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Did the San Fracisco Gold Rush Start in San Francisco?

Gold Street, a one block alley in the Jackson Square District, still has many of its original brick buildings from the 1850s, largely spared by earthquakes and fires. Fifty-six Gold Street at the corner of Balance Street can, in a way, claim notoriety as the location that started the Gold Rush.

It was an assay office. This is a place to which the government distributed standard gold and silver coins used for measuring the bullion, coins, dust, ore or nuggets coming in from the gambling parlors, banks and—eventually—gold mines. The comparisons were for purity, weight, composition and value. Miners would dump their rocks hopefully on the counter, and come away thrilled and rich or occasionally disappointed.

On May 12, 1848, more than three months after the first gold was found 135 roadless miles east at Sutter's Mill, Sam Brannan announced the presence of gold in the Sierra to the tingling ears of Yerba Buena town. He then walked into the 56 Gold Street assay office with a bottle of flakes and dust, to prove his rumor.

His rumor became a gold rush. Yerba Buena became San Francisco.

Samuel Brannan was the leader of a group of Mormon pioneers who had emigrated from Illinois aboard the ship Brooklyn. They arrived in California in July, 1846, long before the Gold Rush, to become the first English-speaking residents of the Mexican pueblo of Yerba Buena. Brannan had brought with him the pinnacle of technology, a portable Franklin printing press. His staff included Orrin E. Smith, an ancestor of the family that now owns and publishes the Fresno Republican. Brannan, undaunted by the prevalence of Spanish speakers, launched his dream: The California Star. It was the first English language newspaper on the west edge of the American continent. The mormons launched their project here because the town was the coast's largest, with a population of about 1,000 people.

Along with its sales in the street, the paper was sent by ship to the British Isles and the Eastern seaboard, announcing the growth of a new city. Through this monopoly mouthpiece, Brannan promoted California's development, calling it "a haven of opportunity" and later announcing the Gold Rush. His words in the street, and then in the papers launched a great flood of fortune-seeking. At the time, it was (probably inaccurately) known as the greatest mass movement of population since the Crusades. The population of Yerba Buena increased twelve-fold in a single year, thirty-fold by two years, and after a decade reached 56,800 people in the new city of San Francisco.

Since 56 Gold Street was right at the water's edge, Balance Street was water, the deepest and southernmost corner of Yerba Buena Cove. One of the ships that brought miners and adventurers—only to be abandoned at the dock—was the Balance. Its remains are buried beneath Balance Street, where it gave its name to its gravestone.

—Joel Pomerantz


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