San Francisco History

When Kearny Street was Young

by Walter J. Thompson

In starting out it may be well to remark that Kearny street was not named after the gallant General Phil Kearny, as I have heard some say, or after Denis Kearney, the sandlot agitator, as others, whose chronological bumps are disarranged, have seriously maintained.

The party responsible for the thoroughfare’s title was a Brigadier-General Stephen Watts Kearny, who marched a body of troops from New Mexico to Monterey in the latter part of 1846. He served as military Governor of the new territory from March to May, 1847, and died in 1848.

The infancy days of the street, which I have chosen as typical in its heyday of the city’s progress and as a vehicle for a few reminiscences which may prove interesting to a later generation, as well as refreshing to the memories of those who can recognize with me familiar wraiths in our peninsular fogs, were tumultuous. They were of the “from farm boy to Senator” and “canal boy to President” order, full of strenuous endeavor and wore out in the course of time. The fire king, in the course of several engagements, spanked the Kearny street infant soundly with hands of flame. In the devastating conflagrations of 1851 it was thrice left scorched and gasping in a desert of ashes. But it suffered most at the hands of its older brother, Montgomery street. Jealousy and envy in all the degrees of their synonymity were behind it all, and for a long time the dwellers on the lower thoroughfare showed anything but a neighborly, much less brotherly spirit, such as should exist between two parallel streets in a brand-new city where the possibilities for expansion and substantial growth were so promising.

I have it on the best of authority, such as Captain W. F. Swasey, who had been a close observer of things and doings in the neighborhood since 1846, and from many empire builders of 1849, that this malignant feeling on the part of Montgomery street existed.

“There wasn’t much for Montgomery street to be proud of,” said Captain Swasey. “It was carpeted with mud a foot thick and harbored an army of rats that used to chase citizens to places of refuge. Kearny street often played the part of Good Samaritan to these rat-bitten and rat-haunted refugees. The Mongtomeryites really were jealous of Portsmouth square. They had nothing like it down their way. Daily the bay was receding eastward under filling operations, leaving the poor old street with nothing to brag of but its offices, saloons and inaccessible Telegraph Hill, with its signal tower, which filled up the north end. Why they had to come to Kearny street to reach the top of the hill!”

It was a notorious fact that the Montgomery-street faction denied Kearny street its name and called it the east side of Portsmouth square. I also have it on good authority that they even went so far as to deliberately commit crimes on their own blocks and then rush up to Kearny street to be arrested for the purpose of bringing odium upon the upper section.

Following the big fires Kearny street asserted itself in a notable way and with a vigor that thereafter marked its progressive course. The “east side of Portsmouth square” erected a block of stone and brick buildings that made Montgomery street squirm and sputter. It is of record that Sam Brannan, who owned half of Montgomery street and boasted of having a mortgage on the other half, deliberately stalked through the plaza, cocking an eye at the improvements and exclaimed half admiringly:

“Dashed if you fellows haven’t a street here after all.”

The compliment was deserved. That nobby new block was the nucleus of the many structures, stately and handsome, which were to make up Kearny street to come.

Next to El Dorado, Tom Maguire, the theatrical manager, who had camped on this lot in a tent in 1849, had erected the third Jenny Lind Theater, and adjoining him on the south was the most restful spot in the block, the Union Hotel, managed by Isaac M. Hall of Rochester, N. Y. Now Kearny street was as proud of this theater as it was of the loyalty of the chaparral carvers who were busily cutting town lots out of the brush of the hill slopes up Clay and Washington streets, and Montgomery street plotted accordingly. Boniface Parker had already been won over. His house now faced the east from Montgomery street, where formerly it had looked westward from Kearny.

Maguire was the pivot Montgomery street now worked upon. He was a man totally lacking in taste and good dramatic judgment, but he was a wonder for business enterprise. It did not take him long to assure himself that his theatrical mission called him to Montgomery street. The opening of the Metropolitan in 1853 and its success settled the matter. Gossip quit yawning, however, and began to talk in snappy sentences when it was announced that Maguire had sold the Jenny Lind Theater to the city for $200,000. It was to be used as a City Hall.

