San Francisco's History in Street Names

This is an extremely condensed history of San Francisco, focused on how various streets got their names. Each factoid is intentionally tweet-sized! You can tap or swipe to go forward and back, or using left and right keys on a desktop.

This app was thrown together in five hours, and the content in even less time. It is not complete, comprehensive or even necessarily accurate. I'm not a real historian, I read history for the laughs.

I'm @seldo on Twitter and you can direct your cries of outrage there.


This history is about streets, and therefore ignores the Ohlone, who were here for thousands of years before the Spanish showed up and began murdering them in the name of the church. There are no laughs to be had about that shit, and they did not build any streets to map.


You can drag the little yellow guy in the top left and get a street-level view of any of the places this app takes you. Try it now to see the TransAmerica building!

The very first things to be built in San Francisco were a military installation at Fort Point in the Presidio and the Mission San Francisco de Asís itself. This created a complicated chain of names.

Mission street is named after the Mission, but the mission isn't on that street. The current Mission is on Dolores street. Dolores Street is also named after the mission, because it was also called Mission Dolores.

The Mission Dolores name came from a creek (now almost entirely buried) that used to run near to the original mission. The creek was named after Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, Our Lady of Sorrows, after the patron saint of the day the creek was discovered by Spaniards.

Church Street is also named for the Mission church, making it the third street to be named after the same Mission, but the original Mission building wasn't on any of those streets!

Not on Mission, Dolores or Church, the original Mission was at Albion and Camp streets. There's a plaque. Albion Street is named after Nova Albion, which is what Francis Drake had called California when he sailed by in 1579 and entirely failed to spot San Franciso bay.

San Francisco began existence in 1835 when ship owners petitioned the governor of California to create an official port to take advantage of the safe and easy anchorage at Yerba Buena Cove. The cove has long since been filled and land created far past the original coastline.

Yerba Buena's first alcalde, a sort of combination of a judge and a mayor, was Francisco de Haro. He laid out its very first street, called Calle de la Fundación, starting at the current corner of Kearny and Pine but running mostly along what's now Grant Avenue.

The first permanent habitation in San Francisco was 827-843 Grant Avenue, where William Richardson, a whaling captain, set up a trading business after marrying the daughter of the commander of the Presidio in 1835. There's no sign or anything to indicate this.

Much later, de Haro got a street named for him, but he should probably be more famous. Yerba Buena remained small and quiet until 1846, when John Charles Frémont decided that California should be annexed by America from Mexico and invaded.

Frémont had 60 guys with guns under his command, but he was not really part of the army, and so this wasn't America declaring war on Mexico, he was just... some guy being a dick. They kicked him out but he kept coming back and stirring up trouble.

Frémont's father in law was Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who also wanted to annex California. For this service to dickishness, Benton also gets a street. Frémont's shit-stirring eventually led to the Bear Flag Revolt.

The Bear Flag revolt was basically a bunch of drunk dudes who declared a republic and made a flag and moved into the house of Mexican general Mariano Vallejo, then in charge, where they stayed, still drunk, for the next 3 weeks until Frémont showed up and took over from them.

Of course, Frémont was still not part of the army, so this was awkward and eventually in July 1846 the US sent some troops from the Mexican-American war (which had started a month earlier) and officially took over California with a nominal force of 70 soliders and marines.

The last Mexican alcalde before the Americans stole California was José de Jesús Noé. Why we pronounce it "No-ee" instead of "No-eh" is a mystery. We also mis-pronounce "Guerrero", also named for a former alcalde, who was killed in a "drive-by" involving a slingshot and a horse.

Also in July 1846, 238 Mormons showed up in San Francisco, doubling its population. They had been fleeing persecution by the US government, so were very disappointed to discover that while en route their destination had become part of the USA, but decided to stay anyway.

In this group was Sam Brannan, who quickly abandoned strict Mormon ways and became very rich selling mining supplies during the gold rush (of which more in a second). He also campaigned vociferously against changing Yerba Buena's name to San Francisco.

The guy who renamed Yerba Buena to San Franciso was Washington A Bartlett, the first American appointed alcalde of the town. He thought naming the town after the bay would be good for establishing it as the major town in the region, and he was right.

The other reason he called it San Francisco was to prevent another town from taking that name. Thomas O. Larkin had been about to found a new town called Francisca, after General Vallejo's wife.

After San Francisco took the name, Larkin used the general's wife's second name, Benicia, a town that still exists (right next to the town of Vallejo, named for the general himself).

Bartlett hired Jasper O'Farrell, an Irish engineer who'd previously lived in Philadelphia, to survey the town. He invented San Francisco's absurd "Hills? What hills?" grid system and named a street after himself.

O'Farrell also named Market Street after the one in Philadelphia (there was never a market on it), as well as Sansome and Filbert streets after streets in Philly.

O'Farrell was not alone in naming streets after himself. In 1855 a local milkman Charles Gough, appointed to the committee to name streets in the expanding town, named Gough street after himself and Octavia street after his sister.

But before that happened, the gold rush had to happen. John Sutter was trying to build a lumber mill near Coloma and hired a guy called James Marshall to do it. The lumber mill used a water wheel for power, and while building it Marshall noticed gold lying in the stream bed.

Neither Sutter nor Marshall made much money in the gold rush. Sutter had been granted his land by the Mexican government before the annexation but everybody just ignored that and claimed it for themselves.

Absurd numbers of people showed up for the subsequent gold rush. San Francisco exploded in size from 459 people in 1847 to 30,000 in 1849 and 150,000 by 1870 and 342,000 by 1900. Wells Fargo was founded as a stagecoach company to help carry gold dust around.

