Lost New England Goes West: Dupont Street, San Francisco

Looking north on Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in San Francisco, sometime in the 1850s. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

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Grant Avenue in 2015:

This street has been at the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood since the first photo was taken over 150 years ago. Originally named Dupont Street, it soon became a red light district, notorious for its opium dens, brothels, and gang violence. In the background of the first photo is Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which opened in 1854 and, as a warning to would-be patrons of the neighborhood, has an inscription below the clock that reads, “Son, Observe the Time and Fly from Evil.”

The 1906 earthquake destroyed the entire street along with the rest of Chinatown, leaving only the burned-out shell of the church still standing from this scene. The disaster gave the city the opportunity to clean up the seedy establishments in the area, and to reflect this change the street was even renamed, to Grant Avenue. The buildings in the foreground of the 2015 scene were probably built in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and the old church is partially visible in the distance. The street is still a popular destination in San Francisco, though not for the same reasons in the 19th century; instead of brothels and opium dens, Grant Avenue of today is lined with Chinese restaurants and shops that sell gifts, souvenirs, and jewelry.

Lost New England Goes West: Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, San Francisco

Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue in San Francisco, around 1856. Image courtesy of the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

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The church around 1866. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Lawrence & Houseworth Collection.

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The church in 2015:

As mentioned in earlier posts, San Francisco of the 1850s was very different from just a decade earlier. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, its population was just a thousand, but by the early 1850s it had jumped to over 30,000, and was rapidly growing. To accommodate the number of Catholics, the city’s first cathedral was built here in 1854, and the building has stood here ever since. At the time, it was located near the fringes of the city, near Chinatown and some of the notorious red light districts, which explains the “Son, Observe the Time and Fly from Evil” inscription just below the clock.

The first photo was taken before the steeple was completed, but by the early 1860s the church looked essentially the same as it does today. It served as the cathedral for the Archdiocese of San Francisco until 1891, and since then it has been a parish church. In 1906, it was one of the few buildings in the area to survive the earthquake, which did no serious structural damage to it. However, the earthquake started fires that gutted the building, so today the only original part of the church is the brick exterior.

The surrounding Chinatown neighborhood was rebuilt after the fires, and today it is home to the largest Chinese population in the world outside of Asia. This section of Grant Avenue in particular is a major tourist attraction, and Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral remains both an active church and also a major landmark that dates back to the city’s early years as a Gold Rush town.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.