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A Chinese Restaurant. Yerba Buena and the Reminiscences of a Forty-Niner
The Plaza and its Echoes
"Be careful," I warned, "you'll get your feet wet."
We stood on the corner of Montgomery and Commercial Streets, having carried out our resolution of the day previous to continue our search for old landmarks. The Bostonian moved uncomfortably under the warmth of the noonday sun, and glanced down at the dry, glaring pavement; then he stooped to turn up his trousers.
"All right," he announced, "is it an arroyo or has the hose used in putting out 'the fire' suddenly burst?"
"Neither. The arroyo was a block further south. It ran down what is now Sacramento Street, and you ought to know enough about the fire to realize that we couldn't use our fire hose, because the earthquake broke the water mains."
"Then there was an earthquake!" He shot an amused glance at me. "You're the first Californian I've heard acknowledge it."
"Oh yes, there was an earthquake - but it didn't do much damage," I hastened to add. "Just 'knocked down a few chimneys and rickety buildings that the city was going to pull down anyway. It was the fire that destroyed the city."
"So Mother Nature was just favoring 'Frisco by lending a helping hand to the city officials," he laughed. "Well, you see I'm prepared for the deluge." He indicated his upturned trousers. "But if it isn't an arroyo - "
"It's the bay," I explained. "It used to touch the shore about where we are standing, forming a little inlet called Yerba Buena Cove."
"But," objected the man, mentally measuring the distance down the straight paved street to where the slender shaft-like tower of the Ferry Building broke the sky line, "it must be seven blocks from here to the present waterfront, two thousand feet at least."
"Yes, fully that," I agreed. "A large part of the business section of San Francisco stands on made-land. The water along the shore, here at Montgomery street, was very shallow, and at the time of the gold rush, when seven or eight hundred vessels were waiting in the bay to discharge their freight and passengers, a corporation of energetic Americans built a long wharf from here to the deep water, where the ships were anchored. Look down Commercial Street to the Ferry Building and, instead of the houses on either side, imagine it open to the water. Then you will see Central Wharf as it was in 'forty-nine.'"
"Central Wharf!" The name had caught his interest.
"Yes, it was called that from the one you have in Bost."
"Bost?" he repeated, mystified. "Bost?"
"Yes, Bost!" I answered. "You called our, city 'Frisco, not five minutes ago, so why shouldn't I - "
"I beg your pardon," he said humbly. "I will never offend in that way again."
"But the building of the wharves and the filling in of the waterfront belong to a later time and we are back in Spanish days. When Vancouver landed he tells us that he cast anchor within a small inlet surrounded by green hills, on which herds and cattle were grazing. Historians say that his ship lay about where the Ferry Building now stands and that the crew put off for the shore in small boats. This place was a waste of sand-dunes and chaparral but the Englishmen were refreshed by the cool waters of the arroyo and spent a pleasant morning shooting quail and grouse."
"Quail, grouse and chaparral," he repeated, as his eyes traveled up and down the solidly built blocks and rested on the pedestrians hurrying in and out of the buildings. "Let's take a look at the bed of the arroyo."
We paused at the corner and for a moment watched the car laboriously climb the Sacramento Street hill and disappear over the crest; then we turned for another look at the mass of buildings now resting on the solid ground which had taken the place of the shining waters of Yerba Buena Cove.
"It was about here," I announced, "that the arroyo opened out into the Laguna Dulce, a little fresh water pool where Richardson's Indians delighted to take a cold plunge on leaving their steaming temescal."
"Richardson? Hardly a Spanish name!"
"No, but a Spaniard by naturalization and marriage. He was an Englishman who had come to the coast in the whaler 'Orion,' and being fascinated by the country and the carefree Spanish life, had married a lovely little señorita, the daughter of Lieutenant Martinez, later Comandante of the Presidio. Richardson settled on a ranch at Sausalito and in 1835, when Governor Figueroa decided to establish a commercial city on the shore of Yerba Buena Cove, he appointed as harbor master, this Englishman, who was already carrying on a small business with the Yankee skippers, and the future town was made a port of entry for all vessels trading up and down the coast. Richardson built the first house in the little settlement of Yerba Buena, afterwards San Francisco."
