For ships coming through the Golden Gate, Telegraph Hill could be spotted as the first unmistakable landmark to welcome them to San Francisco. The marine signal on top of the hill used semaphore arms to show anxious citizens at a glace whether an incoming vessel was a side-wheel steamer (bringing in passengers and mail), or a barque (loaded with everything from fish-hooks to billiard balls) or a sloop of war (greeted with a cannon salute and evening festivities). Anyone who wanted to see "everything" has to climb the slopes of Telegraph Hill - and there it was, spread out below. From the city's beginnings, the hill was a place to live.
July 4th, 1891: lumber schooner racing off Telegraph Hill.
"San Francisco at night is unlike anything I ever beheld. Houses mostly made of canvas, made transparent by light from within, and transformed in the darkness to dwellings of solid light... tents pitched among the chaparral to its summit, it gleamed like an amphitheater of fire." - Bayard Taylor, Reporting to New York Tribune, 1949
The intrepid builder of this carpenter-Gothic home on the high northern reaches of Telegraph Hill, traded convenience for an encompassing view that included the Golden Gate, Fort Alcatraz, and "Honest Harry" Meiggs's Wharf. Built on San Francisco Street, between Stockton and Dupont, this handsome four-gabled home appears in 1862; its architectural style is that of San Francisco homes from the late 1850's up through the Civil War. At that time, Telegraph Hill and North Beach were international communities, with the French living next door to the Swiss, and the Italians over the fence from the Germans, and the Irish scattered about in between, while New England Yankees could be found everywhere.
Living on the hill meant having your own small place. It meant climbing steep stairs to bring home groceries, on stairways without gaslights, with an out-house on the back porch. You had to love the hill to live there. For the most part, living on Telegraph Hill remained cheap-to-reasonable, precisely because of its steep ups and downs. From the 1880s through 1910, the hill became more Irish and Italian - with Italian settling the south slopes above North Beach.
It was possible to find inexpensive housing right up through World War II. But by the 1950s a place on the hill, with a view and reasonable rent became a treasure that friends passed on to friends. About the same time, carefully tended flower gardens began to bloom in profusion where only backyard paths had been before. Grace Marchant's Filbert Steps garden added roses, baby tears, fuchias, and datura bells to the private delight of cats and the public's pleasure.
Lillie Hitchcock Coit (1842-1929), was a regarded Southern belle. When she was seven she watched her mother burn the family plantation, rather than lose it. At age nine, San Francisco Engine Company #5 saved her from a flaming building. Whenever fire sirens sounded, Lillie followed - to the delight of San Franciscans and the dismay of her family. By twenty, she became a certified member of San Francisco's Fire Department. Lillie eloped with Harold Coit, who made his fortune in mining, enabling the couple to reside at the Palace Hotel. She smoked cigars, drank bourbon, and drove teams of fire horses - making her home in Paris, Calistoga, and San Francisco. When Lillie died, she left the city money to build a proper monument to San Francisco's Fire Department and to beautify the city. Coit Tower became the top of the hill landmark on October 8, 1933.
Stair-stepped against the sky, Telegraph Hill dwellers have enjoyed the views from these Union Street houses since the 1860s and 70s. The three-story Cooney home at 291 Union was built in 1850, and raised to accommodate an automobile. The Telegraph Hill Dwellers organized in 1954 - a time when most of the handsome brick warehouses at the base of hill were being replaced by higher-rise residential development - their purpose was "to make the hill a better place to live and visit." In 1956, the S.F. Redevelopment Agency declared a section of Telegraph Hill "a blighted area" (as in the Western Addition, when they tore down countless Victorian homes.). The Telegraph Hill Dwellers persuaded the mayor to let them clean up the hill, plant trees, bury utilities, preserve height limits, and deal with parking problems as neighbors. Meisel's grocery store, at Union and Montgomery, became their communication center and the Semaphore got the word out. The result: for many people, Telegraph Hill shelters and enhances what they love most about the city.
Embedded around the base
Look... the palace... you can glimpse it through that hole in the mosquito fog. - Issa