Telegraph Hill is more than a matter of views; it is a way of life. On the streets, climbing the wooden steps or narrow paths, perhaps passing some of the oldest houses in San Francisco, it is a microcosm of San Francisco. Not only have local events on the Hill been duplicated in other parts of the city, but from a perch on Telegraph Hill a series of residents could have observed most of the major events in San Francisco history.
They would have witnessed the arrival of Captain John B. Montgomery and the hoisting of the flag of the United States, as well as the arrival a few years later of gold seekers from all over the world. Admiral Dewey’s return from the Philippines, the great fire of 1906 and the secret ship movements of World War II, Korea and Vietnam would all have passed around them. They would have noted the growth of San Francisco to the south and west to accommodate new arrivals, along with changes and developments in North Beach and the immediate neighborhood.
Telegraph Hill has had a series of names in years gone by. Allegedly the Spanish called it Loma Alta. Others referred to it as Clark’s Point, Prospect Hill, Signal Hill, Windmill Hill, Goat Hill and Tin Can Hill. Those living here today speak of it loyally and proudly as “The Hill,” a common practice among the residents of other San Francisco hills, we are told.
According to some versions of San Francisco history, Telegraph Hill was noted by Portola in 1769 and seven years later de Anza gave it the name Loma Alta. Romantic as the thought of these events is , nowhere will they be found in the diaries of Crespi and Font, who accompanied these expeditions.
Scant attention was given to Telegraph Hill in the early days of Yerba Buena. In the early 1840’s settlement was limited to the dairy ranch of Juana Briones on the west side of the Hill near Filbert and Powell streets. Senora Briones also maintained a potato patch in what is now Washington Square. After she moved to a larger ranch down the Peninsula in the 1870’s her Telegraph Hill property, referred to as the Spanish Lot, was used for baseball games and even today it is an athletic field.
During the Mexican War, San Francisco Bay rested quietly under Mexican rule until Captain John B. Montgomery sailed the Portsmouth into the harbor and raised the U.S. flag at the plaza on July 9, 1846. The plaza has taken the name of the ship, while the captain’s name is remembered in the street that today links the financial district with Telegraph Hill.
From San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill by David Myrick. © 1972. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
September 2002 by Christopher P. Verplanck
Even people with only a passing familiarity of San Francisco know that the rocky prominence north of downtown capped by Coit Tower is Telegraph Hill. What many probably don’t know is that scenic Telegraph Hill is one of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods, an enclave of impassable street right-of-ways, cozy pre-1906 workingmen’s cottages, lush public gardens, and modernist apartment buildings. Largely spared by the earthquake and subsequent firestorm that destroyed most of Victorian San Francisco in 1906, Telegraph Hill is home to San Francisco’s largest concentration of pre-1870 structures, with a handful of buildings dating back to the 1850s.
Rising to an elevation of 284 feet above sea level, the Hill’s location on San Francisco Bay provides tremendous views of downtown San Francisco, Angel Island, Alcatraz, Marin County and the East Bay. For decades an isolated neighborhood of artists and working-class immigrants, Telegraph Hill was gradually transformed after the Second World War into one of San Francisco’s most desirable residential neighborhoods. This article will trace the history of the core of Telegraph Hill, a six-block enclave defined by Kearny Street to the west, the Greenwich Street steps to the north, Sansome Street to the east and Green Street to the south.
Topography is the defining characteristic of Telegraph Hill. Jasper O’Farrell’s gridiron street pattern, however, did not defer to the rocky Hill’s steep grades. As a result, several of the district’s streets, including Filbert, Greenwich, Napier, Darrell and parts of Alta and Union, were designated as impassable. As a necessity, several of these right-of-ways were streets in name only, taking the form of public footpaths or street stairs. Today, Union Street and Telegraph Hill Boulevard are the only means of vehicular access to the uppermost sections of the Hill. Before the Second World War, residents converted several of the street right-of-ways into lush public gardens. The most famous are, of course, the Grace Marchant Gardens, composed of lush plantings that flank both sides of the Filbert Street Steps.
287 and 291 Union
During the Spanish and Mexican periods, Telegraph Hill was called Loma Alta, which in English means “High Hill.” Before the Americans began to arrive in large numbers in Yerba Buena Cove to trade with the residents of the small Mexican pueblo, Loma Alta was largely ignored. The notable exception was Juana Briones’ dairy ranch, which was located on the Hill’s west side, near the present-day intersection of Powell and Filbert Streets. In the years immediately preceding the American conquest of California, the foot of Loma Alta served for the most part as an informal burial ground for foreign sailors.
The history of Loma Alta began to change shortly after Captain John B. Montgomery sailed into San Francisco Bay on the U.S.S. Portsmouth on July 9, 1846, and raised the U.S. flag over Yerba Buena, which was renamed San Francisco a year later. Two days after his arrival, Captain Montgomery ordered a fort to be constructed “on the hill off the point of Yerba Buena.” Fort Montgomery, as it was called, was constructed of adobe bricks hauled up the north slope. It was the first recorded permanent structure on Loma Alta. Happily for the Americans, Fort Montgomery never fired a shot and quickly fell into disuse, although not before bequeathing its name to Battery Street.
During the Gold Rush and the early American periods, Telegraph Hill continued to be known variously as Loma Alta, its old Spanish name, or increasingly as Prospect Hill, because of the bird’s-eye view it offered of the Golden Gate and the Bay. This view made the Hill a perfect site for observing ocean traffic arriving from the Golden Gate. Soon, several businessmen erected a semaphore on its crest. In communication with a similar facility at Point Lobos, crews posted at Telegraph Hill would relay information provided by observers at Point Lobos and telegraph this information to subscribers in the city below. The information included the name of the ship and likely cargo. Advance knowledge of such things allowed business owners to have a leg up over their rivals, giving them the opportunity to buy or sell certain commodities prior to the arrival of the ship in port. Gradually Telegraph Hill became the name of choice, and from the 1860s onward it was known by no other name.
The unprecedented influx of immigrants into San Francisco during the Gold Rush led to the creation of what Roland Barth called the “Instant City.” During the brief four-year period between 1848 and 1852, the dusty pueblo of approximately 1,000 people mushroomed into a sprawling, ramshackle city of almost 35,000 inhabitants. The newcomers initially erected their tents and shacks on the flatter lands west of Yerba Buena Cove (later filled in, where much of the financial district now sits). But land was in short supply and within a short time, their dwellings began to creep up the south slope of Telegraph Hill. Ed Gilbert of the Alta California, a state-wide newspaper based in San Francisco, described the scene:
“This hill and those around which have stood for so long, like giant sentinels, guarding the slumbers of our broad and beautiful bay, are fast becoming covered with houses, and their original appearance are long be lost and forgotten.”
During the 1850s and 1860s, inexpensive land prices and proximity to the maritime jobs available on the Northeast Waterfront began to attract working-class- cottage builders to the top of Telegraph Hill. Two of the Hill’s earliest dwellings were built during this early period: 1301 Montgomery (ca. 1850) and 291 Union (ca. 1854). Today, 1301 Montgomery is possibly the oldest brick building in San Francisco. The second-oldest documented building on Telegraph Hill is a tall wood-frame dwelling located at 291 Union Street. John Cooney, an Irish immigrant grocer, constructed this flat-fronted Italianate in 1854. The building contained a grocery store that did business on the bottom floor until 1906, and the building itself was owned by the Cooney family until 1937. The cottages located next door, at 287 Union, were constructed in 1857. Although altered since, these simple dwellings with their steeply pitched gable roofs and scroll saw-cut bargeboards are typical of many of the dwellings constructed in the neighborhood during the 1850s. Another important early dwelling located near the crest of Telegraph Hill is 9 Calhoun Terrace. The construction date for this unique balconied “Carpenter Gothic” dwelling is unknown. The first occupant was a man named Dr. David G. “Yankee” Robinson, a talented physician-cum-comedian-cum-theater impresario. A final example is 31 Alta Street, a three-and-a-half story, gable-roofed dwelling with a two-level balcony. Early photographs indicate that this building, one of San Francisco’s oldest, has scarcely been altered since it was built by a Captain Andrews in 1852.
Between the late 1850s and the early 1870s, the crest of Telegraph Hill experienced a building boom. Most of the construction consisted of small cottages built on unpaved byways like Napier Lane and Norton Place (now Darrell Lane), many built by Scottish a nd Irish-born longshoremen, stevedores, draymen and laborers. Examples include: 10 Napier Lane, built by “Murty” Mortimer and John Clark in 1857; 218-20 Filbert, built in 1861 by Patrick McDermott; 1313-15 Montgomery, constructed in 1865 by Michael Carr; 110 Alta, constructed in 1866 by Patrick Moyles; and 228 Filbert, constructed in 1869 by Philip Brown. The Carpenter Gothic cottage at 228 Filbert, with its ornamental king-post truss and window hoods, is one of the most photographed dwellings in San Francisco. It is also one of the oldest, having been rumored to have been brought around “The Horn.”