"Since this is an historic pilgrimage, we must take a look at the spot where the first house stood. Is it far?"
"Only a few blocks," I assured him. "But we shall have to venture into the heart of Chinatown."
We made our way up Sacramento Street, where the straight-lined grey business blocks gave way to fantastic pagoda-like buildings gaily decorated in green, red, and yellow. Bits of carved ivory, rich lacquer ware and choice pieces of satsuma and cloisonné appeared in the windows. In quiet, padded shoes, the sallow-faced, almond-eyed throng shuffled by, us; here a man with a delicate lavender lining showing below his blue coat, there a slant-eyed woman with her sleek black hair rolled over a brilliant jade ornament, leading by the hand a little boy who looked as if he had stepped out of a picture book with his yellow trousers and pink coat.
We turned to the right at Grant Avenue, passing a building conspicuous on account of its elaborately carved balconies hung with yellow lanterns and ornamented with plants growing in large blue and white china pots. The Bostonian looked curiously at the Orientals lounging about the door, then his face brightened as he read the words, "Chop Suey."
"It's a Chinese restaurant," he exclaimed delightedly. "Let's go in for a cup of tea, as soon as we have taken a look at your historic landmarks."
On the northwest corner of Grant Avenue and Clay Street, we paused before a dingy four-story brick building on whose sides were pasted long strips of red paper ornamented with quaint Chinese characters. I secretly wished that the building had been designed as a gay pagoda with bright colored, turned-up eaves like many of those in Chinatown and that its windows had displayed the choice embroideries and carved ivories of some of its neighbors, but as we peered through the glass, we saw only utilitarian articles for the coolie Chinaman.
"Rather a sordid setting for my story," I bemoaned. "The first house in commercial San Francisco stood here. It was only a sail stretched around four pine posts, but two years later was replaced by a picturesque, red-tiled adobe, so commodious that the Spaniards called it the Casa Grande. I am afraid the building now occupying the spot where the second house stood will be equally disappointing," I said ruefully, as we recrossed the street to where a Chinese butcher and vegetable vender was displaying his wares. We gazed curiously at the dangling pieces of dried fish, strings of sausage-like meat, unfamiliar vegetables, lichee nuts and sticks of green sugar cane.
"Somewhat different from the silks, satins and laces displayed on this spot by Jacob Leese in Spanish days," I reflected. "He was a Bostonian, who like Richardson had become an adopted son of California and settled at Yerba Buena for the purpose of trading with the American vessels."
"This must have been a lively business center." The man raised his voice above the rumble of the wagons and cars. "Two little houses in the midst of a sea of sand-dunes and no settlement nearer than the Mission."
"Oh, it didn't take the American long to make things hum," I assured him. "He arrived here on July second. Two days later he had built a house and was entertaining all the Spaniards from miles around, at a grand Fourth of July celebration."
"Quick work even for a Yankee," laughed my companion. "But rather hard on his English neighbor, I should think. Did Richardson attend?"
"Of course he did! Delivered the invitations, too! Leese was busy building his house, so the Englishman, in his little launch, called at all the ranchos and settlements about the bay and invited the Spaniards to come to Yerba Buena for a Fourth of July fandango."
We retraced our steps and a few doors beyond entered the gay, balconied restaurant, in quest of a cup of tea served in Oriental style. Climbing the steep stairs, we passed the first floor where laborers were being served with steaming bowls of rice; then mounted to the more aristocratic level where we were seated at elaborately carved teakwood tables, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. While waiting for our tea, we stepped onto the balcony which we had regarded with so much interest from the street. Above us hung the gorgeous lanterns, swaying like bright bubbles in the breeze, and below moved the silent blue-coated throng.
