James D. Phelan declares a “New San Francisco” in 1896

January 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Continuing with my series of transcribing San Francisco’s primary sources in the late 19th century, below is a transcription of an address James D. Phelan gave at the opening of the San Francisco Mechanics’ Fair, 1896. These fairs were similar to most industrial exposition across the US in the 19th century. However what was unique about Phelan’s speech was the rhetoric of the City Beautiful Movement, as well as the exposition of a peculiar vision of San Francisco’s collective identity.

More transcriptions to come ~ Click on the “Source Transcription” category on the side-bar to navigate to other sources already presented on Gilded Empire. For more information on the digital trends in history, check out this years AHA Convention, or for links to other projects, check out my first digital transcription post.

“The New San Francisco,” an address by Mayor James D. Phelan, 1896:


If, long years ago, a Spanish imperial commissioner were directed to visit Central and Northern California and lay the foundation for a great city, what site, judge you, would he have selected? In the light of the present there can be but one answer; but, surprising as it may appear, the eligibility of San Francisco was not only disputed under such circumstances, but condemned as a place even for human habitation.

Don Pedro de Alberni was, in July, 1796, ordered by the Viceroy of Spain to examine and report on the most suitable location for the Villa of Branciforte. He examined the country about Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Francisco, and reported that in and about the Mission and Presidio of San Francisco there was no irrigable, pasture or grain lands, no water, no timber, “and therefore” he adds, “I am convinced that the worst place or situation in California is that of San Francisco.” In spite of this evil report, however, we find the Mission of San Francisco Dolores, thirty years later, in 1825, possessed of over one hundred and fifty thousand head of horses, cattle, and sheep, besides thousands of bushels of wheat. But agricultural pre-eminence is not claimed for San Francisco, and hence we greet the views of Captain Benjamin Morrel, a more sensible and far-seeing person than the Senor Alberni, who visited the port in the same year, and who declared it to be the finest harbor in the world, and that the presence of enlightened men was only necessary to give the landscape “a soul and a divinity.” Between that date and 1835 a new population, small in numbers, must have settled in the cove of Yerba Buena, now the city, for Richard H. Dana, in his “Two Years Before the Mast,” modestly assumes the role of a prophet when he says he beheld at that time a town composed of Yankee-Californians called Yerba Buena, “which promises well.”

After the discovery of gold, the pioneers found in the quiet little hamlet a hospitable welcome and temporarily made it their abode, but such of them who thought at all about the possibility of a large city growing on the Bay of San Francisco gave Yerba Buena little heed. They located cities further up the bay, near the mouth of the San Joaquin River, and General W. T. Sherman, who surveyed many such sites, and confidently took town lots in partial payment for his services, describes, in his Memoirs, the failure of these enterprises. One after another they dissolved, with the hopes of their founders.

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