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University of California Press
Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin / Edition 2

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin / Edition 2

by Gray Brechin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520250086
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/03/2006
Series: California Studies in Critical Human Geography
Edition description: With a New Preface
Pages: 437
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Gray Brechin has worked as a journalist and television producer and is coauthor of Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream (UC Press). He received his Ph.D. from the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography in 1998

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Chapter 1

Those who succeed us can well take care of themselves.

—Copper king and U.S. Senator William A. Clark, 1907

Mythologizing Mining

Six hundred tons of sculpted bronze and granite would be sufficient to crush any doubts about pioneer morality, claimed speakers at the dedication of the Pioneer Monument on Thanksgiving Day, 1894.[Note 1] Just the day before, a prominent San Francisco preacher had told his congregation that the proud members of the Native Sons of the Golden West were "degenerate descendants of unworthy sires" who had been "Sabbath-breakers and hoodlums" during the increasingly fabled gold rush. Another divine had claimed that unlike the pilgrims, California's pioneers had come to escape religion, that "they came not for conscience, but for coin." Yet another told a church club that "the honor that bound the Pioneers together...was the honor that binds thieves together for protection." He added that they had passed their criminal genes down to subsequent generations of Californians.

The Invisible Pyramid

San Francisco's motto—Gold in Peace, Iron in War—as well as the choice of mining by Lick's trustees as best emblematic of the city's founding, compresses the impetus for more than five thousand years of city-making into a few choice words and one salient image. Agriculture and mining represent the two prototypical human activities from which towns first sprang. Until recently, they stood for opposite ways of regarding and transforming the natural world.

California's Classical Precedent

The forty-niners rightfully dubbed themselves Argonauts, for the Pyramid of Mining that recrystalized in California after 1849 was well established in classical times. The silver mines of Laurium financed both the conquests and achievements of Athens, the gold of Macedonia and Thrace those of Philip and Alexander, and the mines of three continents the glories of Rome. The Romans' first steps toward empire began with their northward lunge for the iron mines of Tuscany, which were essential for the production of weapons needed for further conquests. Rome's hunger for metals, both precious and base, grew along with its power. The city's desire to wrest the Spanish mines of Tartessus (later known as Rio Tinto) away from Carthage may well have led to the Second Punic War. By destroying its rival in that war, Rome took on its power. Victorious generals parading tons of gold and silver through the streets of the capital drove the masses to frenzies of patriotism. San Francisco's leaders would, several thousand years later, consciously model their own patriotic parades down Market Street on those of Rome.

The Renaissance of Mining

The prospect of fortunes, and the slaves needed to obtain them, drove Rome's leading families to conquest just as it has all subsequent rulers who have looked back to that city as their ideal role model. With the collapse of Roman authority and demand, however, mines throughout the empire were largely abandoned and forgotten; the Pyramid temporarily crumbled in western Europe in that period known as the Dark Ages. Rome did not fall, however; it merely tripped, picking itself up again in the Renaissance when it was reborn in multiples. It could never have done so without the revival in mining that fueled both its resurrection and its insatiable expansion into new worlds under the twin banners of civilization and Christendom.

The Age of Discovery, Conquest, and Fugger

No one of his age better or more splendidly embodied the Pyramid of Mining, nor foreshadowed the international capitalists of the coming centuries, than Jacob Fugger II. Better known simply as Jacob the Rich, he founded a dynastic fortune on the central European mines in the late fifteenth century.[Note 3] Even before Columbus sailed west, those mines were providing Europe with the metal needed for both its currency and its wars. Channeling that wealth into other activities, the bankers of Jacob's hometown in southern Germany far surpassed their Italian rivals, erecting buildings that earned their city the title "Golden Augsburg." The Fugger family grew to such prominence that the Age of Discovery has also been called the Age of the Fuggers.

De Re Metallica

The costs of mining were as well-known to those who revived it as they were to the ancients. Among the richest mines were those in Joachimsthal in the Erzgebirge northwest of Prague. These abounded in silver, as well as something else that sickened miners with lung cancer.

