Before the Golden Gate Bridge was Built

Here is a fascinating description of the entrance to San Francisco Bay as it was in 1835—eleven years before explorer John C. Frémont named it Golden Gate, and 102 years before a bridge of the same name spanned it. Richard Henry Dana spent three weeks in the bay as a sailor on the brig Alert, and he gave a full account of his impressions in his book, Two Years Before the Mast. The high cliff he refers to no longer exists. The Spanish called it White Point, and on top of it they had built an adobe fort, which Dana refers to as a presidio. The United States, after occupying California, leveled the cliff and built the fort that can now be seen under one of the support arches of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sunday, December 27th. We had now finished all our business at this port, and, it being Sunday, we unmoored ship and got under way, firing a salute to the Russian brig, and another to the presidio, which were both answered. The commandante of the presidio, Don Guadalupe Vallejo, a young man, and the most popular, among the Americans and English, of any man in California, was on board when we got under way. He spoke English very well, and was suspected of being favorably inclined to foreigners.

We sailed down this magnificent bay with a light wind, the tide, which was running out, carrying us at the rate of four or five knots. It was a fine day; the first of entire sunshine we had had for more than a month. We passed directly under the high cliff on which the presidio is built, and stood into the middle of the bay, from whence we could see small bays making up into the interior, large and beautifully wooded islands, and the mouths of several small rivers. If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the center of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water; the extreme fertility of its shores; the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as any in the world; and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring-grounds in the whole western coast of America,—all fit it for a place of great importance.

The tide leaving us, we came to anchor near the mouth of the bay, under a high and beautifully sloping hill, upon which herds of hundreds and hundreds of red deer, and the stag, with his high branching antlers, were bounding about, looking at us for a moment, and then starting off, affrighted at the noises which we made for the purpose of seeing the variety of their beautiful attitudes and motions.

At midnight, the tide having turned, we hove up our anchor and stood out of the bay, with a fine starry heaven above us,—the first we had seen for many weeks.

The above is an extract of an account in Malcolm E. Barker’s book, San Francisco Memoirs 1835-1851: Eyewitness accounts of the birth of a city (Londonborn Publications, San Francisco, 1994).

See Then and now - Golden Gate

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