The Barbary Coast

James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains in January 1848. His discovery triggered a mass influx of gold seekers to California from the four corners of the world. Their principal port of entry into California was San Francisco. The vast majority of the people arriving in the new El Dorado headed for the gold fields as soon as they possibly could, but some remained in San Francisco. The war with Mexico had ended and California now belonged to the United States, but an effective civil administration had not yet been established in the state. The sudden explosion in population, virtually total lack of civil infrastructure, paucity of supplies necessary for daily life, and absence of law and order made for a wild and wooly existence for its citizens and offered ample opportunity for profitable entrepreneurship - both legal and illegal.

By the end of 1850 San Francisco had a population of at least 25,000 souls and was well established as the premier sea port on the western coast of North America. Housing was composed of rudimentary shacks and tents, disease was rampant, streets were mud-holes, and prices were astronomical. The vast majority of the population was uneducated, male, with an average age under forty. Most of the early residents arrived by sea and included a large percentage of seamen who had left an impossibly hard life at sea to share in the riches of the wide open territory. The primary recreation in San Francisco during the gold rush was gambling and gambling houses were the most civilized structures in the city. Gambling was legal and licensed by the city. Everyone participated and in the heady atmosphere of the gold rush stakes were high. Reverend William Taylor, a pioneer street preacher, was virtually the only voice heard to speak out against gambling and his preaching fell on deaf ears.

During the early days of the gold rush, San Francisco was easily the most corrupt and dangerous city in the United States. Miscreants from the four corners of the world were well represented in the general population and inevitably a part of the city was quickly established that catered to the rougher elements of the population. Liquor and prostitution were important attractions and fighting, robbery, murder, and kidnapping were commonplace. Seamen were shanghaied on a regular basis and arson and extortion were practiced by individuals and gangs centered in this part of the city. Life in this quarter became so wild that it was compared by knowledgeable seamen to the Barbary Coast of Africa and it eventually took on that name in the mid 1860s.

What was to become the "Barbary Coast" initially formed around a group of Chileno harlots and thieves living along the waterfront at Broadway and Pacific Streets. In the middle of 1849 a large number of former prisoners from Australia arrived in San Francisco and took up residence in this area - so many, in fact, that it took on the name of "Sidney-Town" and the residents were known as "Sidney Ducks." In subsequent years San Francisco frequently suffered the ravages of fires believed to have been set by residents of Sydney-Town. The civil administration was so corrupt that virtually no one was ever sanctioned in any way for any crime - including arson and murder. This situation led to the formation of citizen vigilante groups who took control of the city on several occasions in 1851 and 1855 to restore some degree of order to the city.

Although the vigilantes did temporarily accomplish some of their aims in taming the unruly elements of the city they were unable to stem the growth of the lawless element. The "Barbary Coast" continued to exist well into the twentieth century occupying the area between the waterfront, Chinatown, and North Beach. The earthquake and great fire of April 18, 1906, destroyed four square miles of San Francisco including virtually all of the "Barbary Coast." Immediately after the fire, San Francisco began the task of rebuilding the city. In the process the "Barbary Coast" too was rebuilt, but it's nature changed somewhat with the changing times. Still a den of iniquity, it now also catered to a well-to-do clientele who wanted to experience "life in the raw" - the "slummer." Many of the more notorious dives added a "slummer's balcony" which provided a safe spot from which to watch the depravity going on below. Citizens of the city harbored mixed feelings about the "Barbary Coast." On the one hand they deplored the sin and on the other they took secret delight in the city's reputation as the "Paris of America."

The "Barbary Coast" continued it's free-wheeling existence through 1911, but shortly after the election of Mayor James Rolph, Jr. in November of that year, it came under sustained attack from reform elements within society. In 1913 William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner joined the fray and church leaders were mobilized throughout the city. City ordinances gradually limited the scope of operations for businesses operating within the "Barbary Coast" and in the winter of 1914 the California legislature passed the "Red-light Abatement Act" which made it illegal to own and operate a house of prostitution. The new law was tied up in the courts for a few years but in February 1917 the police closed all of the brothels in the district and forcibly evicted their occupants. The "Barbary Coast" of today is still something of a tourist attraction, but is a pale shadow of it's former self.