The strongest argument of the detractors is that the fields are devastated by mining operations, for which reason formerly Italians were warned by law that no one should dig the earth for metals and so injure their very fertile fields, their vineyards, and their olive groves. Also, [critics] argue that the woods and groves are cut down, for there is need of an endless amount of wood for timbers, machines, and the smelting of metals. And when the woods and groves are felled, then are exterminated the beasts and birds, very many of which furnish a pleasant and agreeable food for man. Further, when the ores are washed, the water which has been used poisons the brooks and streams, and either destroys the fish or drives them away. Therefore the inhabitants of these regions, on account of the devastation of their fields, woods, groves, brooks, and rivers, find great difficulty in procuring the necessaries of life, and by reason of the destruction of the timber they are forced to great expense in erecting buildings. Thus it is said, it is clear to all that there is greater detriment from mining than the value of the metals which the mining produces [emphasis added].

Such objections were trifles, concluded the doctor, well worth the benefits that mankind derives from the metals. Yet in his final sentence, Agricola showed that he was well aware that "detractors" had long accused the miner of keeping a very different kind of account with the earth than the farmer, and that in the long term the books don't balance because the costs must be paid by others.

The earth is red, the sky bright blue.
No tree or green thing breaks the view;
On every side death reigns supreme,
For six long miles no life is seen,
But barren ground and charréd stumps,
With here and there some ruined humps,
Telling where once a winepress stood,
With vineyards and a little wood
Of olive or orange trees,
Ere science o'er this land did breathe
Her poisoned breath, polluted air;
Which, withering every blossom fair,
Has left instead of nature's plenty
A howling desert bare and empty.

Allan needn't have traveled so far, for he could have seen much the same ruin had he visited Manchester, Leeds, or large parts of London. The mine was, in his own time, coming home to roost.

The James Marshall Myth

The meticulously edited romance of mining—and its eternal liaison with the collateral activities of metallurgy, militarism, mechanization, and finance in the Pyramid of Mining—undergirds the history of San Francisco as it does that of all imperial cities. James Marshall's providential discovery of gold long served to buttress that myth, and his bronze profile was accordingly placed on the prow of the Pioneer Monument, which itself stood in Marshall Square fronting on San Francisco's City Hall.

A Promised Land Plundered

Polk's announcement had its desired effect. Within months, tens of thousands of self-declared Argonauts poured through the Golden Gate in search of precious metal. Fully conscious of their place in history, they were determined to secure its proper writing, as well as anything else they could lay their hands on in the chaotic conditions following annexation.

Working the Frisco 'Change

Unlike placer mining, poor men did not go into hydraulicking except as laborers; the mines could no more work without pooled capital than without pooled water. When the bank panic of 1855 dried up investment capital, technology stagnated and the flow of gold shrank. San Francisco's financiers needed a marketplace to facilitate the exploitation of countless opportunities opening throughout the Pacific Basin.

Ralston, His Ring, and the Comstock Lode

Ralston aspired to playing the role of the Far West's Jacob Fugger and briefly came close to realizing his dream. In 1864, he established the Bank of California, which, under his masterful leadership, quickly came to share with the stock exchange the position of switching yard for development capital on the Pacific Coast. When he moved the bank to a palatial new building at the corner of Sansome and Montgomery Streets four years after its formation, Ralston took the West's leading business houses with him. They have remained centered near that intersection ever since.

The Sierra Nevada Flayed

If miners had shown little concern for the western slopes of the Sierra, let alone for the rich bottomlands and clear streams of the Sacramento Valley, the industry showed even less for the side facing Nevada when hardrock mining commenced in earnest. Stamp mills and amalgamating works lined Washoe Lake and the Carson River. Mills sent milky plumes of rock dust, mercury, arsenic, salt, and acids down the Carson. The air thundered with the continual percussion of stamp mills, underground explosions, and steam whistles signaling changing shifts or the arrival of trains. Chimneys belched their sulfuric smoke over Virginia City, while heavy metals and sewage poisoned the municipal water supply. But it was the need for energy to keep the big machines running, and for timber for the mines, that extended Virginia City's desolation farthest into the hinterlands, and in this respect it acted as San Francisco's proxy for destruction through remote-control technology developed and built south of Market Street.

