisco in the 1850s.

#1 A view of North Beach and the San Francisco Bay from Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, 1855

A view of North Beach and the San Francisco Bay from Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, 1855

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#2 The oldest photograph of San Francisco, 1850

The oldest photograph of San Francisco, 1850

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#3 San Francisco in 1851; Yerba Buena Cove in 1851

San Francisco in 1851; Yerba Buena Cove in 1851

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#4 Northern Pacific Navagation Co., 1852

Northern Pacific Navagation Co., 1852

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#5 Sansome Hook and Ladder Fire Company No. 3., 1853

Sansome Hook and Ladder Fire Company No. 3., 1853

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#6 A stagecoach and several unidentified people outside of the F. Gilbert’s Melodeon theater located at Clay and Kearny Streets, 1854

A stagecoach and several unidentified people outside of the F. Gilbert's Melodeon theater located at Clay and Kearny Streets, 1854

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#7 James King of William, 1854

James King of William, 1854

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#8 Parrott mansion located on Rincon Hill, 1854

Parrott mansion located on Rincon Hill, 1854

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#9 Fire Company Columbian Engine No. 11., 1854

Fire Company Columbian Engine No. 11., 1854

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#10 Montgomery Block, May 22, 1856

Montgomery Block, May 22, 1856

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#11 Vallejo Street wharf, 1856

Vallejo Street wharf, 1856

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#12 Alcatraz Island, 1856

Alcatraz Island, 1856

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#13 Battery Street, 1856

Battery Street, 1856

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#14 California Street in 1856

California Street in 1856

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#15 East side of Kearny Street, north of California Street, 1856

East side of Kearny Street, north of California Street, 1856

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#16 East side of Montgomery Street, north of California, 1856

East side of Montgomery Street, north of California, 1856

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#17 Knickerbocker Fire Engine No. 5 on Sacramento Street, near Sansome Street, 1856

Knickerbocker Fire Engine No. 5 on Sacramento Street, near Sansome Street, 1856

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#18 Looking north on Folsom Street from 2nd Street, 1856

Looking north on Folsom Street from 2nd Street, 1856

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#19 Merchants’ Exchange on Battery Street, 1856

Merchants' Exchange on Battery Street, 1856

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#20 Mission Dolores, 1856

Mission Dolores, 1856

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#21 Montgomery Block building in 1856

Montgomery Block building in 1856

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#22 Montgomery Street, north of California, 1856

Montgomery Street, north of California,  1856

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#23 Monumental Engine House on the plaza, 1856

Monumental Engine House on the plaza, 1856

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#24 Montgomery Street, south of Jackson. 1856. Miner’s Exchange Bank (Fardon), 1856

Montgomery Street, south of Jackson. 1856. Miner's Exchange Bank (Fardon), 1856

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#25 North Beach from Telegraph Hill, 1856

North Beach from Telegraph Hill, 1856

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#26 Orphan Asylum and St. Patrick’s Church in 1856

Orphan Asylum and St. Patrick's Church in 1856

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#27 Nob Hill From Telegraph Hill, 1856

Nob Hill From Telegraph Hill, 1856

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#28 Portsmouth Square, 1856

Portsmouth Square, 1856

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#29 Sixth Post Office located in the northeast corner of Kearny and Clay streets, 1856

Sixth Post Office located in the northeast corner of Kearny and Clay streets, 1856

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#30 South of Market district from Second and Folsom streets, looking north, 1856

South of Market district from Second and Folsom streets, looking north, 1856

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#31 South Park, 1856

South Park, 1856

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#32 St. Francis Hook and Ladder Fire Company, 1856

St. Francis Hook and Ladder Fire Company, 1856

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#33 Stockton Street, overlooking the bay, 1856

Stockton Street, overlooking the bay, 1856

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#34 Telegraph Hill from Stockton& Cal. Sts, 1856

Telegraph Hill from Stockton& Cal. Sts, 1856

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#35 St. Mary’s Church, 1856

St. Mary's Church, 1856

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#36 View from Stockton St. showing portion bet. Washington + Sacramento sts, 1856

View from Stockton St. showing portion bet. Washington + Sacramento sts, 1856

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#37 View of San Francisco looking northeast from Second and Harrison streets, 1856

View of San Francisco looking northeast from Second and Harrison streets, 1856

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#38 View Down Sacramento Street, 1856

View Down Sacramento Street, 1856

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#39 View from Rincon Hill, 1856

View from Rincon Hill, 1856

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#40 View over Happy Valley, 1856

View over Happy Valley, 1856

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#41 Sailing ship at wharf, 1857

Sailing ship at wharf, 1857

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#42 B. Nathan & Company, Kearny and Sacramento streets, 1856

B. Nathan & Company, Kearny and Sacramento streets, 1856

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#43 Alley Off Post Street, between Grant Avenue and Kearny Street, 1858

Alley Off Post Street, between Grant Avenue and Kearny Street, 1858

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#44 Looking east from Sacramento and Taylor streets, 1858

