Our SF: A changing city reinvents its waterfront
Welcome to Our San Francisco, a yearlong project looking at 150 years of the city’s history. Each week a different chapter will be explored in the newspaper, on SFChronicle.com, in Peter Hartlaub’s The Big Event blog on SFGate.com, and on social media at #OurSF.
This week’s chapter: San Francisco’s Waterfront.
The pirate stories of Shanghai Kelly and Bully Hayes have been well documented; the latter scoundrel was accused of sending a crew member on San Francisco’s shore for an errand and making away with his young wife.
But for pure Barbary Coast waterfront brazenness, let us make a case for the less memorably named Bernard Gilboy. In 1882, he set off from the Clay Street wharf in a boat that was just 18 feet long and 30 inches deep — cheating death several times, before landing in Australia in just over a year.
“He found that he had lost his compass and fifteen days provisions, and during the night one of the masts broke away and was lost,” The Chronicle wrote in 1883, describing the aftermath of a mid-ocean crisis, after Gilboy’s boat flipped over. “About 700 miles (from Australia) his provisions gave out, and he was forced to sustain life for 16 days on alcohol and water and a few flying fish that he caught.”
San Francisco’s waterfront has reinvented itself several times in the past 150 years. But while it has lost some of the grit — Bully Hayes would have never fit in at the Hard Rock Cafe — it has never lacked personality.
The modern waterfront was born when W.S. Clarke built the first wharf in 1847 at Clarke’s Point, a year after John B. Montgomery helped take U.S. control of San Francisco from Mexican authorities. During the next three years, spurred by the Gold Rush, the port grew exponentially, and some of the more colorful characters in the city’s history seemed to converge on the same pier all at once.
The Chronicle didn’t start publishing for another 15 years. But the paper in the 1880s interviewed the writer W.H. Thomes, who lived on San Francisco’s waterfront in 1848, when the city was still known as Yerba Buena.