Difficult as it may be to believe today, for most of its 150-year history, Telegraph Hill was a working-class neighborhood, and it remained unapologetically so until the 1930s. Early photographs of the Hill show a neighborhood of trash-strewn steep dirt and gravel streets (often little more than paths) with goats grazing on the unbuilt portions. The streets were lined with small false-front or gable-roofed Italianate-style cottages, with the occasional multi-story balconied dwelling. These worker’s homes were built on the Hill because steep grades kept land prices affordable and because the Hill was close to the piers and warehouses of the Northeastern waterfront where many of these workers had jobs. Rickety wooden stairs linked the top of the Hill with that waterfront. Longshoremen, in particular, had an advantage living on Telegraph Hill because they could keep an eye out for incoming ships, allowing them to make it to the ‘shape-up’ at the piers before the arrival of other would-be job-seekers.
Throughout most of its history, Telegraph Hill attracted immigrants from all over the globe. During the Gold Rush and the years that followed, Chilean and Sonoran miners lived on the south slope, between Stockton and Kearny Streets Meanwhile, former British and Irish convicts from the penal colonies of Australia lived in the infamous neighborhood of Sydneytown (bordered by Sansome, Green, Broadway and Kearny Streets). Irish immigrants dominated the crest of the hill from the Gold Rush until the last decade of the nineteenth century, when Italians and Spanish immigrants from Galicia began to expand into the area.
The steep cliffs on the east side of Telegraph Hill were made even steeper by a half century of intensive quarrying. Quarried on a small scale from the earliest years to provide ballast for empty sailing ships returning to their ports of origin, the work intensified greatly to fulfill the need for rock for street grading. By 1867, the construction of San Francisco’s first seawall gave extra impetus to commercial quarries actively working the eastern slope of Telegraph Hill. During the early 1880s, blasting by W. D. English & Co. and the Gray Brothers made life a misery for those dwelling on the “twilight side” of Telegraph Hill. A particularly ferocious blast on June 1, 1884, set off landslides that made kindling of several houses on Union, Calhoun, Alta and Green Streets. Nonetheless, the quarry owners were politically well connected and attempts by neighbors to stop the blasting came to naught. In addition to quarrying for rock, the Gray Brothers in a scheme to force residents of Telegraph Hill to see out in the face of increasingly dangerous and unpleasant living conditions caused by their blasting work. The company planned to buy the undermined properties at fire sale prices. Once the hill had been completely flattened, the Gray Brothers would then sell the level land where the hill had been for top prices. After the Gray Brothers openly defied a court injunction in 1906 against further blasting, desperate Telegraph Hill residents dropped rocks on the workers below. They continued to do the same until 1915, when a disgruntled employee killed one of the Gray brothers. With Gray’s death, the blasting finally stopped.
Telegraph Hill’s beautiful views and dramatic scenery did not escape the notice of the City’s more affluent residents in spite of its reputation as a rough and tumble neighborhood. After a major storm destroyed the old semaphore station in 1870, the top of Telegraph Hill became vacant for the first time in a quarter of a century. Concerned that it would be purchased for tawdry commercial uses, a consortium of twenty two businessmen bought four lots at the crest of the hill i n 1876 for $12,000. They subsequently donated the land to the City on the condition that it be maintained forever as a public park dedicated to the memory of San Francisco’s early pioneers.
Less than a decade after the establishment of Pioneer Park, a real estate speculator named Frederick O. Layman obtained a franchise from the City to build a cable car line up to the crest of the Hill. Layman planned to build a major resort near the top– an inner city version of Adolph Sutro’s Cliff House at Land’s End. The cable car line was a critical part of his business plan because he knew that the steep grades of Telegraph Hill would discourage all but the most hardy pedestrians. After t he defeat of his proposed cable car route along Kearny Street, Layman managed to build a short four-block funicular system on Greenwich Street in 1884. Layman’s Telegraph Hill Railroad took visitors from the Powell Street line to his “German Castle”, a huge entertainment pavilion and observatory where boxing, jousting and broadsword competitions – all fueled by plenty of steam beer – took place. Although the German Castle thrived for a decade, it quickly gained the reputation as a “hoodlum’s resort.” After several entrepreneurs tried to turn its fortunes around, the German Castle closed in the 1890s and finally burned to the ground in 1903, although not before being partially dismantled by local residents in search of building materials. Layman’s Telegraph Hill Railroad did not fare any better; in the late 1880s the perennially money-losing venture went out of business following a well-publicized wreck.
