M. G. Upton

The Overland Monthly 2 (February 1869):131-136.

This is probably the M. G. Upton who on February 28, 1859 was elected official Reporter of the California Assembly. His full name may have been Mattias Gilbert Upton. The critique of the San Francisco plan that follows appeared in one of California's most important publications, a journal best known to some as the source of several stories by Brett Harte. Upton was still writing for what by that time had become The Overland in 1898, but other than that his life and work remain obscure. Upton's essay is an example of American town planning criticism applied to a single city, one of many written in the nineteenth century by both foreign and domestic observer. It thus only indirectly suggests to the reader how best to design an urban community and therefore differs somewhat from most of the other documents in this series.

Some explanation is needed for those not familiar with the persons mentioned by the author. The Vioget whom Upton castigates was Jean Jacques Vioget, a Swiss sailor, tavernkeeper, and surveyor. In 1839 Governor Juan B. Alvarado commissioned Vioget to prepare a plan for the land overlooking Yerba Buena Cove, the area now filled and occupied by the financial district of San Francisco. For reasons not altogether clear, Vioget produced a warped grid plan of less than a dozen blocks in the shape of parallelograms and with half of one of these blocks left open for what became Portsmouth Square. Upton also discusses the work of Jasper O'Farrell. He was an Irish engineer, and under the direction of the American military alcalde or mayor of San Francisco O'Farrell in 1847 replanned the town, eliminating Vioget's acute angled intersections and extending a uniform grid north, east, and west. This soon need to be expanded, and O'Farrell produced a much larger town plan consisting of two grid systems set at 45 degrees from one another and divided by Market Street. These streets and blocks and those created by yet another extension planned by William Eddy in 1849 so disregarded the rugged topography of the San Francisco site as to cause Upton's biting criticism.

It was to Monsieur Vioget that the astonishing idea of laying out a city upon the peninsula of San Francisco was first presented in a serious and business-like manner. We know but little of the personal history of that child of sunny France. It is certain, however, that he was not called upon to found the future metropolis of the Pacific because of any experience which he had previously enjoyed in the matter of surveying places for the future residence of large populations. No other cities, so far as the geographers are aware, acknowledge in the fullness of their joy a Viogetan paternity. The cause of his selection for the performance of a duty with which immortality is usually associated, was that he was an engineer, and was in possession of the only instruments which could then be discovered in all Yerba Buena. It would perhaps be unjust to enter upon a criticism of his work till at least the circumstances by which he was surrounded were recalled. Even in those early days there were men of faith in the scattered hamlet by the Golden Gate. They looked down upon the broad expanse of a noble bay, and they said to themselves: "As sites for cities are getting scarce, a great emporium must, some time in the far-off future, spring up here." In imagination they beheld streets, and squares, and promenades, take the place of the chapparal and the sand dunes by which the face of nature was covered; but without any very clear idea of the causes which were to promote their construction, or the manner in which the details were to be carried out. Some, in their hilarious moments, at least saw a new New York rise, as if by magic, in dazzling splendor out of the scrub-oak bushes through which they were in the habit of forcing a toilsome passage; others, a modernized Philadelphia, with its streets at right angles, its rows of severely identical buildings with solid wooden shutters; and others still, a rejuvenated Hermosello, or Lima, in which three card monte would be elevated to the dignity of a National institution, and stakes attainable by a respectful petition to the Ayuntamiento.

The basis for all these dreams was a few houses scattered about the peninsula, built of adobe. The engrossing subject of conversation was hides and tallow. The bells of the old Mission tolled, every Sabbath, away in the distance, and the good missionaries celebrated their masses, it is to be feared almost exclusively for the poor Indians who found, to their great contentment and satisfaction, that Christianity was only another name for regular ration duly and fairly distributed. The waters of the bay then washed the eastern line of Montgomery Street, and where stately structures now rise, boats were once beached. The peninsula, as you looked westward, presented the appearance of a lump of baker's dough, which had been kneaded into fantastic hills and vales--a lump of baker's dough, too, which, after having been worked, had been forgotten so long that the green mould had begun to creep over it. For, upon this windy tongue of land, the forces of nature had been operating through long geological ages. The westerly wind blowing upon it with ceaseless moan for the 'greater part of every recurring year, had rolled up the sand from the bottom of the quiet Pacific, and then, when it had been accumulated on the firm land, had fashioned it into the most grotesque shapes....