Halting Hydraulicking

If Carleton Watkins saw the miners' tools as weapons, a correspondent sent by the New York Tribune celebrated the transformation they wrought as a gang rape good for the state. In a book of poems published after his visit, Bayard Taylor addressed California as "Fair young land, the youngest, fairest far / Of which our world can boast." However she might resent such apparent mistreatment, he explained, it was all for the best:

How art though conquered, tamed in all the pride
Of savage beauty still!
How brought, O panther of the splendid hide,
To know thy master's will!

California would no longer have the time to loll on her tawny hills in unproductive chastity:

But where the wild oats wrapped thy knees in gold,
The plowman drives his share,
And where, through cañons deep, thy streams are rolled,
The miner's arm is bare.

Yet in thy lap, thus rudely rent and torn,
A nobler seed shall be;
Mother of mighty men, thou shalt not mourn
Thy lost virginity!

The plowing and pounding was all to a good end, Taylor advised his personified California, for her children would "restore the grace gone with thy fallen pines; / The wild, barbaric beauty of thy face / Shall round to classic lines." California of the future would be as Greece of old, but better for the master race that had claimed and violently possessed her. Taylor concluded:

Till Hesper, as he trims his silver beam,
No happier land shall see,
And earth shall find her old Arcadian dream
Restored again in thee!

For Taylor, rape was tonic for California. He spoke for the overwhelming majority.[Note 16]

Mining Engineers as Heralds of Empire

If the mining engineer and historian Thomas A. Rickard repeatedly championed his profession as "the herald of empire and the pioneer of industry," if he boasted of its "great work of opening the dark places of the earth and of introducing civilization among the backward peoples," he was merely echoing beliefs common to its practitioners and to their employers. Their keen awareness of the pivotal role that metals have played in human history imbued engineers with mechanical evangelism bolstered by the chances for spectacular personal fortune.

Deferred Costs

Agricola readily acknowledged in 1556 that unnamed critics charged "that there is greater detriment from mining than the value of the metals which the mining produces." He quickly dismissed such naysayers for their naïveté before explaining how to get those metals with the most advanced technology available in his time. By 1912, when Henry and Lou Hoover translated and republished his book, mining technology had made such prodigious advances that the criticism was only more valid than it had been in the German doctor's time.

Specious Denials

Those involved in mining and its support industries could not claim ignorance of the costs that others had to bear. Mercury poisoning was well understood and much-observed in those who worked and lived near California's quicksilver mines and refineries: a visitor to New Almaden in 1857 noted that the smoke from the refinery killed trees and cattle and that, despite short shifts, men exposed to the fumes had "pale, cadaverous faces," that "leaden eyes are the consequence of even these short spells, and any length of time continued at this labor effectually shortens life." Such observations were common at the time, but mine superintendents nonetheless dumped an estimated eight hundred thousand cubic yards of roasted cinnabar into a nearby creek, permanently poisoning the streams of the western Santa Clara Valley and San Francisco Bay.

Enduring Attitudes

Frederick Law Olmsted became familiar with mining's ways during a two-year stay in California during the Civil War. As he had in his earlier analysis of the South, Olmsted cut through the standard economic arguments to an ethos that, he felt, thoroughly permeated, corroded, and corrupted Western society, rendering it antithetical to a settled and stable civilization founded on democratic cultivation of the land. Gold mining, he felt, had proved a curse to a state that had initially promised so much to settlers. By 1864, mining was the "grand basis of all the wealth in the State and out of which all other enterprises and occupations...grow." It encouraged a spirit of gambling, fraud, and gross materialism in those afflicted with the holy golden hunger. San Francisco, he said, was populated almost entirely by "thriftless, fortune-hunting, improvident, gambling vagabonds."

Transfer Technology

By 1893, the renowned British mining engineer James Douglas could claim that the American West had been the most fertile field for technical innovation in the development of hardware, techniques, and chemistry. California engineers exported their technology to the rest of the world and improved on that which they imported from everywhere else.

