Amazing images of San Francisco before it was a city

Sand dunes at the edge of the Richmond District for San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in the 1880s.

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Sand dunes at the edge of the Richmond District for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in the 1880s.
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Found San Francisco

Before San Francisco was a bustling tech hub, before it was the center of the hippie universe, and before it became known for its lush hills, much of the area was covered in sand dunes.

Golden Gate Park, the 1,000-acre green space south of the famous bridge, is located on what was once the largest sand dune ecosystem in the western hemisphere. These dunes spanned seven miles, essentially the entire width of modern-day San Francisco.

About two square miles of dunes still exist today, but the Bay Area has evolved a great deal since then.

Take a look at the maps, paintings, and historical photographs that show the journey of San Francisco.


San Francisco’s first residents, members of the Yelamu tribe, began inhabiting the area around 3000 BC. Approximately 150 to 300 people lived in the boundaries of modern-day San Francisco, though they also roamed to neighboring sites.

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Library of Congress

Source: San Francisco Chronicle


A group of Spanish explorers, led by Don Gaspar de Portolà, arrived there in 1769. This was the first documented European visit to the San Francisco Bay.

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Courtesy of The Clear Case

At the time, sand dunes stretched for about seven miles from east to west.

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A 1910 photo of a sand dune in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
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Willard Worden/Open SF History

Source: San Francisco Department of the Environment


Here’s another early 20th century photo of sand dunes, which formed centuries prior, in what is now the 1,000-acre Golden Gate Park:

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San Francisco Public Library

The Spanish settlers established the Presidio of San Francisco (i.e. the “Royal Fortress of Saint Francis”) in 1776.

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NYPL

The same year, the Mission San Francisco de Asís, the oldest surviving structure in the city, was built. The Catholic church was made of adobe, brush, and wood, which weren’t the best materials considering California’s earthquakes. Here it is in an 1863 photograph:

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NYPL

The Mission church was part of a complex of buildings, used for housing, agriculture, and manufacturing.


The area remained under Spanish rule until 1821, when it became a part of Mexico.

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Library of Congress

In 1835, English entrepreneur William Richardson founded the city’s first homestead outside Mission San Francisco de Asís, near what is today Portsmouth Square (a one-block park in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood).

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Portsmouth Square, 1851.
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Wikipedia Commons

Source: San Francisco Gate


The same year, Richardson and Alcalde Francisco de Haro, a Mexican soldier, laid out an urban plan for a larger town, named Yerba Buena (“Good Herb” in Spanish) after an aromatic plant native to the area. The town began to attract American settlers.

Sand dunes at the edge of the Richmond District for San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in the 1880s.

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Sand dunes at the edge of the Richmond District for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in the 1880s.
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Found San Francisco

A decade later, Yerba Buena had doubled in population to nearly 1,000 residents, and the town’s name was changed to San Francisco.

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Public Domain

Source: “The San Francisco Bay Area”


In 1849, San Francisco became the home base for the gold rush, cementing it as a center for maritime trade.

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An 1894 illustration of San Francisco in 1849.
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NYPL

Source: History.com


During the Civil War, San Francisco planned to employ the USS Camanche, pictured below, to defend the West Coast. But the ship sank during a heavy storm in the city’s port before it ever saw action. Workers reassembled the ship, which laid decommissioned and later was used to carry coal in the area until 1920s.

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The USS Camanche in San Francisco, 1866.
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Library of Congress

Source: The California Historical Society Quarterly


San Francisco has always been vulnerable to earthquakes. In 1868, a quake with an estimated magnitude of 6.8 to 7.0 tilted these row homes.

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San Francisco History Center

Source: United States Geological Survey


Another huge earthquake and fire devastated the city in 1906. Here’s a photo of the wreckage of San Francisco’s City Hall:

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NYPL

Over the next few decades, San Francisco rebuilt itself …

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A riveter works on a skyscraper in San Francisco, circa early 1900s.
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NYPL/Ewing Galloway

… and its population boomed.

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San Francisco, circa early 1900s.
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NYPL

Construction on the 1.7-milelong Golden Gate Bridge began in 1933.

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A 1934 of the Golden Gate Bridge construction in San Francisco.
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Library of Congress

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the city built up its infrastructure. Here’s a 1945 photo of a street with the city’s earliest streetcars, which debuted in 1873.

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Wikipedia Commons

Source: San Francisco Cable Car Museum


The promise of San Francisco’s bohemia, cool summers …

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American psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead poses in San Francisco, circa 1960s.
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Getty Images Hulton Archive

… and the beautiful bay brought more residents to the city.

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Two women pose with the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, circa 1940s.
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Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection/Indiana University Archives

Today, San Francisco is home to over 800,000 people.

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heyengel/Shutterstock

Source: Bay Area Census