Whatever be the true geological history, Telegraph, Rincon and Townsend Street Hills rose up on the point of the peninsula, like weird shapes beckoning the adventurers to this rich and wonderful land, while Russian Hill stretched itself in all its wealth of nondescript topography, parallel to them, but further to the west. It was upon a site so unpromising that Monsieur Vioget was called upon by the united acclaim of his fellow-citizens to lay out a city. Looking back at what was then done with such solemnity and pretence of deliberation in the interests of civilization, it is a matter for regret that these early settlers did not leave the tracery of their streets to that bovine instinct of which we have such a brilliant and altogether admirable illustration in the city of Boston. These intelligent animals always furnish evidence that they believe in the maxim, that the longest way around is often the shortest way home. It is altogether possible that if the outlines of the streets were conformed to the paths which the cows of the early villagers made for themselves, on their way to and from their respective corrals, we would have easier and more rational grades, and a more picturesque and interesting city than Monsieur Vioget has given us, with all his wealth of theodolites, and the ceremony of running lines and erecting monuments. If the truth were known, we think that it would turn out that there was not one among these dreaming early colonists who believed that the city which Monsieur Vioget was employed to found would ever amount to anything, either in his own life or in that of his grandchildren or great-grandchildren. But the sketching of cities on paper, with a great affluence of churches, and school-houses, and public squares, had become a regular business in the country from which most of them emigrated. Fortunes had been made out of great commercial emporiums and centres of trade, which had never assumed a more tangible shape than that in which the draughtsman's pencil had left them. It was a little speculation, then, upon which they proposed to enter--an issuance of stock not embellished, it is true, with the most captivating and inspiring vignettes, but very insinuating by reason of its quaint phraseology and its solemn averments on the subject of metes and bounds.

Who, therefore, can with justice censure Monsieur Vioget for going heartily with those who employed him? He, made an observation so as to fix one point, and then drew off the future metropolis of the Pacific, with the greatest ease and the most remarkable celerity. For the topography with which he had to deal he manifested a contempt entirely proper in a person engaged in an engineering romance. The paper upon which he sketched his plan was level, and presented no impediment to the easy transit of the pencil. He gave us, with that disregard for details which is always characteristic of great minds, the Quartier Latin, improved and modified by Philadelphia, for a site as rugged and irregular as that to which Romulus and Remus applied themselves on the banks of the Tiber. Over hill and dale he remorselessly projected his right lines. To the serene Gallic mind it made but very little difference that some of the streets which he had laid out followed the lines of a dromedary's back, or that others described semi-circles--some up, some down--up Telegraph Hill from the eastern front of the city--up a grade, which a goat could not travel--then down on the other side--then up Russian Hill, and then down sloping toward the Presidio. And this crossed with equally rigid lines, leaving grades for the description of which pen and ink are totally inadequate.

He had before him the most beautiful and picturesque site for a city that could anywhere on the face of the earth be found!--a cove entirely sheltered from norther or southwester, with a lofty eminence on either side, and a high longitudinal ridge in the background. What if he had terraced these hills, and applied the rule and square only to the space lying between them! But he executed the work assigned to him--he devised a plan by which every settler could with ease trace the boundaries of his possessions, and placed all of the peninsula, which it was then thought could be used in the course of a century for purposes of human habitation, in a marketable condition. He little knew, when he was at work in his adobe office, with his compasses and rulers, that every line he drew would entail a useless expenditure of millions upon those who were to come after him; and that he was then, in fact, squandering money at a rate that would have made a Monte Cristo turn pale.

His work was fair to look upon on paper--very difficult if not bewildering to follow out on foot. These streets pushed ahead with stern scientific rigor. Never did rising city start upon more impracticable courses. It was to be a metropolis of uncertain if not jocular mood--now showing itself in imposing grandeur as it gathered around some lofty eminence, and then utterly disappearing into some totally unimaginable concavity, leaving nothing on the horizon to catch the eye of the distant observer but a wretched tail of mean houses, gradually disappearing to the tops of the chimneys.

