Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: Way to Ah-wah-neContentsPrevious: Chinese Empire

Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson


When I first stepped out of the door of the Occidental Hotel, on Montgomery street, in San Francisco, I looked up and down in disappointment.

“Is this all?” I exclaimed. “It is New York,—a little lower of story, narrower of street, and stiller, perhaps. Have I crossed a continent only to land in Lower Broadway on a dull day?”

I looked into the shop-windows. The identical hats, collars, neckties for men, the identical tortoise-shell and gold ear-rings for women, which I had left behind on the corners of Canal and Broome streets, stared me in the face. Eager hack-drivers, whip-handles in air, accosted me,—all brothers of the man who drove me to the Erie Railroad station, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, ten days before.

“What do you ask an hour?” said I.

“Three dollars,” said they all.

“Three dollars! “echoed I, in astonishment. But I jumped in, glad of any sensation of novelty, even so high-priced a one, and said:—

“Show me all you can of your city in an hour.”

Presto. In one minute we had turned a sharp corner, left the dull shops behind, and plunged into scenes unfamiliar enough. I no longer wondered at the dearness of the driving. The street was as steep as the street of an Alpine village. Men and women walking up its sidewalks were bowed over, as if nobody were less than ninety. Those walking down had their bodies slanted back and their knees projecting in front, as people come down mountains. The horses went at a fast walk, almost a trot. On corners, the driver reined them up, turned them at a sharp angle, and stopped them to breathe a minute.

The houses were small, wooden, light-colored, picturesque. Hardly any two were of the same height, same style, or tint. High steps ran up to the front doors. In many instances, when the house was built very much up-hill, the outside stair-case curved and wound, to make the climb easier. Each house had a little yard. Many had small square gardens. Every nook and cranny and corner that could hold a flower did. Roses and geraniums and fuchsias, all in full blossom,—callas, growing rank and high, and evidently held in no great esteem,—set, great thickets of them, under stairways and behind gates. Again and again I saw clumps which had dozens of the regal alabaster cups waving among their green pennons four feet high. Ivy geraniums clambered all over railings and flowered at every twist. Acacias and palms, and many of the rare tropical trees which we are used to seeing in conservatories at the East, were growing luxuriantly in these glittering little door-yards. Some of the houses were almost incredibly small, square, one story high, with a door in the middle, between two small windows. Their queer flat roofs and winding ladders of steps in front, with gay flowers all around, made you feel as if some fanciful and artistic babies must have run away and gone to housekeeping in a stolen box. Others were two stories high, or even two and a half, with pretty little dormer or balconied windows jutting out in the second story; but there were none large, none in the least elegant, all of wood, painted in light shades of buff, yellow or brown, the yellow predominating; all with more or less carved work about the eaves, window-tops, and doors, and all bright with flowers. In many of the gardens stood a maid-servant, watering the plants with a hose. Not one drop of rain had these gay little parterres had for a month; not a drop would they have for three months to come. These were evidently the homes of the comfortable middle class of San Francisco. I am a little ashamed of having forgotten the names of these streets. There were several streets of this sort; but who wishes to find them must take his chance, as I did. There are horse-cars that run through two or three of them, up and down such grades as I never saw horse-cars on elsewhere.

Then there are broader streets running along these hills; a street taking its up-hill widthwise, which has a curious effect in the steepest places. Some of these streets are full of shops. I think they are the Bowery and Sixth Avenue of San Francisco. Others, higher up, are chiefly filled with dwelling-houses,—many of them very handsome, with large gardens; some with what might almost be called grounds about them; and all commanding superb views of the bay and the part of the city lying below. It is odd to stand on the corner of a street and look off over chimneys of houses only two streets off; but you do it constantly among the ups and downs of San Francisco,—in many of the streets, in fact in all of them. You see also the most ludicrous propinquities of incongruous homes. For instance, “Wang Fo” takes in washing, in a shed, next door to a large and handsome house, with palm-trees and roses growing thickly on all sides of it. The incongruities of base-line are still more startling. One man, who builds on a bit of hill—and no man builds on any thing else —cuts it down, before he begins, to something like the level of his neighbor’s house. But the next man who comes along, having no prejudice against stairs, sets his house on the very top of the pinnacle, and climbs up forty steps to his front door.

