20 Things You Didn’t Know About San Francisco

Everybody knows about the California city of San Francisco. The city on the bay is home of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Gold Rush, the Earthquake of 1906 and much more. San Francisco is a major cultural, commercial and financial center of the United States. The city is steeped in history and there are many facts about San Francisco that many may not know.

Here are 20 things you didn’t know about San Francisco.

San Francisco was part of Mexico until 1848

A Spanish exploration party settled in the San Francisco area in 1769 and established the Presidio of San Francisco in 1776. Explorer Juan Bautista de Anza established a mission in the region. The territory received independence from Spain in 1821 and would become a part of Mexico until 1848. William Richardson, an Englishman, established an independent homestead in the city, then called Yerba Buena, and began to plan a street map. American settlers began to explore the west coast of America. Then, the Mexican-American War began. Captain John B. Montgomery claimed the city of Yerba Buena and renamed it San Francisco in 1847. The following year, Mexico ceded the area to the United States and the Mexican-American War ended.

Gold Rush, Abandoned boats

We all know the area surrounding San Francisco was a major part of the American Gold Rush. Nineteenth century pioneer, John Sutter, built a saw mill in Coloma California at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A carpenter, James Marshall, found flakes of gold there on January 24, 1848, setting off the American Gold Rush. People across America and around the world came to the San Francisco region in search of riches. Many sailed into San Francisco Bay and abandoned their ships to seek their fortune. What happened with all of the abandoned boats? Many of the ships were deconstructed and parts were used to build the wharves on the San Francisco waterfront. Some were turned into bars, homes, and some were used in the construction of buildings. The remaining ships were buried and remain underground around the San Francisco waterfront.

Cable Cars

Everyone knows cable cars are a symbol of the hilly San Francisco streets. The cable car is actually only one of two moving historic monuments along with the St. Charles Railway. The cable cars of San Francisco are the last manually operating cable systems in the world. The California Street Line is thee oldest still in operation. Twenty-three lines were established between 1873 and 1890. Before the earthquake of 1906, there were 600 cable cars operating in San Francisco. By 1912, there were less than 100 and today there are just 44. The main reason is not that residents and tourists don’t ride the cable cars but that they are difficult to repair and restore. The cable system, itself, had to be repaired and updated in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Repairing the cars is an undertaking in itself. Not just mechanics are involved, but craftsmanship as well. The gripman is the cable car operator. During and after World War II, the city gave work to many minorities including women and African Americans. The author and poet Maya Angelou actually worked as a cable car operator as a young girl. Each June a cable car bell ringing contest is held in Union Square between cable car crews.

No cemeteries in San Francisco

Due to the population growth of San Francisco during the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, a law was passed banning cemeteries in the city limits. Those who died in the city were buried in Lawndale, later renamed Colma in the 1940’s. Because of this the dead outnumber the living in the city of Colma 1000 to 1. There are only two cemeteries that remain in the city of San Francisco, San Francisco National Cemetery and San Francisco Mission Cemetery. One person who escaped the law was gay rights activist Harvey Milk whose ashes are buried outside the former Castro Camera. There are remaining Columbaria in the city which hold the ashes of the deceased in urns.

“The Ellis Island of the west coast”

San Francisco received the nickname of “the Ellis Island of the west Coast”. Angel Island is the largest island in San Francisco Bay. From 1910 through 1940 Angel Island served as the wests coast United States immigration processing center. More than 300,000 immigrants from over 90 countries including China, Japan, Australia, England, France, Germany and Russia passed through the processing center. Today the center is on the National Registry of Historic Places and serves as an immigration museum just like Ellis Island in New York City. Tourists can take a ferryboat from Tiburon or Fisherman’s Wharf to visit the museum and check ancestry records.

April 18, 1906

We all know about San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the fires that led to the destruction of a three quarters of the city, but there are some details that most don’t know about the disaster. Buildings made of redwood which is popular in the region survived the fires. This is because redwood has low amounts of resin and a porous grain which absorbs water more than other types of wood. Buildings constructed with redwood were spared. Another fact that people may not know is that Lotto’s Fountain is the oldest surviving monument in the city of San Francisco. The iron structure is located at the intersection of Market, Geary and Kearny Streets. It stands 24 feet tall and was a gift to the city by vaudeville performer Lotto Crabtree. The statue served as a meeting point for many loved ones during the earthquake and fires. Each year on April 18 at 5:12 am, a ceremony is held at the fountain in honor of those who died in the earthquake. The Golden Fire Hydrant in the Mission District is also a survivor of the earthquake and fires. The fire hydrant was used to save the Mission Dolores building from the fires. This is the oldest building in San Francisco.