"So there was a Fourth of July celebration here even in Spanish times?" said the man. "Somewhat prophetic of the American days to come, wasn't it?"
We caught a glint of color in the street and leaned far over the balcony to watch a violet-coated Chinese girl thread her way among the sombre crowd.
"It must have been just below us that the early festivities were held," I suggested. "Leese's house was not large enough to accommodate his guests, so a big marquee surmounted by Mexican and American flags, and gaily decorated with bunting, was spread about where the street now runs. Can't you picture it all? The dainty little señoritas in their silk and satin gowns, with filmy mantillas thrown over their heads and shoulders, and the men not less gorgeous in lace-trimmed velvet suits and elaborate serapes. I can almost hear the applause and the booming of the cannon that followed General Vallejo's glowing tribute to Washington, and see the graceful Spanish dancers as they assembled for the evening ball. It was doubtless at this time that Leese met General Vallejo's fascinating sister, whom he married after a short and business-like courtship."
"Short, and she a Californian?" He sent me an amused glance.
"Perhaps Leese thought delay dangerous," I suggested, "for Señorita María Rosalia was one of the belles of the new military outpost at Sonomá and more than one gaily clad caballero was suing for her hand."
"No wonder the American pushed the matter," laughed my companion. "Did many Boston men marry Spanish Señoritas?"
"Nearly all who came to the Coast," I answered. "The California women were among the most fascinating in the world and held a peculiar charm for these sturdy New Englanders."
"I can understand that," he said, bending for a better look at my face. "But what could the dainty señoritas see in these crude; raw-boned Yankees?"
"Just what any woman would see," I declared. "Men of sterling character, working against terrible odds, with that courage which does not know the word failure. They saw men of perseverance, energy and brains who were bringing into the country the indomitable spirit of New England."
"I am glad you have a good word for the early Yankees," he said, "and I wish your enthusiasm extended to a later generation."
He turned toward me and I felt the telltale color sweep my cheeks as I became conscious that I was thinking less of Leese and his compatriots than of the Bostonian at my side.
"It wasn't the New England spirit," he declared, "that gave these early settlers the strength and determination to succeed. It was the women who had faith in them. A man can accomplish anything if the woman he loves - " My companion had moved close to my side, and his voice was low as he bent over me. "Little girl," he began, "last year in Boston when you came into my life - "
The harsh jangle of a Chinese orchestra broke the dull murmur of the street and in an instant the little balcony was crowded with gazers eager to catch a glimpse of the musicians through the windows opposite.
My companion and I moved aside for the new corners and turned again toward the interior. Through the open door we could see the waiter placing steaming cups of tea upon the table we had deserted, and re-entering the room, we seated ourselves in the big carved arm-chairs. Sipping the delicious beverage, we glanced toward the other tables, where groups of Chinamen were talking in a curious jargon and dexterously handling the thin ebony chop-sticks. On the wide matting-covered couches extending along the sidewalls, lounged sallow-faced Orientals, while in and out among the diners noiselessly moved the waiters, balancing on their heads, large brown straw trays. Snowy rice cakes, shreds of candied cocoanut, preserved ginger and brown paper-shell nuts with the usual Chinese eating utensils were placed before us. We tried the slender chop-sticks with laughable failure and then, declaring that fingers were made first, we had no further trouble. We took a farewell look at the gilt carved screens and long banners, which in quaint Chinese characters wished us health and happiness. Then following our smiling attendant to the door, we were bowed down the stairway. A Chinaman leaned over the railing and called the amount of our bill to the attendant on the second floor, who like an echo took it up and sent it on to the main entrance, where we settled our account.
Again on the sidewalk, we mingled with the Oriental throng whose expressionless yellow faces gave no hint of joy or sorrow. At the corner we turned east and made our way toward Portsmouth Square. I paused and let my eyes run over my companion, from his emaculate linen collar to his well-polished shoes.
"You'll look sadly out of place here," I warned. "No artist would ever take such a well-groomed person for a model, nor would you be suspected of belonging to the great army of the unemployed."
