Remembering the Great Bernal Heights Gold Rush of 1876

Bernal.Eureka One of the more charming and ridiculous episodes in Bernal Heights history concerns the Great Bernal Heights Gold Rush of 1876. Seriously! There really was a mini-gold boom on Bernal Hill in the late 19th century, and while it lasted barely a month, it generated all the attendant hype and breathless boosterism that was so typical of the era.

Burrito Justice, La Lengua’s rebel spokesblogger, wrote about the Bernal Heights Gold Rush in 2010. Now Evelyn Rose has followed-up with a new post about it on her geekolicious history blog, Tramps of San Francisco:

EUREKA! Gold! Gold in Bernal Heights!

The first land sold in Bernal Heights had been transferred by auction at the real estate offices of H.A. Cobb and R.H. Sinton, 102 Montgomery Street, on July 14, 1860. The property consisted of “4, 5, and 6 acre lots on the ‘Bernal Heights’ … within 15 minutes drive from City Hall … for sale at a very low rate … The lands, for beauty of locality, commanding scenery and fertility of soil, are not surpassed in the county of San Francisco.” In August 1865, another 66 homestead lots were offered in on the “Cobb Tract” of Bernal Heights and buyers were to receive title and a U.S. patent. In 1863, the original St. Mary’s College for boys was established on the Old Mission Road by the first archbishop of San Francisco, the Most Reverend Joseph Sadoc Alemany. The campus would move to Oakland in 1870, and in later years to Moraga where it is found today.

Yet, despite all of the homesteading, it would not be until May 1876 when the first report of an “alleged gold-bearing ledge” on Bernal Heights appeared in a small legal note in the Daily Alta California. One might suspect that the discoverer, Victor Bessayre, secretary of the Cedar Hill Consolidated Mining and Milling Company in Virginia City, Nevada (home office at 120 Sutter Street in San Francisco), had the savvy and know-how to appreciate what he had found. Soon after, a second 1500-foot location was “claimed” by Payot, Upham & Co., publishers, booksellers, and stationers in San Francisco, adjoining the northwestern edge of Bessayre’s claim.

Soon, word of the find became widespread and the masses embarked on a feverish San Franciscan Gold Rush. As told by a Daily Alta California reporter:

“Out Folsom street, over a romantic bridge which spans the creek, the ascent of Bernal Heights is begun. The grade is very steep by this route, and frequent stoppages are made in order to rest and view the landscape, which, by the way, is well worth the struggle. Soon you meet persons returning from the gold region, nearly all bearing away specimens of worthless red rock with some quartz sprinkled through it. Some shout ‘we have a sight,’ others ask ‘got a prospect?’ while others say ‘no need of going further, boys, all the claims are located.’ After half an hour of weary struggling against the wind and stones, and over the short slippery grass, the ascent of the first and smaller hill is accomplished.

“After resting a moment, an unexpected sight greets you. Fully five hundred people, consisting of men of all ages, from the very aged to the beardless youth, women gayly [sic] attired, children sporting about under the lee of the larger hill – which towers 100 feet above – engaged in various occupations. Most of the men are in possession of small hammers, and are busily engaged breaking the rocks in pieces in vain attempts to find the precious metal. The women and children are seated on the rocks, digging and pecking away, expecting a rich find. After walking around and examining a few specimens in the hands of some lucky gold-hunters, you come across some boards stuck up, resembling a real estate sign, but much smaller, on which is nailed a notice that the parties therein named have located 1500 feet, bearing from the site, in such a direction so far, and so on to place of commencement, with all the dips, spurs, etc.

“Some speculative individual, with an eye to business, has started a beer shop, consisting of a rude table, underneath which there is gracefully placed two beer kegs, and on top sundry glasses and a free lunch. A short distance down from the summit of the hill you notice our glorious standard, the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ floating in the breeze, and are attracted toward it and find an itinerant peddler, who thinks there is money in it. He has a small stock of fruit and other edibles …

“… On all their faces you can see enlarged eyes and glowing countenances, whether arising from the difficulty in making the ascension, or the expectancy in securing some favorable location which may become a source of profit to them …

“… The better time to make your visit to the gold regions would be in the forenoon, as the wind does not blow and it is clear. As we turn about to make the descent we notice large numbers on the way up the trail, others going down, which would remind you of a large ant-hill, with its little people going back and forth in their daily labors. With streaming eyes and running nasal organs we clutch our hats in one hand and our kerchiefs in the other, and with tears in our eyes, which are hastily wiped away – not caused, don’t think, by regret as to what we are leaving behind – we are forced into a rapid run, caused by the steep grade. We are comically gazed upon by the inhabitants of the Heights, while we in turn wonder at their leaving so much gold undiscovered for so long a time. Once in a while we gain a level place in pause. On reaching the base of the Heights, we meet anxious squads of twos and threes, just commencing the ascent, who anxiously enquire the way to go, and wish to know if we have any specimens. Recrossing the bridge, we once more regain the vicinity of horse-cars, and other conveniences. Almost every car which arrives at the terminus lands some gold-hunter, who makes the trip and returns, weary and hungry.”

Of course, as Burrito Justice pointed out while recalling this same tale, gold had not been discovered on Bernal Hill. Instead, it seems that Victor the Frenchman had found quartz.

Side Note: There seems to be some disagreement on Victor’s proper name. Tramps of San Francisco calls him Victor Bessayre, but Burrito Justice calls him Victor Resayer, and there is an entry for a Victor Ressayer at the same 120 Sutter St. address in the 1876 San Francisco Directory:

VictorRessayer

Regardless, the dream of finding precious rock in Bernal Heights proved enticing to the
proto-hipsters of the Mission District, as Tramps of San Francisco goes on to explain:

The Bernal Heights diggings appeared to have become quite a topic in the young City. In June of 1876, part of the advertised weekend amusements at Woodward’s Gardens included acts by Thomas Beavans, the Campanlogian; Mademoiselle Clarissa, the Parisian Velocipedist; Blanchette, the Excelsior Contortionist; and, “An elaborate 20-stamp quartz mill will … be operated on some Bernal Heights ore.”

The news of the diggings reached as far as the southland, as the Los Angeles Herald reported:

“Bernal Heights, the scene of the recent quartz discoveries, was visited on Friday by a large number of people, including many California street men. Several additional claims have been staked out, and work will be commenced on some of them to test the question. The whole neighborhood is in a state of excitement.”

Arguably, that “state of excitement” has endured to the present day. Special thanks to Tramps of San Francisco for granting permission to excerpt here on Bernalwood.

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4 Responses to Remembering the Great Bernal Heights Gold Rush of 1876

  1. leonard says:

    wonderful entry. our walk up folsom to the top of the hill will never be quite the same again

  2. bldxyz says:

    I wonder what one would “drive” in 1860, so as to have it be a “15 minute drive from City Hall”.

    Seriously: what did “drive” refer to before cars? Did one “drive” a horse-drawn carriage?

    • Doug Coleridge says:

      I was wondering the same thing bldxyz. Seems like an odd metric for the time, unless… maybe driving a car is the bastardization, and we should really be piloting cars and driving buggies and carriages? I’m all mixed up now.

  3. Linnea Klee says:

    Wonderful story about our neighborhood. The journalism of old San Francisco is colorful and dramatic – worth reading!

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