Things that started in San Francisco

Many inventions were spawned in the city of San Francisco that are important to culture today. One surprising fact is that the first fortune cookie was created in San Francisco by a Japanese man, not a Chinese person. Over a hundred years ago a Japanese man named Makato Hagiwara created the almond cookie that holds a person’s fortune inside. Hagiwara was the caretaker of the Japanese Tea Garden in the 1890’s. He developed the treat which became a popular topper to a meal at any Japanese or Chinese restaurant today. The fortune cookie was so important that the treat was on display at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. Another invention that was created in San Francisco include Blue Jeans. These common work pants and eventual trendsetters were made by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis with duck cloth and copper rivets in 1873. Charles Fey made the first slot machine in the city in 1887. The first electronic television system was developed by Philip Taylor Farnsworth at his lab at 202 Green Street in the 1930’s. The Mission style burrito was created at La Cumbre taqueria in the 1960’s.

International Exposition of 1915

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was hosted by San Francisco in 1915. The event celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and honored the human spirit and ingenuity and the role that the United States of America played in the world. The Exposition was held for 9 months in the Presidio Bayfront, now the Marina District of San Francisco. The Palace of Fine Arts is the only remaining building from the Exposition today. During the Fair the Liberty Bell was brought in from Philadelphia. Light shows wowed the crowds that poured in to see the exhibits. The most recognized building at the Fair was the Tower of Jewels. The 43 story tower shimmered with colored glass. The city took three years to prepare and build for the fair and it was a great economic success. It was just the event that San Francisco needed after the devastation that the 1906 earthquake and fires caused to the city.


Most people have heard of Alcatraz Island. It sits in the San Francisco Bay. The small island a mile and half off the coast of San Francisco served as a lighthouse, military fortification, military prison and a federal penitentiary. A group of Native Americans occupied the island in 1969 and 1970. Today the island is managed by the National Parks Service and provides tourists the opportunity to visit the infamous island and its buildings. As a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz held many dangerous and infamous prisoners. The island had its own natural fortification, the dangerous, cold and shark infested waters of the San Francisco Bay. Prisoners included Robert Franklin Stroud (“the birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, James “Whitey” Bulger, “Bumpy” Johnson, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis (who served the longest term on the island” and Al Capone. Stories from its time as a federal penitentiary are numerous, but few probably have heard this. Al Capone played the banjo in a band formed by inmates called “The Rock Islanders”. The group performed on weekends for the other inmates.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression of the 1930’s left much of the United States in financial peril. Surprisingly, San Francisco did quite well during the period. No San Francisco based banks failed during the Great Depression. In fact, the city prospered during the time. Maybe because the city had survived such devastation just a few decades before, but the city did fine. In fact, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge were built during the Depression. These were expensive projects for the cities. Another little known fact is that the United States Navy was initially going to paint the Golden Gate Bridge with black and yellow stripes. The ‘International Orange” color was to only be a sealant but was much less expensive to cover the entire span which is constantly being repainted. The Golden Gate Bridge is the second largest single span bridge in the world. It has enough steel to circle the earth three and a half times.

Most crooked street is not Lombard

It is a long held belief that Lombard Street is the steepest and most crooked street in the United States and the world. In fact because of so many tourists, the street has been closed to non residential vehicular traffic many times over the decades. Vermont Street is actually steeper crooked than Lombard. Between 20th and 22nd Streets near McKinley Square Vermont Street has seven sharp turns and a steep grading of 31.5 degrees. Lombard may have more twists and turns overall but Vermont Street is quite a ride. Vermont Street is paved in concrete while Lombard Street is brick. The 1973 Clint Eastwood film “Magnum Force” featured a car chase scene on Vermont Street.


Several important world treaties have been signed in the city of San Francisco. The United Nations’ charter was ratified in San Francisco in 1945. The Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1951. This treaty ended the hostilities between the Allied Nations with Japan following the events of World War II. The treaty was signed by 48 nations and ended Allied occupation of Japan. The treaty ended Japanese imperialism and compensated Allied prisoners of war. The treaty also formed the roles of Japan in the international arena. Well before this the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had Mexico cede San Francisco and California to the United States.