"Are they the only classes allowed? Then I speak now for the purchasing right of your portrait."
"Oh, I'll pose very well as the 'Amelican' teacher of those little Chinese butterflies fluttering after that kite. Aren't they attractive in their lavender, pink, and blue sahms?" I said, as we seated ourselves on the bench.
"To be honest, to be kind, to earn a little, to spend a little less,'" he read from the face of the fountain standing against a clump of trees whose soft foliage drooped caressingly over it. "Why, that's from Stevenson's Christmas sermon. Look at that unappreciative brute! He drank without reading a word!" exclaimed the man indignantly.
"Yes, but he feels the better for coming here. He received the refreshment most needed and that is what Stevenson would have wished. Some other may need and will receive the spiritual help."
"Why is it here?" he asked.
"Because Stevenson loved this place and came often to sit on the benches and study the wrecked and drifting lives of the men who lounged in the square."
"And the gilded ship on top with its full blown sails - that must suggest his Treasure Island, doesn't it?"
"Yes, and also the Manila Galleon, that splendid treasure-ship ladened with silk, wax and spices from the Philippines and China, which once each year made its landfall near Cape Mendocino and followed the line of the coast down to Mexico."
He leaned with arm outstretched along the back of the bench and surveyed the park.
"This, you said, was the old Spanish Plaza. What was here then?"
"At first just a sweep of tawny sand-dunes, surrounded by scrub oak and chaparral." I dropped my eyes to the gravel walk, that I might shut out the emerald green lawns, and flowering shrubs. "Over the shifting hillocks wandered a little minty vine bearing a delicate white and lavender flower not unlike your trailing arbutus. It was from the medicinal qualities of this plant that the little settlement was named Yerba Buena, the good herb. Over there on the northwest corner where that dingy Chinese restaurant now floats the flag of Chop Suey stood the old adobe Custom House, the first building erected on the Plaza, and it was in front of this that the Stars and Stripes were run up when General Montgomery, who had arrived in the sloop-of-war Portsmouth, took possession in the name of the United States."
"So that is where the square got its name - from the ship 'Portsmouth?'" His voice rang with the joy of discovery.
"Yes, but the new name never completely replaced the old. We love the terms which come to us from Spanish days, and so, to many of us, this is still the Plaza."
"I presume there was a great outcry when Montgomery pulled down the Mexican flag and ran up the American. But I understand the country was helpless."
"Yes, it was poorly fortified, and the Californians had known for some time that Mexico was losing its hold, so the event was not unexpected. But there was no flag to pull down for the receiver of customs, realizing that resistance was useless, had packed the Mexican flag in a trunk with his official papers for safe keeping, so without opposition General Montgomery marched with seventy men accompanied by fife and drum from the waterfront to the Plaza, and raised the Stars and Stripes on the vacant flag pole. Thus the country came into the possession of the Americans and our historic pilgrimage is at an end," I concluded, rising.
But my companion seemed loath to leave the place. We sauntered by dark-eyed Italian girls lolling on the benches, shaggy bearded old sailors, whose scarred faces told of fierce battles with the elements, and stopped to examine the plaster casts presented for our inspection by a weary-eyed street vender. At a distance, a laughing gypsy girl in a white waist and much beruffled red plaid skirt was enticing the crowd to cross her hand with silver that she might tell their fortunes.
"What need have we for gypsies?" he demanded pulling me down on a bench. "I'll, read your palm."
"Can you tell fortunes?" I questioned as I drew off my glove.
"I can tell yours," he declared straightening out my fingers in his big strong hand, and examining the lines.
"He's a tall dark man, wearing glasses - "
Instinctively I looked up into the uncovered brown eyes, then dropped mine in confusion as I met his laughing gaze.
"Only when he reads," added the Bostonian, holding on to my fingers, as I tried to withdraw my hand.
An angry voice broke the silence and we sprang to our feet to see an old man shaking his fist in the face of a young Irish policeman.