With Maguire, Kearny street lost El Dorado, which became the Hall of Records, and the Union Hotel, which was used by the Boards of Supervisors and Education.

So if the street lost a theater, a gambling hall and a hotel, it gained a City Hall.

Backed by the dignity of its City Hall, Kearny street grew in attractiveness as well as length. While Montgomery street was nursing its exclusive residence district on Rincon Hill, North Beach was looming up as an attractive section for homes and the sides of Russian and Telegraph hills were rapidly filling with rows of houses. The slopes from California street southward were cleared by home-makers and a road in the Mission was laid out by way of Eddy street.

The pharisees of Montgomery street was the main artery across Market and southward to the bay with possibilities of a bridge and farther extension to almost any point down the line toward San Jose. Nothing remains today to show for that gloriously conceived but illy executed plan but two blocks of New Montgomery street. In the meantime, Kearny street energy had shoved the western wall of the street a dozen feet or so toward the setting sun, had joined forces with Market and Third streets, and, presto!—the thoroughfare had come into its birthright and was shaking its enlarged girth with laughter over the discomfiture of its lean and soured elder brother.

Pride in Portsmouth square was never relaxed on Kearny street. As the trees and shrubs grew up and began to throw grateful shadows over the hitherto dry and barren ground it was laid out in pretty serpentine parks, with a refreshing drinking fountain in the center, and was surrounded by a resplendent high iron fence, painted in black and gold, with ornamental gates at the corners. Many persons believed that the park was under the special protection of the exempt firemen, those red-shirted boys who had so often dragged the infant Kearny street from the merciless clutch of the fire king and who had erected a home on Brenham place, overlooking the plaza.

No so. The guardianship of the block rested with a band of faithful reformed hackmen, who threw a cordon of coaches, shiny and black as giant beetles, around the inclosure and sought to show San Franciscans that under the refining influence of those blossom-bordered parks and that noble fence they were no longer the same rough and ruthless lot that used to hang around the steamer landings tearing tourists and trunks apart and savagely extorting exorbitant fees. Aye, these improved hackmen have been known to reprove a newsboy for swearing in the presence of a woman. Caesar’s legions were not more faithful than they in guarding Portsmouth square.

What a street for promenading was Kearny in the flush of its youth! It became the connecting link between North Beach and the new social annex laid out by Lord George Gordon, on the London plan off Third street, and known as South Park. The beaten path was along Stockton street to Washington and thence to Kearny and on to Market. Sunday afternoons was the popular time for strolling in the old town and fussy old Rincon Hillites, who for years had sauntered down Second street to Montgomery, were now seen on Kearny street.

Things were in a bad way with them around the old homestead. A cold-blooded legislative body had blown a drift through the once fashionable eminence and thrown a bridge across Second street, and the Rincon Hill folk did not know what to expect next.

Then there were the days of triumph when the theaters came back and later the inauguration of the newspaper hegira from the cobweb lofts of Clay and Commercial streets when The Chronicle moved into its handsome new home at Bush and Kearny streets.

Was ever a fairer sight seen under the sun than when on a Saturday afternoon the matinee throngs came together at that crossing like the meeting of the waters in the sweet vale of Avoca, surging from three temples of amusement—from hearing Billy Emerson, the prince of minstrels, sing “I’m just as Happy as a Big Sunflower,” at the Standard; from laughing at the antics of Willie Edorim in one of Edward E. Rice’s extravaganzas—“Evangeline,” maybe—at the Bush street, or from thrilling with Mrs. D.P. Bowers in “Article 47” at the California?

All the beauty of San Francisco was there; likewise all the fashion. I have overlooked much that might have been touched upon in this brief sketch, but of all the scenes there was none fairer than that matinee crowd when Kearny street was young.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 27 August 1916. 28.

Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License