Looking east from Sacramento and Taylor streets, 1858

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#45 Looking north east from Sacramento and Taylor streets, 1858

Looking north east from Sacramento and Taylor streets, 1858

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#46 View from Sacramento and Taylor streets, 1858

View from Sacramento and Taylor streets, 1858

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#47 The American Theater on Sansome and Halleck Streets, 1854

The American Theater on Sansome and Halleck Streets, 1854

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#48 Battery Street, 1856

Battery Street, 1856

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#49 Building on south side of Jackson Street between Sansome and Montgomery, 1856

Building on south side of Jackson Street between Sansome and Montgomery, 1856

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#50 California Street in 1856

California Street in 1856

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#51 Empire no. 1 Engine Company, 1854

Empire no. 1 Engine Company, 1854

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#52 First Temple Sherith Israel, 1854

First Temple Sherith Israel, 1854

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#53 Mission Dolores, 1856

Mission Dolores, 1856

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#54 Mission Dolores, 1856

Mission Dolores, 1856

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#55 Montgomery Block, 1856

Montgomery Block, 1856

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#56 Montgomery street, 1856

Montgomery street, 1856

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#57 Montgomery Street, north of California, 1856

Montgomery Street, north of California, 1856

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#58 Orphan Asylum and St. Patrick’s Church in 1856

Orphan Asylum and St. Patrick's Church in 1856

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#59 Portsmouth Square, 1856

Portsmouth Square, 1856

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#60 St. Patrick Orphan Asylum on Market Street, 1856

St. Patrick Orphan Asylum on Market Street, 1856

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#61 Stockton Street, overlooking the bay, 1856

Stockton Street, overlooking the bay, 1856

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#62 View of Meigg’s Wharf with Alcatraz Island in background, 1856

View of Meigg's Wharf with Alcatraz Island in background, 1856

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#63 Market Street Above Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 1850s

Market Street Above Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 1850s

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#64 Shot Tower and the Miners Foundry in San Francisco, 1850s

Shot Tower and the Miners Foundry in San Francisco, 1850s

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#65 Victorian Houses on San Francisco’s Rincon Hill Have View of City Below, 1850s

Victorian Houses on San Francisco's Rincon Hill Have View of City Below, 1850s

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#66 Few houses dot the face of Telegraph Hill above the wharf in San Francisco, 1850s

Few houses dot the face of Telegraph Hill above the wharf in San Francisco, 1850s

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#67 Businesses line broad, flat Second Street in San Francisco, 1850

Businesses line broad, flat Second Street in San Francisco, 1850

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#68 Carriages line the streets bordering Portsmouth Plaza, San Francisco’s first town square and the hub of city until the 1850s

Carriages line the streets bordering Portsmouth Plaza, San Francisco's first town square and the hub of city until the 1850s

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#69 A view of Montgomery Street partially cast in shadow, San Francisco, 1855.

A view of Montgomery Street partially cast in shadow, San Francisco, 1855.

The California Steam Artesian Well Boring and Rock Drilling Company building sits in the foreground

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#70 The Great Man Has Fallen, 1856.

The Great Man Has Fallen, 1856.

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#71 A view of San Francisco from Harrison Street, 1855

A view of San Francisco from Harrison Street, 1855

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#72 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, 1855

Sacramento Street, San Francisco, 1855

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#73 A view of a neighborhood on a hill in San Francisco, 1855

A view of a neighborhood on a hill in San Francisco, 1855

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#74 San Francisco, 1850

San Francisco, 1850

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#75 Wagon and Cable Car Traffic on Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 1850

Wagon and Cable Car Traffic on Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 1850

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#76 Before the jailhouse rocked, 1850s

Before the jailhouse rocked, 1850s

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#77 North Beach, from Telegraph Hill, 1850s

North Beach, from Telegraph Hill, 1850s

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#78 View down Stockton Street, 1850s

View down Stockton Street, 1850s

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#79 Telegraph Hill, as seen from Stockton, 1850s

Telegraph Hill, as seen from Stockton, 1850s

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#80 Russian Hill, as seen from Telegraph Hill, 1850s

Russian Hill, as seen from Telegraph Hill, 1850s

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#81 Kearny Street, 1850s

Kearny Street, 1850s

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#82 Custom House, 1850s

Custom House, 1850s

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#83 The first of three Merchants’ Exchange locales in San Francisco, 1850s

The first of three Merchants’ Exchange locales in San Francisco, 1850s

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#84 Portsmouth Square, former post office, 1850s

Portsmouth Square, former post office, 1850s

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#85 San Francisco City Hall, 1850s

San Francisco City Hall, 1850s

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#86 Fort Vigilance, 1850s

Fort Vigilance, 1850s

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#87 Sacramento street was always a looker, 1850s

Sacramento street was always a looker, 1850s

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#88 St Mary’s Cathedral, 1850s

St Mary’s Cathedral, 1850s

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Written by Aung Budhh

Husband + Father + librarian + Poet + Traveler + Proud Buddhist. I love you with the breath, the smiles and the tears of all my life.

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