"You let me alone!" he shouted. "You let me alone!"
For a moment the officer hesitated. Then he seized the old man by the collar. "Come along quietly! There ain't no use making a howl. There's a vagrancy law in this city and I'll show you it ain't to be sniffed at. I've been watching you ever since I've been on this beat and you ain't done nothing but sit around this Plaza."
"And ain't I a right to sit 'round this Plaza?" The man pulled himself free and again defied the officer of the law with a clenched fist. "Didn't I help make it? When you were playing with a rattle in your crib over in Dublin, I was a-stringing up a man to the eaves of the old Custom House over there on the corner. And now you try to arrest me - me a Vigilante of '51 - " His fury choked him, and with a quick turn of the hand, the officer again had him by the collar. But the old man wrenched himself loose.
"You keep your hands off me." He raised his angry voice in warning. Then drawing a bundle of papers from his pocket he thrust them into the officer's face. "Look at that - and that - and that - biggest business blocks in San Francisco. If I choose to wear a loose shirt and sit 'round the Plaza it isn't any business of yours. In the good old days of forty-nine - "
I touched the Bostonian on the arm. "Let's go to the Exposition," I suggested. "We've seen everything here."
"There's no need to hurry! We've all the afternoon before us." He edged a little closer to the old man, about whom a crowd was gathering.
"In the good old days of forty-nine," rang out again and I glanced nervously at my companion. "We didn't have any dipper-dapper policemen making mistakes." He snapped his fingers in the officer's face. "We had good red-shirted miners who knew their business."
The policeman moved uneasily and handed back the papers. "I guess they're all right," he acknowledged. "The law doesn't seem to touch you."
"Touch me! Well, I guess not!" The officer moved off and the old man returned to his bench. Before I realized my companion's intention, we were seated beside the miner. He was still muttering maledictions on the head of the Irish policeman.
"The scoundrel!" He dug his stick into the gravel path. "Had the nerve to arrest me! Me, who strung up Jenkins in the first Vigilante Committee, and Casey and Cora in the second."
"You must have come here in early days," remarked the Bostonian.
"Early days," echoed the miner, "well, I guess I did. I'm a forty-niner." He straightened himself proudly and looked to see the effect of his words.
"I think we had better go." Again I touched the Antiquary's arm but he gave no heed to my signal.
"There must have been some stirring times here in the days of the gold rush."
"You bet there were," agreed the forty-niner, "and the entire history of San Francisco was made around this Plaza. Here were built the first hotel, the first school-house, the first bank; within a stone's throw the first Protestant sermon was preached, the first newspaper was printed and the first post office was opened. It was through the Plaza that Sam Brannan ran with a bottle of yellow dust in one hand, waving his hat with the other and shouting, 'Gold! gold! from the American River!' It was here that the big gambling houses sprang up, where fortunes were made and lost in a night, and here the first Vigilance Committee met and executed justice." The old man paused for breath.
I was on the edge of the bench ready for flight. All my good work of the last two days was rapidly being undermined. I heard again the skeptic's contemptuous tone of yesterday. "It's either before the fire" or "in the good old days of forty-nine."
"We - we must go," I stammered, "it's getting very late." The Bostonian looked at his watch. "Not three o'clock yet." He leaned back comfortably. "You ought to be interested in this. Your grandfather was a forty-niner."
I looked at him searchingly. I ought to be interested! I, who cherished every memory of pioneer days! I, who had bitten my lips a dozen times that afternoon, and was glorying in the tact and strength of mind which had avoided this period of our history!
The miner, apparently aware of my presence for the first time, sent me a piercing glance from beneath his shaggy eyebrows. "So your grandfather - "
"He wasn't exactly a forty-niner," I acknowledged. "He arrived outside the Heads the night of December thirty-first but there was a heavy fog and the vessel didn't get inside until the next morning."
"Hard luck," sympathized the old man, "coming near to being a forty-niner and missing it."
