Commemorating Regional Empire, Part II: “A Pacific Metropolis,” San Franciscan Visions of Urbane Grandeur

September 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Imagining an Urban Utopia

(Part I @ “Commemorating Regional Empire“)

In Part I, we introduced the concepts of the Pioneer Myth and its interpretive framework. According to much of the historiography, San Francisco as the “Pacific Metropolis” was not codified in local and popular rhetoric until after the turn of the century and especially in the wake of the Panama-Pacific Exposition (1915).[1] However, in the 1890s this urban identity seemed to already dominate many of the leading civic, business, and cultural elites’ rhetoric, including the largest newspapers of de Young and Spreckles. In 1897, the rush to the Klondike Gold Rush in particular, as well as European and Asian imperial conflicts, dominated the foreign media coverage in the papers. The reporting of these stories and the editorials that followed revealed an entrenched awareness of San Francisco as the regional metropolis of the Pacific coast. As I had mentioned in a previous post, “Commemorating Regional Empire, Part I,” San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite were especially vocal about their city’s regional dominance on the Pacific coast. What was it that the commercial-civic elite were so eager to express? What was it about San Francisco and its past that they thought was so exceptional? How did they explain the roots of their present success? And how did these ideas relate to the understanding of American Exceptionalism expressed in national politics and the media of the late 19th century?

New Era Edition

Image of California’s Minerva in “New Era Edition” of The San Francisco Call (December 19, 1897).

Throughout the headlines of the San Francisco Chronicle, Call, and Examiner, the rush north to the Yukon Territory was framed and seemingly appropriated as what they saw as a naturally Californian and particularly San Franciscan event. Their understanding of San Francisco’s dominance over the Pacific Coast region led them to think it was only natural that the city would encapsulate and integrate the emerging markets into its urban grasp.[2] The city’s dominance in western mining, and its advantages as a supply route of the explosive Klondike market were expressed very forthrightly and implicitly in editorials, reports, and published opinions throughout November and December, 1897. The crisis in the Yukon Territory at Dawson City during the winter of 1897-98 becomes, for example, an opportunity for the editors of the Call and Chronicle to demonstrate not only their superior coverage of an event in a distant land, but also the logistical abilities of the city to come to the starving community’s aid. Only San Francisco, they argued, had the ability to mount and successfully outfit such a grand humanitarian operation to rescue the starving miners at Dawson City.

This understanding of the city’s significance was also expressed at the expense of other regional hubs like Seattle and Los Angeles.[3] One troubled relief effort for Dawson City by western regional competitor Seattle, for instance, leads to a media discussion of how the San Franciscan effort will be much more successful due to its superior people and natural urban advantages. Daily and weekly updates of ships in and out of the bay bolstered their claims of the superiority of San Francisco’s port and her sister city, Oakland with its supporting role. Interestingly, this urban identity demonstrated by the pages of the Chronicle and Call silences the fact that many of the migrants to the Arctic Circle were of many nations and ethnicities and in fact did not travel through San Francisco. Yet since many, and according to their claims the vast majority, would consume products transported by San Francisco on their way to the Klondike, these migrants would be commercial surrogates for San Francisco’s imperial grandeur in expanding markets.[2]

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The San Francisco Call: “New Era Edition,” Part I

September 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Call’s New Era of San Francisco


Published on December 19, 1897 to commemorate the paper’s move into its new headquarters, the “New Era Edition” of the San Francisco Call was distributed across the state and the nation. By 1897, the San Francisco Call had been a longstanding institution in San Francisco since 1856. The front-page of this massive 80pg issue displayed a full illustration of the new structure christened the ‘Claus Spreckels Building.’ The image depicts an imposing steel and stone structure which stands in stark contrast to the pedestrian human landscape in its shadow, a clear vision of urban grandeur. Throughout the paper’s headlines the Call reports a “New Era” has come for not only the newspaper but for the city itself. The migration of the paper into the one of the largest and imposing structures in the city declared their own confidence and evaluation of San Francisco’s significance in the West.

All through the pages in the fall of 1897, the Call reported an economic resurgence in the city and across the state. The chaos of the 1870s and the stagnation of the 1880s, they argued, were behind them. Bolstered by positive economic reports in local, regional, and national markets, the editors presented a vision of the city as the Pacific metropolis. From articles on culture, arts, manufacturing, and agriculture, the Call argued for the continued dominance of the city in the region and downplayed competitors like Seattle and Los Angeles. Reporting on December 21, the Call was not at all disappointed by the overwhelmingly positive response from much of the state’s leading newspapers for the New Era Edition paper. In a way the reviews expressed a general consensus in the Call’s assessment of the region’s progress from its rough mining past. The trajectory of the region would not be slowed, according to the Call:

The earliest mode of travel to the Golden Gate was that known as coasting, for in no other way could California then be reached. San Francisco’s first settlers came hither by water, and although the pony express and overland stage which followed later were succeeded by railroad facilities for passenger and freight transportation, the coast trade of California has always been of vast importance to the people and the State, and will continue to occupy a position of steadily increasing value in the world of commerce as time goes on.[1]

"San Jose Corruption"

The San Francisco Call cartoon depicting the defeat of civic corruption in San Jose, California in the winter of 1897.

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Urbanity & Workings of Urban Social Power

January 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Visions of Urbanity:

[From an earlier post, revised and republished:]

This image in 1897 of the construction of the San Francisco Call building illustrates the dramatic pinnacle that SF had reached by the late 19th century in urban development and construction.  Finished in 1897[?] it was seen as a model of engineering for decades. While the transcontinental railroad brought LA economic dominance by the turn of the century, San Francisco still remained the dominant cultural force in California – especially urban culture, journalism, banking, and manufacturing. How was this urban development understood by the various inhabitants of the city?

[From the OAC: the image on the right is captioned with “1898?”, yet in the “New Era Edition” of The San Francisco Call dated December 19, 1897, the building is already completed.  While this is likely a cataloguing error, it is still useful to point out.]

To those who resided in San Francisco in the 1890s, the city seemed to be the meeting place of modernity and industrialization. Modern, in that the City Beautiful Movement came to dominate thinking about urban space, leisure, and social class among the commercial-civic elite; especially under James Duval Phelan as mayor after 1896. San Francisco industrialization and development was fueled first by the California Gold Rush, then by the Transcontinental Railroad, and later the Comstock Load. Later mining strikes like the Klondike Rush after 1896-97, only reinforced the city’s collective understanding of the city’s pioneering and mining past. By the 1894 Mid-Winter Fair, the commercial-civic elite saw a city and urbane landscape that rightfully dominated California economicy, the Pacific Slope, and even the entire Pacific Basin from Alaska, round Hawaii, to Souther America.

To live in such a dominant city and cultural hub influence ones social and individual identity. The established narrative of the city’s existence is something that all residents must reconcile within their own self-awareness. But these questions are more diffucult to answer then presented. As a non-elite, do you still owe fealty to the image and vision of the powerful? What are the ethnic and class limits of an established regional identity? How far does an urban society exist into its hinterlands, beginning the question – how does one define formal and informal boundaries of the urban. Do minority groups and individuals who live within the established urban narrative express fealty to the city’s identity which silences many aspects of their own lives? My debt of course remains with William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, (@wcronon) and what his methodology reveals of San Franciscan urban culture in the late-19th century.

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