The 1906 earthquake is the single most important event in the history of San Francisco and Telegraph Hill is no exception. Unlike much of downtown San Francisco, the fire spared the crest of Telegraph Hill, along with the Waterfront, Jackson Square and parts of Russian Hill. The fires, caused by ruptured gas lines, reached Telegraph Hill on April 20, 1906, two days after the earthquake. Although some residents had given up and fled when the fire reached the intersection of Kearny and Pacific, many of the neighborhood’s Irish and Italian residents stayed behind to fight the flames. A natural firebreak in the form of Pioneer Park gave them an advantage, which they extended by a little blasting. Residents then began pouring homemade wine and laying wine-soaked sheets on the wood shingle roofs, keeping the windblown embers from igniting their houses. Henry Anderson Lafler described the scene in Thomas & Witts’ The San Francisco Earthquake:
“It was the boys of the hill that saved the hill. It was Toby Irwin, the prizefighter, and Tim O’Brien, who works in the warehouse at the foot of the hill, and his brother, Joe, who works in a lumberyard, and the Dougherty boys, and the Volse boys, and Herman, the grocery clerk-it was they who saved the hill.
“It was the old Irish woman who had hoarded a few buckets of water through the long days of fear and rumor and who now came painfully toiling up the slopes with water for the fire–it was she who saved the hill.
It was the poor peasant Italian with a barrel of cheap wine in his cellar who now rolled it out and broke its head in with an axe, and with dipper and bucket and mop and blanket and cast-off coat fought the fire till he dropped-it was he who saved the hill.
It was Sadie who works in the box factory and Annie who is a coat finisher and who is a chocolate dipper in a candy shop who carried water and cheered on the boys to the work-it was they who saved the hill.
It was the great, brave, roistering fight of all the dwellers on the hill for their homes and their lives, and gloriously they won.”
When they saw that Telegraph Hill was saved, refugees from destroyed districts of the City climbed to its top to watch the inferno raging below. Among them were several photographers who captured powerful images of the smoking, burning horror spread out below them.
While adjacent North Beach was rebuilt in a different guise after the earthquake and fire, Telegraph Hill continued to exist quietly in its own pre-quake universe until its cheap rents and scenic qualities began to attract artists and writers during the 1920s. Despite their legendary libertine pursuits, many of the early artists simply blended into the working-class neighborhood, painting and writing when the mood struck them and drinking large amounts of homemade red wine when the mood to work did not strike them. Some of the artists who came during this period included painter Desmond Heslett, muralists Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli Cravath, actor David Robinson, writer David Myrick, jeweler Pete Macchiarini, painter Wolo, composer Rudolph Friml and many lesser-known individuals. Gradually the number of artists increased. Some came with an entourage of hangers-on and wealthy patrons. For some time the working-class immigrants and artists peacefully coexisted on Telegraph Hill. Although unintentional, the influx of artists and bohemians into a working-class neighborhood has always been a harbinger of increased affluence. Telegraph Hill was no exception and gradually the oldtimers were replaced by well-heeled newcomers attracted to the “rustic” atomosphere.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Telegraph Hill’s geographical isolation and primitive infrastructure came to an end with street grading and new concrete retaining walls, sidewalks and streetlights-all funded by the Work Projects Administration (WPA). In 1923, Telegraph Hill Boulevard opened, allowing affluent San Franciscans to drive up to Pioneer Park and enjoy sandwiches at Julius’ Castle. As mentioned above, the Telegraph Hill began to attract well-heeled young urbanites in the 1920s and 1930s. Improved infrastructure helped to lure newcomers. Some of the new residents had the wherewithal to commission prominent modernist architects like Richard Neutra, Gardner Dailey and William Wurster. Some of these dwellings include: 66 Calhoun, by Richard Neutra; the ‘Duck House’ at 60-62 Alta, by William Wurster; and 261 Filbert, by Gardner Dailey. One of the most interesting dwellings on Telegraph Hill is an apartment building located at 1360 Montgomery Street. Designed in 1938-39 by architect Irvine Goldstine for Jack and Rolph Malloch, this spectacular Streamline Moderne building, with sgrafitto ornament commemorating the construction of the Bay Bridge, was featured in the film noir classic Dark Passage starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Many of the newcomers to Telegraph Hill were civic-minded intellectuals who applied their talents to improving the quality of life in their city. Frieda and Dr. Hans Klussman lived at 260 Green Street. As many readers probably know, Mrs. Klussman led the successful fight in the 1950s to save the remaining cable car lines. Mrs. Grace Marchant was another resident of Telegraph Hill who worked to improve the quality of life on Telegraph Hill. A quasi-legendary figure in the story of Telegraph Hill, Mrs. Marchant lived on the corner of Filbert and Napier Streets. Annoyed by the barren and trash-strewn street right-of-way alongside the Filbert Street Steps, Marchant removed the junk in the early 1930s and began planting lush, ground-holding plants and flowering trees, including banana trees, roses, jasmine, palms and many others. Today Marchant Gardens, a San Francisco City Landmark, is tended by neighbors. The Gardens contribute to the almost otherworldly atmosphere of Telegraph Hill, as well as providing a habitat for hundreds of exotic and native birds, including the famous parrots of Telegraph Hill.