I ought to have said that it was going away from the sea that I found these streets. Going seaward, and bearing to the south, you find still sharper hills, still more picturesque streets. To reach them, you have to go through whole tracts of business streets, ordinary and shabby houses; but, once there, you understand, why it should be the West End of San Francisco.

The names of these streets also I forget; but how can it matter? They lie on and along crags, not hills. Strangers coming to live there are warned by physicians not to walk to their houses by the steepest way. There are many instances of heart disease in San Francisco, brought on by walking too perpetually up and down steep places. Many of the houses on these highest seaward streets are handsome, and have pleasant grounds about them. But they are not so distinctively and peculiarly picturesque and sunny and homelike as the cheaper little flower-fronted houses on the other side of the city. And, going only a few steps further seaward, you come to or you look down on crowded lanes, of dingy, tumbling, forlorn buildings, which seem as if they must be for ever slipping into, the water. As you look up at the city from the harbor, this is the most noticeable thing. The hills rise so sharply and the houses are set on them at such incredible angles that it wouldn’t surprise you, any day when you are watching it, to see the city slide down whole streets at a time. If San Francisco had known that it was to be a city, and if (poor, luckless place that it is, spite of all its luck) it had not burnt down almost faster than it could build up, it might have set on its myriad hills a city which the world could hardly equal. But, as it is, it is hopelessly crowded and mixed, and can never look from the water like any thing but a toppling town.

But nothing can mar the beauty of its outlying circles of hills. The bay chose well its stopping-place. They curve and lap and arch and stretch and sink, as if at some time the very sands had been instinct with joy and invitation and passion and rest. Who knows the spells of shores, the secrets of seas? Surely the difference between stern, frowning, inaccessible cliffs, against which waters dash, but cannot prevail, and soft, wooing beaches, up which waves sweep far as they like, is not an insignificant fact in Nature. Does anybody believe that, if the Pilgrims had landed where Father Junipero Serra’s missionaries did, witches would have been burnt in the San Joaquin Valley? Or that if gold strewed the ground to-day from Cape Cod to Berkshire, a Massachusetts man would ever spend it like a Californian? This is the key-note to much which the expectation and prophecy about California seem to me to overlook. I believe that the lasting power, the true culture, the best, most roundest result—physical, moral, mental,—of our national future will not spring on the Western shore, any more than on the Eastern. Lt lies to-day like a royal heir, hidden in secret, crowned with jewels, dowered with gold and silver, nurtured on strengths of the upper airs of the Sierras, biding the day when two peoples, meeting midway on the continent, shall establish the true centre and the complete life.

It takes one hundred pages of Bancroft’s “Guidebook” to instruct strangers what to see in San Francisco and how to see it,—one hundred pages full of hotels, markets, meeting-houses, car-routes, museums, menageries, public schools, asylums, hospitals, foundries, mills, gas-works, private residences, and hack regulations. All these appear to do very well in their way, but to be singularly devoid of interest to any but the most business-like of travellers. The population of the city is about one hundred and fifty thousand; and this is all I know about San Francisco, considered from a statistical point of view. The hotels, I might add, have been so much injured by being called the best in the world that they are now decidedly poor. There is in the whole city but one hotel on the European plan,— which is the only endurable plan,—and this hotel is not more than a third or fourth-rate house.