"But it's practically the same thing," persisted the Bostonian. "Only a few hours."
"The same thing!" scornfully repeated the miner. "There's as much difference as between Christmas and Fourth of July. A forty-niner's a forty-niner, and a man that came in fifty - well, he might as well have come in sixty or seventy, or even in the twentieth century. It's the forty-niner that counts in this community." He drew himself up proudly. Then plunging his hand deep into his pocket, drew out a nugget.
"Picked that up off my first claim," he explained, "but the dirt didn't pan out so well. I've carried it in my pocket all these years, just for the sentiment of the thing, I suppose. Many a time I was tempted to throw it on a table in the El Dorado, but I hung on to it."
"The El Dorado?" questioned the Easterner.
"Yes, one of the big gambling places here on the Plaza. Everybody took a chance in those days, even some of the preachers. You met all your friends there, and heard the best music and the latest news."
"Did they gamble with nuggets?" my companion led the old man on.
"Well, I guess they did! and gold dust in piles. The few children in town used to pan out the dirt of the Plaza in front of the Temples of Chance every morning after the places were swept out. The Californians put up parts of their ranchos, too, sometimes."
"How high did the stakes run?" Evidently this descendant of the Pilgrims had not lost all the sporting blood of his earlier English ancestors.
"Often as high as five hundred or a thousand dollars. The largest stake I ever saw change hands was forty-five thousand. Many a miner went back to the placers in the spring without a dollar in his pockets. But everybody was doing it and you could almost count the nationalities in the crowd around the table by the kinds of coins in the stacks. There were French francs, English crowns, East Indian rupees, Spanish pesos and United States dollars. The dress was as different as the money. We miners wore red and blue shirts, slouch hats and wide belts to carry our dust. The Californians were gorgeous in coats trimmed in gold lace, short pantaloons and high deer-skin boots, and the Chinese ran a close second in their colored brocaded silks. You knew the professional gamblers by their long black coats and white linen - real gentlemen, many of 'em and the most honest in the country.
"Ever see a picture of the Plaza in forty-nine," he asked abruptly.
The miner drew a square on the gravel path with his stick. "The El Dorado was here, the Veranda here and the Bella Union here," he said, punching holes on the three corners of Kearny and Washington. "They were the finest and they had the best locations in town. The El Dorado paid forty thousand dollars a year for a tent and twenty-five thousand a month for a building on the same site later." The end of his stick deepened the hole on the southeast corner.
My eyes wandered from the plan to the real location. "Why, there is the name 'Veranda' over there now," I exclaimed as the black letters on a white awning caught my eye.
"Yes, it is pretty near the old site, but it's a poor substitute for its predecessor," he added scornfully. "There was great style in those days - fine bars, lots of glass and mirrors and pictures worth thousands of dollars. The doors were always open from eleven in the morning 'til daylight the next morning, and a steady stream of people were pouring in and out all the time. Everybody was there. There weren't no special inducement to stay home nights, when your residence was a bunk on the wall of a shanty and the fellers over you and under you and across the room weren't even acquaintances. I got a pretty good room after awhile in the Parker House" - he drew a small oblong south of the El Dorado - "for a hundred dollars a week, but I didn't stay long."
"I should think not - at that price."
"Oh, it wasn't the price. One of my friends paid two hundred and fifty. But you see it got pretty warm at the Parker House, that Christmas eve, and so we all moved. They cleared away the hot ashes of the hotel and built the Jenny Lind Theatre on the spot. That was the first big fire. We had them right along after that, every few weeks. Six big ones in eighteen months, with lots' of little ones in between."
"Then the last fire wasn't a new experience for you," the Bostonian suggested.
"Lord, no! Rebuilding was a habit with us early San Franciscans. We didn't begin to feel sorry for a man 'til he'd lost everything he owned three times. The Jenny Lind Theatre went down six times and the seventh building was sold for the City Hall. It stood right there" - he pointed to the handsome new Hall of Justice - "until it went up in the last fire."