60 - 62 Alta
The history of Telegraph Hill would be sorely incomplete without a discussion of its most famous landmark, Coit Tower. For almost half a century after its founding in 1876, Pioneer Park languished for lack o f funds. Following the construction of Telegraph Hill Boulevard in 1923, things began to change. In 1925, the Parks Commission hired renowned architect and theater designer G. Albert Lansburgh to design the Classical Revival balustrade ringing the observation area. For many San Franciscans, this was not enough. In letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Society of California Pioneers called for the construction of a monument on the crest of Telegraph Hill akin to the one originally envisioned in Daniel Burnham’s 1906 Plan for San Francisco. After several attempts to raise money came up short, eccentric San Franciscan Lillie Hitchcock Coit, an honorary member of the San Francisco Fire Department, left $118,731 for an “…artistic monument to the memory of the original Volunteer Fire Department.” In 1931, the City retained prominent San Francisco architect Arthur Brown, Jr. to prepare plans for a monumental observation tower. After several revisions, construction began in 1933, and on October 8 of that same year Coit Tower was dedicated. The streamlined tower’s design has on occasion been compared to a fire hose nozzle and other objects. One of the crowning achievements of the project includes the frescoes painted by San Francisco muralists Bernard Zakheim, Ralph Stackpole and others with funding from the Public Works Administration (PWA).
Telegraph Hill’s gradual transformation intensified after the conclusion of the Second World War. During the 1950s and 1960s, rising rents and real estate prices forced most of the remaining oldtimers and less solvent artists to move elsewhere. Nevertheless, many of the newcomers have made their own stamp on the neighborhood in ways no less significant than their predecessors. Understandably protective of the unique character of their neighborhood, residents formed the Telegraph Hill Dwellers in 1954. Although the reason for forming the group was MUNI’s threatened removal of the No. 39 bus line, the Hill Dwellers soon took on other projects. Today numbering around 600 members, the group has evolved into a civic organization dedicated to preventing or at least softening the worst excesses of “progress” on the Hill and in the adjacent North Beach, Jackson Square and Northeast Waterfront neighborhoods. Some of the group’s major accomplishments include the implementation of a 40′ height limit throughout much of the neighborhood, stopping the Embarcadero Freeway at Broadway, establishing the Telegraph Hill and Northeast Waterfront Historic Districts, and the continued “greening” of the Hill through maintenance of Marchant Gardens and tree planting along the neighborhood’s streets.
The Telegraph Hill Dwellers have been successful in their fight to preserve the character of Telegraph Hill. New construction in the neighborhood continues to occur but design guidelines and cooperation with local groups and city agencies has ensured that the new buildings are compatible with adjacent historic structures. Astronomically high land values have placed pressure on the continued existence of tiny pre-quake cottages (particularly those outside the historic district) as well as on the few remaining empty lots, which thanks to modern engineering techniques are no longer considered to be “unbuildable.” Demolition and removal of historic dwellings still continues, including the razing of a handful of remaining cottages on Filbert Street, just below Pioneer Park (including the moving of labor union organizer Bill Bailey’s cottage). Thankfully, most people who choose to live on Telegraph Hill today do so because of its unique character and not because it is a good investment for their portfolios. Hopefully more recent newcomers, as well as the thousands of visitors who climb its streets and stairs each year, will continue to respect its special character and love it dearly.
The author would like to dedicate this article to the late architectural historian Anne Bloomfield. Her extensive original research into the history of Telegraph Hill is the basis for much of the information presented in this article. Residents of San Francisco have Ms. Bloomfield to thank for the designation of several important historic districts, not the least of which is Telegraph Hill.