But absurdly though the work of tracing out the lines for the future habitation of a large population was performed, it had its humanizing effects upon the founders, apart altogether from the expectations of great profit, which the prospective sale of eligible lots, however lop-sided, engendered. They no longer regarded themselves as castaways upon an almost unknown shore. The picturesque confusion of a first settlement was indeed apparent. No intelligible plan of city could be imagined from the location of the few houses by which the peninsula was dotted; but for all that, Stockton Street and Broadway had been safely ushered into the world by accoucheur Vioget; and Montgomery, Kearny and Dupont Streets were beginning to develop themselves. It was some consolation to the benighted founder, when endeavoring to clamber up the rough sides of Telegraph Hill, on his way home, that however surprising it might appear, he was then, though slowly making his way on all-fours, and fearful of broken bones and a cracked crown, really at the corner of Montgomery and Vallejo Streets, where palatial edifices were at that moment germinating, and which, though silent, weird and forbidding at that hour, was destined to echo with the sounds of active, bustling life before long.

The town did begin to spring up after Monsieur Vioget had fixed the manner in which it was to grow, but not with any great rapidity. Hides and tallow are very important articles of commerce; but, however great may be the demand for them, they are not capable of forcing the building of large cities in a very short space of time. The world needs leather for shoes, harness and a variety of other purposes. There is a saying that "there is nothing like leather," but it is not universal in its application. Nor was the other staple to be despised. Millions of men still grope their way by the light of tallow candles. But young Yerba Buena had powerful and well established rivals to contend with. The Russian Bear, enjoying a better location, was extensively engaged in the business. If nothing had occurred to alter the course of things, a century would have elapsed even before Monsieur Vioget's plan had been carried out. But the news from the interior was becoming stranger, more exciting, and more bewildering every day. Discovery followed discovery in quick succession, and the shining gold began to flow this way in steady stream. Some observations had been made on the climate, the capacity of the soil, and the facilities for commerce. There was a settled conviction that the far-off land of California would some day come into public notice; but here was gold--the very article after which civilized man was in the hottest pursuit--the metal which represented everything: luxury, fine clothing, fine houses, lands, friends, doting wives, loving children, the respect of mankind here below and heaven hereafter--in immense, incalculable, bewildering, intoxicating abundance, at their very doors! Who can estimate the force of the mad whirl of those early days, when it was first revealed that colossal fortunes were within the reach of all who had strength enough to wield a pickaxe, and labor for a short time. That social prominence, which, in the older civilizations, the persons who then found themselves in California could not hope ever to achieve except by some extraordinary freak of good luck, was now within the grasp of every one of them--for deference, respect and precedence wait humbly upon the happy possessor of gold in plenty.

Thousands of eager adventurers began to make their appearance, and soon a steady human tide flowed through the Golden Gate. San Francisco felt through every vein the throb of the new life. American alcaldes, deriving their powers oddly enough from Philip II of Spain, granted, with right royal munificence, lots to all who applied for them. It was a strange chance by which free republican citizens of the United States became the dispensers of the gracious favors of a foreign potentate long passed away from earth.