"You are sure it wasn't the earthquake that finished it?" inquired the skeptic.
"Certainly not," I flared. "The Relief Committee met there that morning to lay their plans while the fires were raging south of Market Street."
He acknowledged defeat by changing the subject. "Was the old Spanish Custom House here?" he asked, pointing to the western side of the diagram.
"Yes," assented the miner, and he traced an oblong on the northern end, "and just behind it, on Washington Street, was Sam Brannan's house. He was the Mormon leader, you know, and brought a shipload of his followers to establish a settlement in forty-six. He published our first newspaper, the 'California Star,' in his house."
"Was it where that little green Chinese building with the bracketed columns and turned-up eaves is?" I interposed.
"The telephone exchange, you mean? Exact spot. They used to ring a hand bell in the Plaza on Sunday mornings to call the Mormons to hear Brannan preach in the Casa Grande."
"Richardson's house!" My companion sent me an appreciative glance.
"Sure, but that was before most of 'em, including Sam, went back on their faith. Next to the Custom House on the south," he continued, "was the Public Institute. It wasn't much to look at - just pine boards - but it was considerable useful. They held the Public School there and had preaching on Sundays 'til the teacher, the preacher and all the audience went off to the mines. They tried the Hounds there, too."
"The Hounds?" my friend looked dazed.
"Yes, the Sidney Coves that lived in Sidneyville, along there on Kearny near Pacific." Light had failed to dawn.
"Here on the corner of Kearny," continued the Forty-niner, "was an old adobe building with a red-tiled roof and a veranda around it."
"The City Hotel!" I exclaimed delightedly.
"How did you know?" He eyed me curiously.
"My grandfather was a near-forty-niner," I reminded him.
"Oh yes. Too bad! Too bad!" he added sympathetically. "It was the house and store of a fellow named Leidesdorff," he continued, "who did a lot of trading with the Yankee skippers in Mexican days, and it was turned into a hotel in the gold rush. It was always the swell place for blowouts. They had a big banquet and ball there for Governor Stockton, I'm told, after the procession and speeches in the Plaza, and another the next year for Governor Kearny; the first Relief Committee met here, called by Brannan, Howard and Vallejo, to send rescuers to the Sierras for the survivors of the Donner Party. There wasn't much of any importance in the way of gathering that didn't happen there."
We instinctively looked across at the square, three-story, pressed-brick home of the Chinese Consulate and bank.
"Every big fire took at least one side of the Plaza, and the sixth, in June of fifty-one, wiped out the whole square. That adobe was the last link between the Spanish village of Yerba Buena and its American successor, San Francisco," he regretted, "but it was a good thing for the city, for they began to build with stone and brick after that. Did you see the Parrott Building, as you came along, on California and Montgomery?" he asked.
The Easterner turned to me. "You didn't show me that," he said, reprovingly.
"No, why should I? It wasn't built until fifty-two."
He ignored my insinuation and turned back to his informer. "What about the Parrott Building? It sounds like an aviary."
"Not exactly," he smiled. "It was made of granite blocks, cut and dressed and marked in China and then shipped over and set up by the 'China Boys,' as the Orientals here called themselves."
"It's a curious coincidence," I ventured, "that the Hong Kong Bank now occupies the lower floor. What a freak of the winds it was that swept the big fire around that and the Montgomery block, and left them both for posterity!"
"Your fire seemed to have had a special veneration for historic structures," the Easterner commented. "It respected the Mission in like manner."
"Yes, somewhat," returned the miner, "but it might have had a little more respect and spared the Tehama House and the What Cheer House. I hated to see them go."
"And the Niantic Hotel and Fort Gunnybags," I added.
"Here! Here! I rise for a point of information," cried the alien. "Did the cheer inebriate and what is the technical difference between gunny-sacks and carpet bags?"
"Oh, that was our Vigilance Headquarters of fifty-six, where we hung Casey and Cora," elucidated the Forty-niner.