Financial Districts as Inverted Minescapes

Andrew Hallidie also served as a regent of the University of California. His colleagues on the board commemorated him posthumously by naming an innovative downtown building in his honor in 1917. The Hallidie Building is today recognized as the world's first glass-sheathed curtain-wall building, an eight-story prototype for postwar skyscrapers.[Note 27]

great rod, two thousand feet in length and hung at several points with immense balance-bobs to prevent its being pulled apart by its own weight."


  1. See San Francisco Municipal Report, 1893-94, 236-64.back to text

  2. Mumford first stated this thesis in his Technics and Civilization, and continued to develop it with greater urgency after Hiroshima. In Pentagon of Power, Mumford proposed that the Megamachine of the ancient theocracies had returned in modern times, fueled by a literally blind faith in technology. The "ecocide" inflicted on Vietnam, Mumford felt, was only a concentrated version of what the Megamachine was progressively accomplishing globally in what was erroneously called "peacetime."back to text

  3. Streider, Jacob Fugger the Rich (dedicated to His Highness, Prince Karl Ernst Fugger-Glött); and Ehrenberg, Capital and Finance.back to text

  4. Of the English lords who sold arms to the Spanish armada and to pirates that harried British shipping, Thomas Rickard wrote, "As in modern days, the munitions-makers were not scrupulous as to whom they sold, and were not above doing business with the probable enemies of their own country." Man and Metals, 889. The Iran-Contra scandal provided the public with a brief glimpse of a pattern of "patriotic treachery" as old as the Pyramid of Mining itself. I take up this theme in chapter 5.back to text

  5. Ehrenberg, Capital and Finance, 84.back to text

  6. Rickard notes that "Laurium, like most mining districts, was denuded of its trees at an early date....Today only a few stunted pines survive, but in the spring, wildflowers and herbs give a brief touch of beauty to the dreary landscape of this forlorn part of the ancient world" (emphasis added). Romance of Mining, 92.back to text

  7. Cronon, Nature's Metropolis. While Cronon masterfully analyzes imperial Chicago's environmental impact upon the Midwest, he gives scant attention to the coal, iron, and copper mining that enabled its leaders to exert their dominion, or to those leaders' considerable investments in mining and its collateral activities.back to text

  8. Bunje, Pre-Marshall Gold in California, 43. See particularly pp. 43-44 on U.S. foreknowledge of gold.back to text

  9. Bancroft, California Inter Pocula, 53-54.back to text

  10. Bunje, Pre-Marshall Gold in California, 43-44.back to text

  11. As a former president of the Pioneers, Thomas Larkin proposed later in his life that a "first-class" membership should be created for those few who (like himself) had arrived prior to July 7, 1846, the date of California's initial separation from Mexico. The Society compromised by establishing a first-class membership for those who had arrived prior to 1849. Mere forty-niners thus became the demi-elect.back to text

  12. Teiser, This Sudden Empire, California, 31.back to text

  13. Property in California was concentrated in a remarkably brief period by those who arrived first and with capital, knowledge of the law, and a useful degree of ruthlessness. In the 1850s, as much as 80 percent of the personal and real property in San Francisco was owned by less than 5 percent of the city's male workforce. The degree of monopoly in rural counties was even more extreme. See Issel and Cherny, San Francisco, 1865-1932, 16.back to text

  14. Del Mor, History of the Precious Metals, 266.back to text

  15. De Quille, Big Bonanza, 174-79. The effects of mining are being felt to this day; forest managers credit the sudden transition from pine to fir following logging in the nineteenth century for the widespread death of drought-stressed trees in the Tahoe Basin. See "Dying Tahoe Trees Blamed on Mining," Carson City Appeal, September 27, 1994.back to text

  16. B. Taylor, "On Leaving California," Poetical Works, 92-3.back to text

  17. For an essential account of the role and importance of the profession, see Spence, Mining Engineers, 1967.back to text

  18. J. H. Hammond, Autobiography. One colleague referred to Hammond as "vain, loud mouthed, and a blowheart [sic]," while William Wallace Mein said that Hammond claimed the experiences of other engineers as his own and that his Autobiography was "full of lies." Spence, Mining Engineers, 324 and 336.back to text

