19th Century Cartography in the Bay Area:  Where History, Art and Data Meet

Dara O'beirne, GIS analyst

As our story begins

Nearly 300 years after the first Europeans reached the shores of North America, Spanish explorers stumbled upon what would eventually become known as the San Francisco Bay. This area was inhabited for centuries by people known as the Ohlone. In 1769, the Ohlone’s relatively peaceful existence became irrevocably changed by the arrival of a Spanish expedition led by explorer Gaspar de Portola. The expedition was looking for Monterey Bay when it crossed the Sweeney Ridge just west of San Bruno along the Peninsula and stumbled upon the San Francisco Bay. One of the members of the expedition, Ensign Miguel Costanso, recorded the event in his diary, writing, “From the summit of this range we saw the magnificent estuary that stretched to the southeast.”

Figure 1. Bay Area 1895 Source: Santa Clara County Resources San Jose Mercury 1895

Over the next two centuries the Bay Area changed significantly, both physically and culturally. During this period one of the largest expansions in population and geographic territory occurred as a result of the gold rush during the mid 19th century.  As a geographer, I have always been interested in the perspective an old map can portray regarding a specific place during a specific time. Having spent half my life in the Bay Area living in San Francisco, the East Bay, and now the South Bay, I can say that examining historical maps within these regions has provided me with a level of appreciation of our modern geography that I did not have before.

Now I want you to take a minute and look at the regional map of the Bay Area from 1895 in figure 1; you can clearly see that San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose/Santa Clara were the only areas with any significant development. As this was a time before the automobile, most residents of the Bay Area worked and lived within close proximity to each other. 

From Gold Rush to Tech Rush

Figure 2. San Francisco 1853 Source: Presidio Trust

San Francisco is a classic city that has morphed both physically and culturally over the last 150 to 200 years. The area’s population has experienced much change from the local Ohlone-speaking Native American tribes, the first Spanish settlers, the gold rush era, the 1906 earthquake, World War II, the anti-war movement of the 1960s, the 1989 earthquake, the dot com boom, and the social networking startup fever of today. In conjunction with the social changes, the area has experienced significant amounts of physical change that we can witness through the cartography of the 19th century. As we appreciate this survey map from 1853 in figure 2, we can see one significant artifact that no longer exists is Plank Road. 

Figure 3. Close up of Mission Plank Road from 1853 San Francisco Survey Map. Source:  http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=Mission_Plank_Road

In 1853, Plank Road, as you can see in the close up from the map in figure 3, was built to connect a booming downtown San Francisco during the gold rush out to the Mission Dolores area. Plank Road, pictured in figure 4, was a narrow toll road that went from the swampy area that is now known as 7th and Mission to Mission and 16th Street.   

Figure 4. Mission Plank Road 1856 Source: Annals of San Francisco

A map of downtown San Francisco from 1852, as shown in figure 5, highlights a couple of interesting things. First off, the area we now call UN Plaza was once the Yerba Buena Cemetery. You can see this in the top left corner of the map where Market Street ends. Also, the original coast is very clear in this map. Much of the area that extends from Montgomery down to the Ferry Building and along the Embarcadero to the wharf is built on landfill, which was generated during the latter part of the 19th century. The changing shoreline was in part a result of the devastating 1906 earthquake that burned most of San Francisco. It was the landfill from this earthquake and abandoned ships along the San Francisco harbor that were used to fill in the bay along the east coast of San Francisco. 

Figure 5. San Francisco 1852 Source: San Francisco Genealogy

Figure 6. Portsmouth Square 1851 Source: Library of Congress


Figure 7. Portsmouth Square San Francisco 1852 Source: San Francisco Genealogy

In figure 6, I found an interesting picture from 1851 of San Francisco.  It is of Portsmouth Square and in the picture you can see Nob Hill in the background. This is the area of modern China Town, and Portsmouth Square is still located there today. It is the site of the first local public square established in the early 19th century in the small Mexican town known as Yerba Buena, later to become San Francisco. Portsmouth Square was the location for the very first public school in the state of California and in 1848 the first gold discovery announcement was made here. See figure 7 for a street map of Portsmouth Square.