Only the faintest outlines of streets were then visible in that portion of the city which owed its fashioning to Monsieur Vioget. Tents occupied the place where stately edifices now rise. The elegant mansions of the day were fair to look upon, but not evidently designed to stand a protracted bombardment. The walls were of paper and the ceilings of cloth--suggestive, without close inspection of great refinement and progress, but affording no intima penetralia, for a whisper in one room thrilled through the whole structure, revealing in the kitchen the projects of the parlor with startling distinctness. But such as San Francisco then was, it was held to have outgrown the Viogetan boundaries. The portion which had been surveyed had gone off with such happy results that a clamor went up for an additional survey. Stout Jasper O'Farrell was called from Sonoma to undertake the work. The little engineering phantasia which the Frenchman had executed on paper was turning out a most extraordinary, bewildering reality. It had become apparent to all but those who had sat down by the Straits of Carquinez, and endeavored to attract ships thitherward with the most frantic gestures, that a great city was going to grow up on this peninsula in a shorter space of time than the most fevered enthusiast had dared even to dream. The idea began to dawn upon the minds of some of the levanting sailors, who by fortunate chance found themselves at the opening of a strange and most romantic chapter in the world's history, and who a short time before would have considered themselves thrice-blessed with the possession of an adobe house and a moderate herd of cattle, that fortunes were not only within their grasp, but were about to be thrust upon them by a certain fickle jade known of all men, with a remorseless pertinacity against which no human fortitude could hope to stand up. O'Farrell, an explosive Celt, but of much determination and skill in his profession, brought to the work for which he had been selected, something which was entirely lacking in his predecessor--a conviction that he was about to engage in a really important labor, and not merely to sketch an ingenious pleasantry which might be turned to account hereafter.

It did not take him long to discover that the plan upon which Vioget had laid out the city was entirely unadapted to the site. A large amount of engineering knowledge was not necessary to enable him to reach that conclusion. A superficial acquaintance with the modes and appliances by which locomotion is achieved among men was all that was required to reveal to him the errors of his predecessor. He proposed to change the lines of the streets so as to conform as much as possible to the topography, but his suggestions were not received with the favor which he expected. There was not an incipient millionaire then in all San Francisco who did not have safely locked up in his trunk the title-deeds to the lot or lots that were going to be the most valuable. It is possible that nobody had made up his mind as to the particular use for which his property would be required. It might be needed for a Custom House, or the Capitol of the new State, the germ of which Marshall had found in the mill-stream, near Sutter's Fort, or some grand and inexplicable structure necessary to the new order of things. Whatever it might be, each settler's lot was the lot above all lots--sure to prove the focus of the new city, gradually unfolding its outlines, if not the hub of creation. It is plain that under such circumstances, a new arrangement of the streets could not be regarded in any other light but that of a new deal devised by the new engineer, with occult purposes of self-aggrandizement, the result of which could not be foreseen by the most perspicacious of pioneers. It was in vain that it was represented to them as being absurd to run streets at right angles upon such a rugged surface as that presented by the northern side of the city. The longer the discussion continued, the more angry and menacing it grew. There was not a property-owner in San Francisco who did not believe that he was threatened with a most scandalous and unprovoked injury. What were surveys of cities made for but to enable the original holders to sell at an advantage? If a survey could have been so dexterously conducted as to give all fifty- vara lots and no streets, the wants of the hour would have all been supplied. A system of aerial thoroughfares by which every inch of the peninsula could have been put into a marketable condition, was what appeared to be demanded. There was even a whispering of a determination, if driven to extremity, to hang by the neck till he was dead any audacious surveyor who should insist upon disturbing the settled opinions of these sturdy pioneers on the subject of the boundaries of their possessions.

It is manifest that against such an uproar and jangling of interests no single man could make any headway. O'Farrell was obliged to content himself with securing the widening of the streets laid out by his predecessor--the elimination to a partial extent of the Viogetan Quartier Latin from the original scheme, and then proceeded to lay off the southern portion in wide streets at right angles, which the flatness of that section fully justified. He found a nondescript plan of a city, inarticulate, in violent antagonism with nature. His first care was to supply it with a backbone which, in the shape of Market Street, traverses the city from the eastern front as far west as it is likely to be closely built up during the existence of the present generation, and then added on the other half. Probably posterity may forgive him for running his right lines over Rincon and Townsend Street Hills with the same airy carelessness which Vioget manifested in respect to Telegraph and Russian Hills, when the difficulties under which he labored are taken under consideration. In the lines thus marked out for us we have been working ever since almost for dear life, with more astonishing than picturesque results. No one ever dreamed of questioning either the legitimacy or the soundness of the idea that all beauty is confined to right lines and a level surface. We have gone on levelling hills and filling up valleys till we have got ourselves into such a bewilderment of grades that the most lame and impotent conclusions are reached by many of our thoroughfares, and jumping-off places are as plentiful as the most suicidal could possibly desire.