Golden Gate Park

Most people know of Golden Gate Park but maybe not its entire history. The park is named for Golden Gate State and was designed by William Hammond Hall in 1871. Hall would later become the first state engineer. The need for green space was inspired by the New York City’s Central Park. The 1017 acre park is 20 percent larger than Central Park. Built on sand dunes, trees were planted to stabilize the grounds. The park was used as a refugee village for the survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The US Army built residential barracks and temporary tent homes as well as latrines and bathhouses. The park has many landmarks including statuary and memorials, a carousel, a music concourse, a conservatory, museums, the Academy of Science and a beach chalet. The Japanese Tea Gardens consist of 5 beautiful and serene acres.

Summer of Love

The counterculture movement began in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The “Summer of Love” actually began in January of 1967 on what is now called “Hippie Hill”. The small sloped hill is near Haight Street, the heart of the movement. During the summer or year “of love”, young people met to connect, take drugs and listen to music. Musicians and bands including Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and George Harrison played free music to the public. The police allegedly still turn a blind eye to what goes on at Hippie Hill.


The state of California’s was adopted in 1846. It is meant to symbolize independence from Mexico. The flag features a red star on a white background and a grizzly bear. The flag was called “the bear flag revolt”. This was a precursor the official flag created in 1911. The bear has an interesting connection to the city of San Francisco. The image of the bear is said to be modeled after an actual grizzly bear kept in captivity at Golden Gate Park in 1889. The bear’s name was “Monarch”. Monarch was captured by a newspaper reporter. Monarch died in 1911 and is mounted at the Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park.

Bubonic Plague

The first bubonic plague outbreak to hit the continental United States began in San Francisco in 1900. The outbreak was found to have originated in the Chinatown neighborhood. The governor of California, Henry Gage, did not want to bring attention to the outbreak because he didn’t want to limit trade due to financial reasons. Failure to act quickly caused the plague to spread. The fires in the midst of the 1906 earthquake destroyed Chinatown. A second plague outbreak began in 1907 but was not centered in one neighborhood. Between 1907 and 1911 $2 million was spent to kill the rat population. It would be found that the second plague was carried by ground squirrels. By 1908, 160 cases of the plague were recognized with 78 deaths.

Norton I, Emperor of the United States

San Francisco resident Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself the first emperor of the United States of America. Norton was born in 1818 in England and grew up in South Africa. He came to San Francisco around 1849 and worked as a businessman. He lost his fortune and, in 1859, declared himself emperor. Although most agreed the man was eccentric if not insane, most humored him and went along with his belief that he was emperor. One of his demands was that a bridge be constructed to connect San Francisco to Oakland. This would later happen and there have been calls for the Oakland Bay Bridge be renamed The Emperor Norton Bridge. Norton died in 1880 and 30,000 people packed the streets to honor him during his funeral.

The Ugly Law

San Francisco was the first city in the United States to enact the so called “Ugly Law”. During the late nineteenth century, urban areas across the country were becoming more and more populated. Unfortunately, many of the new city dwellers were impoverished and the economy was suffering. San Francisco enacted the “Ugly Law” in 1867, and many cities would enact a similar law in the next two decades. Sometimes called the “Unsightly Beggar Law”, the law made it illegal for unsightly or unseemly persons to appear in public. These laws were eventually repealed, but some not until the 1970’s.

The Beatles last concert

The Beatles performed their last live concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. The concert was held on August 29, 1966 not long before the “Summer of Love”. Although The Beatles would continue to record music together until John Lennon left the band in 1969. The band would perform one more time in an impromptu rooftop concert at Apple Records Recording Studio to promote their last album in January 1969. Despite the hype of the San Francisco concert, The Beatles performed for just 35 minutes following four opening acts.

Wealthy residents

San Francisco ranks fourth in the world’s cities with the most billionaire residents. Only New York, Moscow and London have more billionaires. San Francisco has been called “the city of billionaires”. Wealthy residents work in many booming industries including real estate, entertainment, and of course Silicone Valley. Wealthy residents of San Francisco include Shorenstein family of real estate, the Haas family of Levi Strauss Co., the De Young family of media, the Hewlett family of Hewlett-Packard, the Bechtel family of construction, the Fisher family of The Gap and the Charles and Rupert Johnson family of mutual fund investments.

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