Figure 8. San Francisco 1861 Source: Presidio Trust

The survey map from 1861 in figure 8 shows us some additional interesting aspects of San Francisco during the gold rush. First off, the areas we now know as the Richmond, Golden Gate Park, and the Sunset used to be called “Seal Rock Rancho.” The area now known as Twin Peaks was once referred to as the “Mission Mountains.” John M. Horner was a Mormon pastor who sailed to Yerba Buena Island in 1846 and is responsible for purchasing and establishing the area we now call Noe Valley, which at the time was called “Horners Addition”, as shown in figure 9.

“In San Francisco County, we paid two hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars for five thousand two hundred and fifty acres of land adjoining the city of San Francisco, and expended nearly eight thousand dollars upon it in surveys, fences and other improvements. One thousand and fifty acres of these lands we surveyed and staked into streets, blocks, and lots, extending the streets of San Francisco over it. It is now, and has been for over thirty years, a part of that flourishing city." —John M. Horner

Figure 9. Horners Addition San Francisco 1861 Source: Presidio Trust

Moving on from some of the highlights of the 19th century San Francisco cartography, I’d like to bring our attention to Oakland just across the bay.

Before there were bridges

The earliest known inhabitants of the Oakland area were the Huchiun, a group within the larger Ohlone Tribe of Northern California, who were concentrated around Lake Merritt, Rockridge, and Temescal Creek (a stream that enters San Francisco Bay at Emeryville). A portion of the land area that is now called the City of Oakland was part of a land grant from Spain to Don Antonio Maria Peralta in 1820. The development of Oakland really began at the foot of Broadway, which acted as a port for shipping redwood and cattle to San Francisco. As you can see on the map in figure 10, what was once called San Antonio Creek (now the Oakland Estuary) was the natural harbor once used as the center of the Oakland economy and development.  

Figure 10. Oakland 1857 Source: Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room and Maps Division

I find the map of Oakland from 1857 to be one of my favorite historic maps in the Bay Area. Not only is it a beautiful piece of cartography, but it also shows some of the significant alterations made to the physical landscape of the Bay Area in and through the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the most drastic changes that can be noticed in this map is in what we now know as Lake Merritt. In the mid-1800s Lake Merritt was a saltwater tidal lagoon. In 1868 Oakland Mayor Samuel Merritt dammed the lagoon and turned it into a man-made lake. Another significant observation that can be seen is that Alameda (at the bottom of the map) used to be a peninsula instead of the island that it is today.

Figure 11. Oakland 1860 Source:  Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room and Maps Division

In the mid-19th century the only part of Oakland that had been developed was the area we now consider Downtown Oakland and China Town. This area extended from the intersection of Broadway and Telegraph down to the San Antonio Creek. As we can see in figure 11 in the map from 1860, much of the area west of downtown Oakland such as West Oakland, Jack London Square, and Emeryville was just marshland.

One of the lesser-known facts of the Oakland area, something that I learned from exploring maps of this period, was the existence of a city called Brooklyn, just east of Lake Merritt, shown in figure 12.  Brooklyn was established in 1856, but was annexed by Oakland in 1872 by voter approval. It is the area we now refer to as East Oakland.

Figure 12. Oakland 1867 Source: Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room and Maps Division

This map from 1867 was also the first map where we can see the designation of Lake Merritt from the damming of the lagoon in 1868. This would be the first step in severely altering the landscape around the San Antonio Creek estuary. Another interesting observation to note on this map is that Yerba Buena Island used to be called “Goat Island.” This is the island that used to connect the east and west spans of the Bay Bridge. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Yerba Buena Island had also been named “Seabird Island” and “Wood Island.”

Figure 13. Bird’s Eye View Oakland 1870 Source: Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room and Maps Division

Figure 14. 1870 Passenger train of the Central Pacific Railroad on the Oakland Wharf Source: Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room and Maps Division

The map in figure 13 shows a great bird’s eye view of Oakland from 1870 where we can see the San Francisco & Oakland Railway that was built in 1862, which ran along the San Antonio Creek and through Downtown out into the San Francisco Bay. Figure 14 is a picture of the rail, which shows how it was built out to the bay; passengers could transfer from the train to a ferry bound for San Francisco across the bay. Now, if you would like to get a real sense of what 19th century Oakland looked like, take a look at figure 15, a picture taken at Broadway and 9th St. It’s hard to believe the Oakland we know today used to look like it does in the picture, with the dirt roads and boarded sidewalks. 


From the old mission to Silicon Valley

Figure 15. 1889 Broadway at 9th St. Source: Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room and Maps Division