The original impetus toward an impossible, and by no means desirable if possible, flatness of surface has been increased by two causes which from the earliest days have been in active operation. One of these causes is, that with a peculiar regard for the fitness of things, the parties intrusted virtually by the laws with the initiative in street improvements are the parties above all others who are interested in change, without the slightest regard to general results. The tendency of the contractor is to grading--grading with any imaginable purpose-- grading down or up with the strictest impartiality--as active in the matter of cutting down a hill as in throwing up that hill again. A majority of feet on any line of improvement which that useful personage might resolve upon was all that was necessary to bring a street on a level with a man's chimney-top, or leave him so high in the air that at first sight it would seem that ingress and egress could only be achieved by means of balloons! and a majority was always attainable by offering inducements to heavy holders of real estate who had the means to contest the matter in the Courts. So that in this way it came to pass that property in a great many instances is held not in fee, but at the will of the majority of the particular section in which it is located; for that majority, moved thereto by the contractor aforesaid, always has had the power to start improvements which could not fail to work the ruin of the small holders. The second cause is, the ambition which every proprietor of a fifty-vara lot, no matter where situated, entertains to see a stately warehouse rise up on his possessions. If a hill or a whole section of the city should stand in the way of the realization of his fond hopes, he straightway goes to work to procure the cutting down of that whole hill or section without once bestowing a thought upon the effect that this "improvement" would have on the general features of the city. His argument in such cases generally is the "demands of commerce"--an imperial condition of things which brooks no contradiction. It is never in the slightest degree considered necessary that these demands should actually make themselves felt. No one has ever dreamed when advocating great changes that he was called upon to show in what manner commerce has been hindered or impeded. It is enough that he has reached the conclusion that it is likely to be; and then straightway the pickaxe and the shovel are brought into requisition.

It can hardly be expected that a plan conceived under the circumstances above set forth, and carried out in the way we have briefly sketched, could have resulted in anything very complete in itself, or very pleasant to look upon. The stranger, as he paces the deck of the incoming steamer, at night--for a stranger among us always takes the shape of a passenger by sea, and never of a solitary horseman slowly ascending a rugged pathway--is enraptured with the sight which San Francisco presents. As the steamer passes Black Point, the dull red haze upon which he had been gazing with such intensity begins to assume shape and form; when he rounds Clark's Point, a spectacle is revealed which more than repays him for all the dangers and hardships of the voyage. On either side of him rise Telegraph and Rincon Hills like luminous cones, while, in the background, towers above all, Russian Hill in stories of light. Nor is the illusion at all dissipated as he is whirled from the wharf, through the well- lighted streets, to his hotel. Unfortunately his enthusiasm is not destined to last long. When he comes to walk abroad in the full light of day, he sees fine structures, it is true--stores, brilliant enough for Broadway, or the Boulevards and a style of architecture more elegant and graceful than is generally to be found in American cities, particularly in the case of private dwellings, and well-built though somewhat dirty streets. But as soon as he begins to trace out the lines of the great thoroughfares, he finds that Nature, wherever he turns, has been cut and slashed, dug down and filled up, out of existence; unsightly defiles confront him wherever he goes. Here he finds a house, like an inquiring urchin at a dinner-table, barely peeping over the sidewalk, and evidently straining itself in the operation; while five good stories are revealed in the rear. Others still, elevated in so reckless and impertinent a manner, above grade, as to be suggestive rather of a pigeon-house than a human habitation--ready to descend the moment they are summoned by the remorseless contractor. From the first error there is, of course, no escape. San Francisco will have to grow in accordance with the lines originally marked out for her. The gage of battle, which Monsieur Vioget in such a light and careless manner flung down to Nature on this peninsula, has. provoked a struggle which cannot be ended probably in the life-time of the present generation. The work of grading, cutting down, and filling up, will have to be continued till the logical result of the contest has been reached. In the end we shall probably have a metropolis in every way adapted for trade and commerce; but by no means as handsome and picturesque a city as might have been built, if some attention had in the beginning been paid to the suggestions of Nature. . 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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