There are two things to do in San Francisco (besides going to the Chinese theatre). One is to drive out of the city, and the other is to sail away from it. If you drive, you drive out to the Cliff House, to breakfast on the sight of seals. If you sail, you sail around the harbor, and feast on the sight of most picturesque islands. Alcatraz, Goat, and Angel islands are all fortified and garrisoned. If you are fortunate enough to go in a Government steamer, on a fort reception day, you land on these little islands, climb up their winding paths to the sound of band playing, and are welcomed to sunny piazzas and blooming gardens, with that ready cordiality of which army people know the secret. The islands are cliff-like; and the paths wind up steep grades, coming out on the plateau above. You see an effect which is picture-like. The green sward seems to meet the blue sea-line; piles of cannon-balls glisten on corners; the officers’ cottages are surrounded by gardens: the broad piazzas are shady with roses; the soldiers’ quarters are in straight lines or hollow squares; the sentinel paces up and down, without looking at you; the brass instruments shine and flash in the sun, at the further end of the square; and the sky and the bay seem dancing to the same measure, above and around. It is hard to believe that the scene is any thing more than a pleasure spectacle, for a summer delight. On one of the islands,—Alcatraz, I think,—the road up to the quarters is so steep that an officer has invented a most marvellous little vehicle, in which guests are hoisted to the commander’s door. It is black; it swings low, between two huge wheels; it has two seats, facing each other; it is drawn by a stout, short-legged horse, who looks as if he had been imported out of the Liverpool dray service. The vehicle looks like nothing ever seen on wheels elsewhere. I can think of nothing to which to compare it except to two coal-scuttles joined together, one mouth making the front, one mouth making the back, and the rounded sides nearly straightened and overlapping each other.

The morning and the noon and the early afternoon all seem one on the bright, rainless skies which spread over San Francisco’s matchless bay. It will be four o’clock before you get back to the city from this sail around the harbor; but you will find it hard to believe it.

The drive to the Cliff House must be taken early in the day,—the earlier the better; for you must be safely back again, under shelter of the city walls, before eleven o’clock, when the winds rise and the sands begin to blow about. To be anywhere on the outskirts, suburbs, or near neighborhood of San Francisco after this hour is like being out when deserts play at “Puss, puss in the corner.” Any thing like the whirling sand-banks which are tossed up and around and sent back and forth in these daily gales cannot be imagined till one has seen it. Neither can the beauty of a sand-drift be imagined till you have seen one which has that very minute been piled up, and which will not lie where it is more than one minute longer. No snow-drift can be lovelier. Of an exquisite pale tint,—too yellow to be brown, too brown to be yellow, and too white to be either; too soft to glisten, too bright not to shine; mottled, dimpled, shadowed, and shaded; lined, graven, as it were, from bottom to top with the finest, closest, rippling curves, marking each instant’s new level and sweep, as water-lines write on beaches. There it lies— in a corner of an open street, it may be, or even across your road. Look quick! Already the fine crest undulates; the base-line alters. In a minute more it will be a cloud of torturing dust, which will cover, suffocate, madden you, as it whirls away miles to east or west, to nestle again for another minute in some other hollow or corner.

The Cliff House stands on the very edge of the Pacific Ocean. From the westward piazza you look not only off; you look down on the water. The cliffs are not high; but they are bold and rocky, and stretch off northward to the Golden Gate. To the south, miles long, lies the placid beach. The low, quiet swell, the day we were there, scarce seemed enough to bring the tiniest shell. Buried deep in the sand lay the wreck of a brig, the prow pointed upward, as if still some purpose struggled in its poor, wrecked heart. The slow, incoming tide lapped and bathed it, washing, even while we looked, fresh sand into the seams and higher up around the keel. But out a few rods from the shore were navigators whose fates and freaks soon diverted and absorbed our attention.

It is so much the fashion to be tender, not to say sentimental, over the seals of the Cliff House rocks that I was disappointed not to find myself falling into that line as I looked at them. But the longer I looked the less I felt like it.

It is, of course, a sight which ought to profoundly touch the human heart, to see a colony of any thing that lives left unmolested, unharmed of men; and it, perhaps, adds to the picturesqueness and interest of the Cliff House situation to have these licensed warblers disporting themselves, safe and shiny, on the rocks. But when it comes to the seals themselves, I make bold to declare that, if there be in the whole animal kingdom any creature of size and sound less adapted than a seal for a public pet, to adorn public grounds,—I mean waters,—I do not know such creature’s name. Shapeless, boneless, limbless, and featureless; neither fish nor flesh; of the color and consistency of India-rubber diluted with mucilage; slipping, clinging, sticking, like gigantic leeches; flapping, walloping with unapproachable clumsiness; lying still, lazy, inert, asleep, apparently, till they are baked browner and hotter than they like, then plunging off the rocks, turning once over in the water, to wet themselves enough to bear more baking; and all the while making a noise too hideous to be described,—a mixture of bray and squeal and snuff and snort,—old ones, young ones, big ones, little ones, masculine, feminine, and, for aught I know, neuter, by dozens, by scores,—was there ever any thing droller in the way of a philanthropy, if it be a philanthropy, or in the way of a public amusement, if it be an amusement, than this? Let them be sold, and their skins given to the poor; and let peace and quiet reign along that delicious beach and on those grand old rocks.