"Help," gasped the Bostonian, sinking upon the bench.
"Tell him," I nodded to the miner.
"The Tehama House, on the waterfront at California and Sansome, was the swell hotel for army and navy people and all the Spanish rancheros when they came to town. You couldn't keep even your thoughts to yourself in that house, for it had thin board sidings and cloth and paper partitions, but it had lots of style, and Rafael set a great table. They moved it over to Montgomery and Broadway to make room for the Bank of California, and the fire caught it there. The What Cheer House," the old man's eyes brightened, "was on Sacramento and Leidesdorff, and that's where we miners went, if we could get in. Woodward was a queer chap. Took you in whether you could pay or not. But it was only a man's hotel. There wasn't a woman allowed about the place. He had the only library in town and everybody was welcome to use it. I've often seen Mark Twain and Bret Harte reading at the table."
"And the sacks?" queried the Bostonian.
But the old man had leaned back on the bench and his eyes wandered over the green grass and trees of the square. "It's much prettier than it used to be," he admitted, "but nothing happens here now. The Chinese children fly kites and the unemployed loaf on the benches and the grass, and I'm one of them. I wish you could have seen it in the early days." His eyes kindled with excitement. "It was only a barren hillside, but there was always something doing then. All the town meetings were held here in the open air and all the parades ended here for the speeches. The biggest celebration was in 1850, when the October steamer, flying all her flags, brought the news that California was admitted to the Union. We went wild, for we had waited for that word for more than a year. Every ship in the harbor displayed all her bunting and at night every house was as brilliant as candles and coal oil could make it. Bonfires blazed on all the hills and the islands and we had music and dancing all over the town 'til morning."
He paused in reminiscence. "But it wasn't so gay that moonlight night, the next February, when we hung Jenkins. He was a Sidney Cove and had just stole a safe, but that was the least of his crimes and of the whole gang. When we Vigilantes heard the taps on the firebell here in the Plaza, we gathered in front of the committee rooms. Nobody was excited; we just had to drive out the Sidney Coves and put an end to crime. We marched Jenkins here and hung him over there to the beam on the south end of the Custom House. Forty of us pulled on the rope, while a thousand more stood 'round as solemn as a prayer meeting to give us moral support and shoulder the responsibility. It wasn't no joke hanging a man, but it had to be done, if decent men was to live here."
He shook off his depression. "Everybody was in the Plaza sometime in the day, and once a month when Telegraph Hill signaled a steamer, everybody was here."
"Telegraph Hill? I never heard of it," he cast an accusing glance in my direction.
"It belongs to forty-nine," I retorted.
"All the shops closed immediately," continued the miner, "and Postmaster Geary was the most important man in town. The post-office was a block up the hill at Clay and Pike Streets, but the lines from the windows stretched down into the Plaza, and over among the tents and chaparral on California Street Hill. Men stood for hours, sometimes all night, in the pouring rain, and many a time I sold my place for ten dollars, and even twenty, to some fellow who had less patience or less time than I.
"But you should have been here on election day in fifty-one. The miner threw back his head and laughed aloud. "Colonel Jack Hays was running for sheriff," he resumed, "and his opponent hired a band to play in front of his store here on the Plaza as an advertisement. It worked fine! He was polling all the votes and the Colonel was about out of the running, 'til he got on his horse that he'd used on the Texas ranges and came cavorting into the square. He showed 'em some fancy turns they weren't used to and kept it up 'til the polls closed.
"Did he win?" I asked excitedly.
"Well, I guess he did! Hands down. But a sheriff ain't no use when the laws won't stick. That's why we had to have the Vigilance Committees.
I arose. That was a long story and the afternoon was fast going. My companion took the hint. He extended his hand and grasped the old miner's heartily.
"I thank you," he said, "you have opened up a new epoch to me and I shall not soon forget you. I shall come again and the place will have lost much of its interest if you are not here."
"Oh, I'll be here," laughed the old fellow. "It's home to me."