People made money mining gold, but also in lots of nefarious ways. David Broderick literally made money by inventing a standardized gold currency for San Francisco (there wasn't enough paper money) and profited by selling $4 worth of gold as a $5 coin.

James Lick made his money by ignoring gold and buying land, spending less than $40,000 to buy lots in San Francisco in 1847 that then become worth millions by 1849. He never spent any of his money but gave it all away before he died, including founding an observatory.

Joshua Norton, aka "Emperor Norton" also showed up in San Francisco around this time. Initially a rich trader, he became unhinged after losing all his money and declared himself emperor of San Francisco, and everybody played along, giving him free stuff until he died.

In 1849 John W Geary was elected as San Francisco's last alcalde and its first American-style mayor. He later moved back east and became governor of Kansas, before it became a state.

In 1850 Lotta Crabtree was born in San Francisco. Playing in music halls in SF at first, she became America's highest paid actress. She donated her millions to charitable causes and also bequeathed a fountain of questionable taste to the city.

Between December 1849 and June 1851, San Francisco burned to the ground 7 times. There was no fire department, there was little water and the town was mostly tents, or canvas walls stretched over wood frames, so fires started easily and were hard to put out.

But several of the fires were intentional. There's evidence the arsonists had figured out that the gold stored all over town would melt but not burn, and they could come along after the fire and scoop it out of the ashes. A breathtakingly lazy and evil strategy!

Because the town was mostly tents, it was very quickly rebuilt after each fire. The biggest of the 7 fires, in 1851, destroyed three quarters of the town, some 2000 buildings. San Francisco finally got around to forming a fire department.

In 1851 a 7 year old called Lillie Coit moved to SF. She was fascinated by firefighters and would run alongside fire engines (then pulled by men) and cheer them on as they struggled to get up steep hills. She left money to San Francisco, which built Coit Tower with it.

Arson was just one aspect of San Francisco's lawless nature at that time. Sam Brannan showed up again, creating a Committee of Vigilance to find and summarily hang criminals. Members of the Vigilance Committee were called "vigilantes", which is the origin of that word.

The sudden population explosion in the gold rush was almost entirely men, leading to a boom in business for sex workers. Cora Street is one of two streets in San Francisco named for famous sex workers. Belle Cora was a famous madam in the 1850s.

Also around this time Mark Twain lived in San Francisco. He never said "The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco" but he should have, because that would have been neat and everyone thinks he did anyway.

Minna Street is also named for a sex worker, Minna (or Minnie) Rae. She met Mark Twain, and Emperor Norton dubbed her the "little countess". Her life is unlikely to have been a fun story: she started working at age 9 and was pregnant by age 11.

By 1863 the gold rush was mostly over but William Chapman Ralston discovered that instead of gold there was an enormous amount of silver in the famous Comstock mine (located in what is now Nevada) and made a fortune getting it out.

In the 1860s they tried to name a town after Ralston but he modestly refused, so instead they decided to name it after his modesty -- hence the town of Modesto, California. (Ralston Street in SF came much later)

In 1865 Adolph Sutro arrived and told Ralston he could build a tunnel to help him get the silver out more cheaply and safely. The tunnel took forever to build and by the time it was done the silver was all mined out, but selling stock in the tunnel itself made Sutro very rich.

Sutro used his money to build Sutro Baths, the largest indoor swimming facility in the world when it was built in 1896. Until they burned down in 1966, they were next to the Cliff House, which Sutro also owned at the time.

William Ralston was also the force behind the creation of the Golden Gate Park, a totally artificial creation built on top of sand dunes by William Hammond Hall. It is 20% larger than New York's Central Park, a deliberate move to out-do New York.

Water was a real problem for Golden Gate Park, solved in 1902 by constructing windmills to power pumps, in case you've ever wondered why there are two random windmills in the park. They no longer pump water.

Also in Golden Gate Park is the De Young Museum, rebuilt in 2005. The original was built, along with the music concourse and the Japanese Tea Garden at the same spot, as part of the 1893 California Midwinter International Exposition. The park's superintendent hated all three.

De Young was the owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, and also built the Chronicle Building, which in 1890 at 10(!) stories was San Francisco's first "skyscraper" and the tallest building on the West Coast.

The creation of Golden Gate Park boosted settlement in the Sunset, which until then was mostly just sand dunes known as "Outside Lands" (hence the name of the music festival).

Most of the streets in the Sunset (and the Richmond) were laid out in the early 1900s. Many are named after members of expeditions led by Juan Bautista de Anza, who in the 1700s was sent by Spain to map and colonize California, including founding the original Mission.

The streets were also named alphabetically from north to south, but they couldn't find an early colonist whose name started with a Q so they just made up the name "Quintara" because it sounded vaguely Spanish-y.

Judah Street, home of the N-Judah Muni line, is appropriately named after Theodore Dehone Judah, who built California's first railroad in 1856. He also built the transcontinental railroad linking the east and west coasts, but died before it was finished.

After the huge fire of 1906, the city decided to tidy up street names, eliminating duplicates and correcting mis-spellings. They tried to give the numbered avenues of the Sunset names but residents rebelled, so they mostly kept the numbers but renamed 49th to La Playa Street.

That's it for now!

I hope you enjoyed these little factoids! If you've got feedback, especially suggestions for additional fun facts, get in touch with me on Twitter.


My primary source is A Short History of San Francisco by Tom Cole, which is both excellent and, indeed, very short. I recommend it. Another absolutely wonderful resource is this interactive map of SF streets with their names: