San Francisco History

Streets of San Francisco
by E. G. Fitzhamon


The Streets of San Francisco
Union Square No. 1

[photograph not included here]

Thomas Starr King Church on Geary street, near southeast corner of Union Square. Dedicated in 1864.

by E.G. FITZHAMON

Conjuring up in one's mind's eye a few acres of wind-swept sand dunes dotted with chaparral it becomes possible to visualize the site of Union Square when it was a New Year's gift to San Francisco by the first chief executive of the uncouth young city's new municipal government.

Colonel John White Geary, both Postmaster and Alcalde of San Francisco in 1849, was the donor. He was Mayor in 1850.

The deed of gift is dated January 3 of 1850. It gave beautiful San Francisco of today a gently sloping and attractive open space, amid the bustling down-town shopping district. It approximates three acres, including street width on all four sides. The little park itself is 2.60 acres.

It is set forth in the deed that the city shall hold this plot in perpetuity for park purposes. It had no name then.

Its naming is said to have been a patriotic tribute to the Union, to which California was admitted with Statehood in the autumn of that same year. However, it seems doubtful whether the name Union Square was conferred then. On maps made in the early fifties the vacant sand waste is merely marked "Public Square."

There is a legend that "Union Square" as conferred in 1860 because of numerous public meetings held there in support of the Union and to combat the secessionist movement. It became the recognized rallying ground of Unionists, led by Thomas Starr King. Near the square's southeast corner was built the Thomas Starr King Church.

Colonel Geary had returned in 1856, to Pennsylvania, his native State, before his gift plot received the attention and civic appropriations that he may have thought it deserved.

Perhaps he was a little chagrined. Some years later he made reference, when enjoying his second term as Governor of Pennsylvania to the sand and fleas of the uncouth new city he had forsaken.

But he might have been surprised if he could have seen the transformation that had taken place in his gift plot between 1850 and 1870.

During the Civil ware, through which San Francisco's first Mayor fought so gallantly, and so often was wounded, but from which he emerged with many honors and rank of Major-General, Union Square was beginning to be a center for churches and superior homes.

But the appearance of Union Square, as well as most of the down-town section, changed considerably every ten or fifteen years.

So much so that different generations disagree today as to where stood a certain church, or theater, or perhaps the Academy of Sciences or the Mechanics' Pavilion. At times such disagreements become almost violent.

And both may be right. So there is no need to get excited about it. Nor is there any need for pedants to get peevish over a wrong initial or name or other slip or some typographical error to these tales. Nothing is perfect. not even the most pedantic pedants.

Those that rave about historical accuracy have yet to learn that "there ain't no sech animile [sic]." There is even a modicum of truth in Henry Ford's illiterate dictum that "history is the bunk."

Probably not three out of every 10,000 persons in California can recall, offhand, "Lucky" Baldwin's first name. yet he figured in the life and upbuilding of San Francisco a hundred times as much as did Captain John Montgomery, who was merely a naval officer carrying out orders. And with him were other naval officers and a landing party of seventy sailors and marines.

These vivid tales, though TRUE, are not a historical textbook. Although they might be used as such to better educational advantage, perhaps, then some dry-as-dust histories that so very few remember.

But I would rather that 100,000 boys and girls read these tales because they like to than that ten million should read them because of being compelled.

Moreover, if these tales pretended to be bullet-proof history they would have taken a heavy fall out of those who have joined solemnly in declaring that the American Flag never had been flown publicly hereabouts prior to July of 1846 in Portsmouth Square.

A pronunciamento as ridiculously dogmatic as it is lacking in imagination.

Some ignore about Union Square manana, and the day after.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 18 September 1928, page 10.


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