  19. When Mills's daughter Elizabeth married Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Tribune, his family took over the nation's most influential newspaper. Reid himself was an unsuccessful vice presidential candidate and an ambassador to England. Mills's son, Ogden, married into the landed aristocracy of the Hudson River valley and became Herbert Hoover's secretary of the treasury. The banker's granddaughters married into the English nobility and Pittsburgh steel. The Mills and Hammond families joined to finance the transnational Milham Exploration Company.back to text

  20. Smith was associated with Edmund de Crano, a former miner and broker on the San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board. In addition to South African mines, Smith's connections included the Alaska Treadwell, Anaconda, and other leading mining companies. In 1890, he helped to found and finance the Central London Railway. For the California connection, see A. F. Williams, Some Dreams Come True; and Rickard, ed., Interviews with Mining Engineers, especially the interview with Henry Perkins.back to text

  21. Gardner F. Williams, whom Smith also pulled into the Exploration Company, became manager of the DeBeers company's diamond mines at Kimberley. Williams's daughter married another Californian, William Wallace Mein, the manager of the Robinson Gold Mines in Johannesburg. Their descendants in turn merged with other western dynasties and continue at the core of San Francisco society today. Gardner Mein founded the San Francisco society monthly the Nob Hill Gazette, whose motto is "Not just an address but an attitude."back to text

  22. Rickard, Man and Metals, 980.back to text

  23. Hammond, Autobiography, 305.back to text

  24. Gilbert, Hydraulic Mining Debris.back to text

  25. Olmsted was not alone. An unnamed writer in the Overland Monthly observed that "[San Francisco's] merchant princes are stock-jobbers, and her capitalists are land and mine and wildcat speculators; Shylock sitting at the receipt of customs, and selfishness forging the chains of the blind votaries of chance!" "City at the Golden Gate," Overland Monthly.back to text

  26. E.g., the former CEO of Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, Harry Merlo, has been quoted as saying of the company's northern California old-growth forests, "We need everything that's out there.... We log to infinity. Because we need it all. It's ours. It's out there, and we need it all. Now." Ridgeway, "Logging to Infinity," 20.back to text

  27. The building is located at 130 Sutter Street.back to text

  28. Scots master mechanic Joseph A. Moore of the Risdon Iron Works claimed to be the inventor of the hydraulic lift elevator, which he derived from pumps developed for the Comstock mines. Moore said that he took or sent the plans for the elevator to New York and Glasgow. He attempted to profit from the invention's possibilities for raising the value of urban real estate, but apparently failed to raise the necessary capital. See Joseph Moore, "Dictation of Joseph Moore," 1888[?], collection of Hubert Howe Bancroft. Architect Daniel Burnham, one of the inventors of the Chicago skyscraper, visited and worked in the Nevada mines in 1868-69.back to text

  29. Deidesheimer did not patent his invention and he died broke. Spence credits it with being among the most valuable innovations in mining history.back to text

  30. John Hays Hammond described the ten-story office block that Mills completed across from the New York Stock Exchange in 1883 as the most impressive skyscraper of its day. Though it lacked a true skeletal structure, it had its own electrical generating plant, more than five thousand electric lights, and ten elevators, as well as a remarkably modern articulation. When the second Mills Building was opened in San Francisco 1891, it boasted the first entirely steel frame of any structure in that city. George Post designed the former, Burnham and Root the latter.back to text

  31. William Randolph Hearst to George Hearst, 29 January 1885, Phoebe Apperson Hearst papers, Box 63, File "To George Hearst."back to text

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface to the 2006 Edition
Preface to the First Edition: The Urban Maelstrom

Introduction: New Romes for a New World

Part I: Foundations of Dominion
1. The Pyramid of Mining
2. Water Mains and Bloodlines

Part II: The Thought Shapers
3. The Scott Brothers: Arms and the Overland Mutiny
4. The De Youngs: Society
Invents Itself
5. The Hearsts: Racial Supremacy and the Digestion of "All Mexico"

Part III: Remote Control
6. Toward Limitless Energy
7. The University, the Gate, and "the Gadget"

A Note on Sources
Select Bibliography


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