Going back to the city, you drive for two or three miles on the beach, still water on your right and sandhills, covered thick with blue and yellow and red flowers, on your left. Surely, never an ocean met more gracious welcome. Many of the flowers seem to be of the cactus species; but they intertwine and mat their tangles so as to make great spaces of solid color. Then you take a road turning sharply away from the sea, eastward. It is hard and bright red. It winds at first among green marshes, in which are here and there tiny blue lakes; then it ascends and winds among more sand-hills, still covered with flowers; then higher still, and out on broader opens, where the blue lupine and the yellow eschscholtzia grow literally by fields full; and then, rounding a high hill, it comes out on a plateau, from which the whole city of San Francisco, with the bay beyond and the high mountains beyond the bay, lies full in sight. This is the view which shows San Francisco at its best and reveals, also, how much better that best ought to have been made.

I said there were but three things to do in San Francisco. There are four. And the fourth is to go and see Mr. Muybridge’s photographs.

The scenery of California is known to Eastern people chiefly through the big but inartistic pictures of Watkins. When it is known through the pictures which Mr. Muybridge is now engaged in taking, it will be seen in its true beauty and true proportions Every thing depends on stand-point; very few photographs of landscapes really render them. Of two photographs, both taking in precisely the same objects and both photographing them with accuracy, one may be good and the other worthless, to all intents and purposes. No man can so take a photograph of a landscape as to render and convey the whole truth of it, unless he is an artist by nature, and would know how to choose the point from which that landscape ought to be painted. Mr. Muybridge is an artist by nature. His photographs have composition. There are some of them of which it is difficult to believe that they are not taken from paintings, —such unity, such effect, such vitality do they possess, in comparison with the average photograph, which has been made, hap-hazard, to cover so many square feet and take in all that happened to be there. Mr. Muybridge’s pictures have another peculiarity, which of itself would mark them superior to others. The skies are always most exquisitely rendered. His cloud photographs alone fill a volume; and many of them remind one vividly of Turner’s studies of skies. The contrast between a photographed landscape, with a true sky added, and one with the usual ghastly, lifeless, pallid, stippled sky is something which it is impossible to overstate.

Mr. Muybridge has a series of eight pictures illustrative of the California vintage, all of which are exquisitely beautiful, and any one of which, painted in true color simply from the photograph as it stands, would seem to be a picture from a master’s hand. One of the first pictures in the series, representing the first breaking of the soil for the vineyard, is as perfect a Millet as could be imagined. The soft tender distance, outlined by low mountain ranges; a winding road, losing itself in a wood; a bare and stricken tree on the right of the foreground; and in the centre a solitary man, ploughing the ground. Next comes the same scene, with the young vines just starting. The owner is sitting on a bank in the foreground, looking off dreamily over his vineyard. Then there are two pictures representing the cutting of the grapes and the piling of them into the baskets and the wagons. The grouping of the vintagers in these is exquisite. Then there is a picture of the storehouses and the ranges of casks; all so judiciously selected and placed that it might be a photograph from some old painting of still life in Meran. The last picture of all is of the corking the bottles. Only a group of workmen, under an open shed, corking wine-bottles; but every accessory is so artistically thrown in that the whole scene reminds one of Teniers.

I am not sure, after all, that there is any thing so good to do in San Francisco as to spend a forenoon in Mr. Muybridge’s little upper chamber, looking over these marvellous pictures.

Next: Way to Ah-wah-neContentsPrevious: Chinese Empire

Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management