San Francisco is a relatively young city, popping up on the maps as a Spanish colony at the time America was declaring its independence. But fueled by hope and grit, this city has a history as rich as the gold it was founded on.
The Ohlone people were the first settlers of what is now San Francisco, having prospered in the area, reaching a population of roughly 10,000. However, in 1776, the Spanish explorer, Gaspar de Portola, arrived on the peninsula, established the Presidio, which would serve as a military outpost for more than 200 years, and claimed the area for Spain. Seven years later, La Mision de Nuestro Padre San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores) was constructed. Supported by the Yerba Buena settlement, near what is now Yerba Buena Gardens, the conversion of the Ohlone people ensued, ultimately driving them from the area completely.
The Spanish colonists reigned over the region until 1821 when Mexico gained independence from Spain. However, an increase in American settlers put pressure on the U.S. government to claim the territory as its own, and as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848 and ending the Mexican-American War, California became American soil. Within days of signing the treaty, gold was discovered in nearby Sierra Nevada foothills, rapidly changing the course of San Francisco history.
The California Gold Rush propelled San Francisco into a period of rapid growth. People arrived in waves from all parts of the globe to cash in on the hope of fortunes that could be found in the hills. Within a year, San Francisco grew from a small settlement overlooking the bay to a burgeoning boomtown with a population surpassing 25,000, making it the largest city on the West Coast at the time.
Chief among these immigrants were Chinese men who settled in the area that is now Chinatown, one of the largest concentrations of Chinese people outside of China. These men played a large role in the construction of the transcontinental railroad that connected San Francisco to New York, further precipitating the city's population boom. The inhospitable terrain – more than 50 steep hills dotted the city landscape – hindered San Francisco's westward expansion and, to ease overcrowding, developers filled in marshland along the eastern shores of the peninsula. However, the introduction of the cable car in the 1880s made westward expansion more feasible, and by 1900, the city's population approached 400,000.
Stories of lawlessness abound from these times, with San Francisco's notorious Barbary Coast at their epicenter. Smoke-filled casinos and saloons and back-alley bordellos lined the streets of this notorious haven for rowdy denizens, an area that encompassed parts of what is now the Financial District and parts of Chinatown and North Beach. Today, placards inset in the sidewalks map out this historic area where prostitution and gambling proliferated and drunken men were often "Shanghaied," appealing to the imaginations of writers like Jack London and Mark Twain, who frequented the city.
This rowdy stage was shaken to its foundation in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, when a major earthquake rattled San Franciscans from their sleep. A city that had grown hand-over-fist was just as quickly demolished. Buildings that were not destroyed by the initial earthquake were soon engulfed in the fires that spread rapidly through the city. Unable to get water to these fires, men tore down buildings, some of which were grand mansions, to create fire breaks. Following the devastation, more than half the city's population was left homeless.
Powered by the spirit that founded the city, San Franciscans cleared away the rubble, and fewer than ten years later, the city hosted the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, an event that not only celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, but also showcased the shiny new city. The lavish buildings for the exposition were built on over 200 acres of filled in marshland that is now the Marina neighborhood. The Palace of Fine Arts, built specifically for this event, is now the only remnant.
Ensuing decades saw steady growth and continued prosperity for San Francisco. The city established itself as a cultural and financial center; even during the Great Depression, when the financial bottom fell out from under much of the country, San Francisco stood strong. In fact, two of its most iconic landmarks were constructed during this time, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1936 and 1937 respectively. In addition, this decade saw Alcatraz converted from a military outpost to a maximum security prison, housing such infamous criminals as Al Capone and Robert Franklin Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz.
During World War II, San Francisco became a hub of military activity. The Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard, which is now undergoing redevelopment, was at the center of this activity while Fort Mason became the primary port of embarkation for service people. Batteries were dug into the area coastline en masse; many of them still dot the hillsides of the Presidio and the Marin Headlands.
Following the war, San Francisco became a magnet for the country's counter culture, starting with the 1950s Beat Generation with City Lights Bookstore at its center. Continuing on, in the '60s, San Francisco became the center of the hippie revolution that reached its peak in 1967 with Summer of Love. And in the '70s, Gay Pride became a rallying call for gays all over the country who flocked to the city and claimed the Castro as their home. Though the decade ended on a turbulent note, with the assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White, the spirit of San Franciscans only faltered for a moment.
In the 1980s, the only direction the city could expand was up, and so began what has been called the "Manhattanization" of San Francisco. Cranes filled the downtown skyline as skyscrapers were erected in rapid succession. This expansion was threatened by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that destroyed much of the Marina and SoMa districts. However, as their predecessors had done over 80 years before, San Franciscans dusted off their hands and rebuilt, taller and better than before.
San Francisco continues as one of the world's financial centers and has become a hub for technology. Its eclectic blend of Victorian and modern architecture and diverse cultural neighborhoods, the result of such a vibrant history, have made San Francisco one of the most popular cities in the world.