Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum
The Parker House in San Francisco was the best, most extravagant and expensive gambling house in the 1850s.
In 1835, there was one family in Yerba Buena (San Francisco) — the Richardsons. After 10 years, the population had increased to about 250 and these consisted mainly of men who were concerned with the selling and buying of tallow and cow hides. California was to be ceded to the United States in January 1848 and, two years later, California held its first convention in San Jose. On Sept. 9, 1850, California was admitted as the 31st state to the Union as a free state.
On July 31, 1846, Samuel Brannan, along with 244 Mormons, landed at Yerba Buena and the population immediately shot up to almost 500 residents. In August 1847, there were approximately 41 places of business. In January 1848, the first gold nuggets were found at Sutter’s Creek. In mid-May 1848, Brannan strode down Montgomery Street with a vial of gold in his hand and shouting “GOLD, GOLD, GOLD” to everyone around. This is when the world began to believe in the gold strike.
Portsmouth Square was developed in 1839 with the Custom House the prominent building. Later to the south, the jail with the first school in California was built south of it (These buildings were all destroyed in the 1851 fire).
The first merchant to have a semi-permanent building, made of adobe, at the corner of Clay and Kearny streets, was owned by William Leidesdorff. When he retired, he sold it to Voiget who used it as a grocery store as well as a hotel.
After gold was discovered in January 1948, the California people eventually began to believe that it was real and virtually everybody who was able-bodied took off for Sacramento. San Francisco became a ghost town in the summertime. Winters were extreme in the gold country and the men — young, virile, adventurous men with very few women available in the area — returned to the only real town in Northern California, San Francisco, to wait out the weather. President Polk’s final address to Congress announced that there was a gold strike in California — and the rush was on. This is when San Francisco developed the reputation of a wild-western hell-town.
The facilities for the sudden rise of population were not sustainable and the merchants and gamblers immediately took advantage of the situation. Gamblers at first put up a tent and went into business. The nights were cold and windy and during the day the winds from the west generated clouds of dust that covered everything in the vicinity. In the first three years of the Gold Rush, more than 200,000 men, women and a few children went to California (where less than 500 people were in 1845) — one of the greatest peaceful migrations in history.
It was a perpetual carnival. Construction was occurring everywhere, tents by the thousands rose overnight, merchandise was stacked everywhere and sold off of the streets, gambling was the greatest pastime with liquor sales reinforcing it. Only 50 or 60 ships were put into port in a year before 1845, but that many docked in a week now.
In 1849, $10 million was taken from the hills; $40 million in 1850 and more than $80 million in 1852.
Land speculation went crazy. Lots that could be bought for $15 in 1845 cost $40,000 by 1850. Coin was in short supply and gamblers would only accept gold coins for business. Gold started out paying $6 per ounce, then $8 per ounce, then $12 per ounce. The bartender provided the coins but, when they ran short, the price was high; when a lot of gold dust was around, the price was high. Everyone felt that when the lost their gold, all they had to do was go to work in San Francisco or go back to the gold fields because there was so much of it around. Or you could sweep the floor and make a $100 from the gold dust dropped on the floor in one day.
The brightly-lit two-story Parker House with carpets on the floor, a bar, walls decorated with naked women in all types of poses, and tables for gambling opened with John Henry Brown and Robert A. Parker, co-owners. Brown also ran the City Hotel at Clay and Kearney streets. Brown had to provide food and wine for the hotels and keep the place running. Due to the enormous prices charged in San Francisco, he procured most of his provisions from Oregon and the farmers around the local area. Wine was a big cost and it was available at the table for meals and the card-dealers bought a round for his customers almost every hour. Even with the high price of wine, it paid off by keeping the patrons at the tables. The Parker House was the best establishment on the West Coast. It had two billiard tables on the second floor, one on the main floor and two in the basement. Billiards passed a lot of time away but the miners soon grew tired of it and wanted higher stakes that didn’t require energy to do. The lower floor billiard room was short-lived as Parker soon was getting $10,000 per month for gambling privileges. Other rooms were rented out for the same and eventually all of the billiard rooms were rooms for faro, monte and roulette.
Of the 39,888 immigrants who arrived by sea between April 12, 1849 and Jan. 12, 1859, 1,421 were women. When the first boat with two “liberated women” landed at Yerba Buena Cove, the crowd noticed them immediately and more than 1,000 men eager for a glimpse of them gathered at the shore. The two women immediately engaged in a quarrel with the captain over the payment of their fare that the girls believed the captain had promised payment after a day in San Francisco. After many minutes of heated argument, a gentleman in the crowd threw down a bag of gold and hustled the girls off the boat amid a roar of approval from the crowd. With so few women in town, they were treated with respect and collected top pay for that privilege. Some were hired out to the gambling palaces and would stand, sit and post in an enclosed display box while miners paid an ounce of gold to view her for a few minutes. After time when more women began arriving to the city, “cribs” became plentiful much to the enjoyment of the miners.
Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.