Walking on Water - A History of Mission Bay

By Nancy Olmsted

The first graphic representation of what would one day be the site of UCSF Mission Bay appears on this 1869 map. The planned UCSF campus has been overlaid in orange.

As UCSF continues to lay plans for the creation of a 43-acre research campus at Mission Bay, it is good to remember that the history of Mission Bay mirrors that of San Francisco itself. Dreams and schemes have been a traditional part of this landscape ever since the 1850s when speculators sold waterlots in Mission Bay in anticipation of the city's growth. The long, slow filling in of this once important waterway cannot now be undone. But as San Francisco historian and author Nancy Olmsted reminds us, the UCSF Mission Bay campus - and the larger Catellus Development Corporation housing and biotechnology project of which it is a part - should help to end this period of neglect and restore promise and prominence to an area that has served San Franciscans so well.

The shallow waters of Mission Bay were created about 5,000 years ago in the last ice-age snowmelt. Mission Bay's 240 acres of seawater spread out to receive the sun like a great floating greenhouse.

As microscopic diatoms and eel grass photosynthesized the sun's energy, generations of underwater vegetation grew abundant grazing grounds for sea snails. Twice a day seawater tides swept in waves of tiny crustaceans to nourish millions of mussels and limpets that burrowed in the rich ooze. Mud and sand built up along the edges, forming islands that sprouted cordgrass and pickleweed, evolving into a salt marsh that spread inward with wandering sloughs fed by freshwater springs.

Except for an occasional winter storm from the southeast, the bay remained a cove of calm, protected water - a natural banquet ground for an enormous bird population, both residential ducks and Canadian geese and loons. The smelt turned the water silver, attracting herons, egrets, osprey and gulls. Hawks, owls and falcons fed on multitudes of mice, shrews and rabbits.

Into this landscape - more water than dry land - came the people, skimming over the waters of Mission Bay in their balsas, buoyant watercraft made of tule weeds lashed together with willow withes. On the shoreline of Mission Bay stood the village of Sitlintac, moved to higher ground by the native people with the coming of the winter rains. With pointed sticks they pried the mussels from the rocks and dug the clams, with woven baskets they scooped up smelt, with throwing nets they snared shorebirds.

In a grove of willows, on the shore of a small inland freshwater lake, another ancient people built the village of Chutchui. Beside the spring-fed creek grew the tules for their boats, and a low-spreading, sweet-smelling herb made an essence good to drink.

At this place among the violets and manzanita, the Spanish padres built their Mission Dolores in 1775. They came to teach these village people to weave blankets, grow maize and be saved from the fires of hell. Mission baptismal certificates list 6,316 converts in the first decade, but by 1826 only 200 individuals had survived the white man's diseases.

In 1850 Pedro Alcantara, born in 1786, spoke of his people, "I am a Christian Indian, I am all that is left...I am alone. I do not complain, the antelope falls with the arrow."

Making Water into Land

San Franciscans had two ways of making water into land: one was political and the other physical.

In 1847 military Governor Stephen Watts Kearny had held a "Great Sale of Beach and Water Lots in Yerba Buena Cove." Kearny extended existing street lines far into the shallow cove and auctioned off waterlots. In 1851 the US Congress transferred ownership of "swamp lands and all tidelands" to the states.

As San Franciscans controlled the state legislature in Sacramento, state tidelands were granted to San Francisco to sell to pay civic debts and for improvements. In a century the title would revert to the state. Days before the first auction, the Commissioners of the Funded Debt (with the same clout as San Francisco's Board of Supervisors have today) thought it prudent to run a notice in the local press warning buyers beware - the titles to these waterlots were clouded. Among the most active waterlot bidders were some city commissioners.

Mission Bay was once a salt marsh abounding with marine life and home to coastal Native Americans who lived in harmony with nature for more than 5,000 years.

But waterlots proved difficult to survey. Some owners drove 80-foot pilings as fences, others sank derelict wooden vessels to become "improvements intended as fill" and validate their ownership claims. Many lots had as many as three or four claimants.

If drawing a line in the water was the political means of creating land, the actual physical changes took place with great speed and ingenuity. Market Street, for example, had some impassable 100-foot sandhills.

The "Steam Paddy" used a giant steam shovel to dump sand into rail cars pulled along on a temporary track, laid down where needed. Piers and bulkheads reached out to enclose the waterlots, which were filled with log cribbing to hold rocks, sand and dirt. Pile drivers operated day and night as piers spread into the bay. Millions of cubic yards of fill extended the waterfront farther east.

By 1867 two-thirds of Mission Bay had been enclosed by a causeway that ended its water heritage. Long Bridge (the end of Fourth Street and the long north-south axis of Third Street preserve its route) became the new waterfront; a Half-Way House mushroomed up on pilings to offer horsecar passengers refreshment - day or night.

With bells jingling, a two-team horsecar could carry 24 passengers along on steel tracks at four miles an hour. Tracks made the difference and in the 1860s horsecar lines expanded throughout San Francisco's level streets. The 1861 Langley's City Directory declared: "It is hardly too much to say that the modern horsecar is among the most indispensable conditions of modern metropolitan growth.

In these days of fashionable effeminacy and feeble flabbiness, one never walks when one can ride." As a cure-all technology, "Railroad" in the 1860s ranked as "Computer" would in the 1990s. Where the railroad went, it brought prosperity: with no railroad, no progress was possible. Thus, Third Street quickly became Railroad Avenue: it had tracks for horsecars, and more importantly, it paralleled the railroad right-of-way to the city.

In 1864, the Alta California editor wrote: "The city is growing southward." Potrero Point reached out into San Francisco Bay to offer deep-water anchorage needed for the iron and steel industry. Such heavy industry depended on long shifts easily reached by skilled workmen. The horsecar line down Railroad Avenue made industrial employment possible, and it opened empty grassland hills dotted with freshwater springs to development for working-class homes.

Homestead Associations sprang up, based on large investments in cheap tidelands. Down payments were invented: "Ten dollars down in gold and small monthly payments" meant that a workingman's family could afford to own a 25-by-75-foot lot. To build a home within walking distance of a horsecar line was a sound investment.

Like most civic construction in San Francisco, building Long Bridge and opening the Hunters Point Bay View section of the city had multiple purposes. Nevada City mining millionaire George Hearst, who later set his son up in the newspaper business, was the principal investor in the Bay View Race Track & Park constructed in 1863. In "The Progress of the City" the editor wrote: "The ground is reclaimed and protected from the tide by a breakwater bulkhead. A large and spacious hotel, with stables and outhouses attached, including the judge's stand and all modern improvements found in Europe."

Horse racing had become the passion of the times. The sizes of wagers were recorded among the chronicles of gold shipments, civic events and fiery disasters in the annual city chronologies. Thoroughbreds with their trainers arrived on clipper ships from Australia, England and Ireland - as well as Kentucky and Virginia (out of New York, by way of Cape Horn). So eager were their owners to try San Francisco's famous fast turf that they risked prize horses on perilous seas. No one appeared surprised that Long Bridge and Railroad Avenue should have the Bay View Race Track & Park as a transit goal.

Other development schemes would have an impact on Mission Bay as well. Putting a freeway interchange between Nob Hill's Grace Cathedral and the Pacific Union Club today would provoke a reaction similar to that which greeted the decision to cut through Rincon Hill to leave Bishop Kip's residence dangling above a 100-foot drop-off. But John Middleton, an auctioneer who owned property at the corner of Second and Bryant Streets, had been elected to the state legislature for the sole purpose of pushing through the Second Street Cut bill over protest. Newspapers theorized that "there had been wheels within wheels" with the Central Pacific Railroad, which had the most to gain because of its railroad ferry dock at the foot of Second Street.

Mission Bay once symbolized the soul and spirit of San Francisco, a major portal for shipping and the site of an upstart shipbuilding zone.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to hatch a grand scheme, real estate capitalist Asbury Harpending reminisced from the hindsight of old age in 1903, "As Rincon Hill had ceased to be either beautiful or useful, William Ralston and I calmly proposed to cut it down. We proposed to have the city buy the property for $5 million and grade it to Market Street level. Many millions of cubic yards of extracted land would be used to fill in 150-acre tidelands offered by the State to the City at a nominal price. The cost of grading and reclamation work was estimated at $7.5 million. The city was asked to issue bonds for $12 million and receive 200 blocks of new city property."

With some relish Harpending describes handing out $35,000 in his first meeting in Sacramento to grease the legislative wheels to pass two necessary bills, and running charges of $400 a day for entertainment in one Sacramento restaurant. The bills passed, and as Harpending anticipated, the governor vetoed the bills, but his secretary was waylaid by a clever conversationalist on his way to the chamber with the governor's veto.

Confident that everything regarding the cutting down of the hill and filling of Mission Bay was settled, Harpending left for London to fleece the British stockmarket by selling shares in dubious gold, silver and diamond mines in the American West.

To the North

Channel Street, or Mission Creek, formed the northern boundary of Mission Bay, although scow schooner captain Fred Klebingat opined, "I never heard it called by such a refined title." The captain had arrived in San Francisco in 1909 at the age of 20 on the S.N. Castle, and decided to stay. In his recollection, "It was an open sewer, a cesspool that emitted offensive odors, especially at low tide. Bubbles of gas broke the surface. They said if you fell overboard you wouldn't last more than two minutes. If you took a gulp of the stuff it would be the end of you. As bad as the stench was it was the busiest place on the San Francisco waterfront."

In the 1880s and 90s lumber and hay were the biggest cargos brought into Channel Street, which had John North's first shipyard at Steamboat Point, and later boatbuilders Alexander Hay and Matthew Turner, who put together steam schooners, square-rigged sailing vessels and yachts.

As Channel frontage got pricey, boat builders moved south, or to Oakland, but the hay and lumber business boomed.

Del Monte Fruit built the China Basin cannery-warehouse in 1925 with railroad spur tracks to unload banana boats that came into the channel directly into railroad freight cars.

To the South

Potrero Point, near today's Central Basin piers, formed the southeastern boundary of Mission Bay.

By the 1880s the city's heavy industries had moved south to become the industrial iron and steel center of the West Coast. The Pacific Rolling Mills was there first in 1868, rolling out the iron and steel railroad tracks. By 1882 they had 18 iron furnaces roaring away - day and night - employing 450 men.

By 1883 the even larger Union Iron Works moved into their new Potrero brick complex to manufacture merchant ships and warships. Spreckels relocated the Western Sugar Refinery on the point in 1884, attracting German workers, to be followed by the Atlas Iron Works. Puddlers, rollers and skilled iron molders arrived from the British Isles and from Germany with work-cards. They lived in boarding houses on Potrero Hill, which was reached by 98 wooden steps from the horsecar line below.

The late San Francisco deputy sheriff Bill Carr, who lived on Potrero Hill more than a century ago, recalled: "It was mostly all hotels. The Green House was run by Hans Rasmussen. Cash's Hotel by Jimmy Cole. The San Quentin House by Jim Gately. Gately took in parolees from San Quentin and got them jobs in the rollin' mills. The boys from one hotel challenged the boys from another to fight all Saturday afternoon in a hay ring outside of Gately's. Then they'd all knock off for a steam beer."

In spite of the insatiable human energy spun into schemes for its future, the waters of Mission Bay did not become land that could be built upon until well into the 20th century.

In the 1890s Division Street was called Dumpville, as "garbage tends to flow downhill" into Mission Bay. Police raided Dumpville in 1895 when a bottle collector was murdered for straying outside his assigned dump. Twenty acres of shanties were burned and the collectors dispersed, but only temporarily. The Army of Heaven Mission had been using Dumpville to care for homeless people, and by 1899 had been given legal space on a triangular block on Mission Creek (between 8th and 9th Streets) where "General" Maybell with the help of his wife Mary printed New Revelations and ran a soup kitchen with free sleeping space in an open-sided barn.

Thus did conflicting visions strive to populate Mission Bay and give it new life, a destiny UCSF now is poised to fulfill.