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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#43 Looking east from Sacramento and Taylor streets, 1858

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#68 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

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

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

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

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

#88 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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Written by Aung Budhh

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  1. Fascinating to me, a lot of photos I’ve never seen! I’m a San Francisco Native. My parents moved to Chestnut Street in 1939, so that photo was amazing to me. I knew the Marina had originally been a marsh, but it was interesting to see how it looked before the landfill. This linked to photos from the 1850s, I wonder how many buildings still exist.