San Francisco Regrade-Rincon Hill

San Francisco has long been famed for its hills. There are 43 of them, or 42, or 53, or perhaps even 49, including such well known ones as Telegraph, Nob, and Russian. As happened and still happens in many urban centers, the hills became the fashionable place to live, offering good views and clean air, high above the miasmas that lingered in the lowlands. One of the earliest of these desirable knolls was Rincon Hill, which first attracted the wealthy in the 1850s and by 1861 was described in the Daily Alta California (Feb 2) as “the most elegant part of the city.” But its enviable reputation did not last long.

As James Sederberg pointed out in his fine essay in foundSF, steep hills did not always engender themselves with San Franciscans. One of those hillophobes was John Middleton, a very influential and well-connected resident. Middleton apparently was frustrated that north-south traffic tended to avoid going over the steep edifice of Rincon by taking the low sloped Third Street, thus bypassing property he owned at the base of the hill on Second Street. One way around this problem would be to have the City cut a swath through Rincon along Second Street.

In order to aid the city in their decision-making, Middleton ran for the state assembly in 1867, won, with a little help from his friends, and soon introduced Assembly Bill 444. It authorized a modification of the grade of Second Street for the three blocks between Bryant and Howard Streets. The deepest cut of the canyon would be in the middle, 87 feet at Harrison Street. A bridge at Harrison would connect the two sides of new canyon, with additional steps leading out of the gap.

Not everyone approved of the vivisection of Rincon, including the Alta, which reported this “astounding piece of vandalism was perpetrated …[with] no attention paid even to the most elementary rights of property.” In contrast, an editorial in Chas D. Carter’s Real Estate Circular, which was commenting on a California Supreme Court Case ruling that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had to allow the cut, noted that the cut would lead to the filling of swamps, as well as having a “beneficial effect upon the extension of Montgomery Street.” (February 1869, v3 n4)

The cut took a year and required 500 men and 250 teams of horses. I have not been able to track down how much dirt was moved though one article in the Real Estate Circular (July 1869, v3, n9, p1) mentioned “120,000 square yards,” which I assume should be cubic yards, as that is how engineers measured these projects. Costing nearly three times more than budgeted, the total cost was about $380,000 with the Harrison Street bridge totalling $90,000.

Despite Middleton’s hopes the cut did not serve its purpose and became an unsavory place frequented by hudlums, leading one writer to note that the only way to pass through the cut was with gun in hand. It was also dangerous as the steeply cut hillsides slid during rainstorms.

One curious aspect of the Second Street Cut, which makes it far different from regrading in Seattle, is that only the street was cut. Properties on either side of the street were not lowered at the same time. Instead, the homes were perched high over the canyon below, which might be nice in a natural setting but was certainly not good in a city. This situation led to the Real Estate Circular calling for the removal of the entire hill: “the space it occupies is required for commerce, and its removal will transform the land from private residence into business property.” (July 1869, v3, n9)

In the end, Rincon Hill became what Robert Louis Stevenson described as a “new slum, a place of precarious, sandy cliffs…solitary, ancient houses, and the butt-ends of streets.” No more hill removal was attempted after this debacle, in part because of the start of the city’s first cable car service in late 1873.

— The most detailed account of the Second Street Cut and its problems is Albert Shumate’s Rincon Hill and South Park: San Francisco’s Early Fashionable Neighborhood, which provided many details for this post.

I would also like to thank LisaRuth Elliott and Chris Carlsson of for their help.

Material for for this story comes out of research I have done for my new book on Seattle – Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.

If you so desire, you can like my geologywriter Facebook page.

House on a Hill: Seattle Regrades

Over the past few days, several people have sent me a link to this wonderful set of Seattle then-and-now images by Clayton Kauzlaric. What he does that is unusual is to create a composite with an historic shot woven together with a Google street view. Images include the original shoreline, parades, and regrades. Perhaps the most iconic is this one of a house formerly at the corner of Sixth and Marion. The historic photo is from the regrade of Sixth Avenue, which occurred in 1914. As reference, it is about eight blocks south of the southern end of the Denny Regrades, which took place in 1903, 1906, 1907, 1908 to 1910, and 1928 to 1930.

Sixth and Marion Blend by Clayton Kauzlaric

Entrepreneur Joseph F. McNaught built this house around 1881. At the time, “the older men of Seattle shook their heads at this foolish whim,” wrote Margaret Pitcairn Strachan, in a story about the building in the March 4, 1945, Seattle Times, in part because the house sat on a “tremendous hill, along a cowpath.” McNaught’s home originally faced Sixth Street (later Sixth Avenue), with horse stalls and carriages to the south toward Columbia Street. In 1890, a regrade of Sixth left the house perched high above the street. When the house was lowered to the new street level it was turned ninety degrees, to face Marion.

McNaught House in all its glory - Seattle Times

Dr. P.B. M. Miller and his wife Eva eventually bought the McNaught home from speculator Bert Farrar and converted it into a rooming house, which they named the Ross-Shire. Their children owned the building, known variously as the Ross-Shire Apartment, Ross-Shire Hotel, and Hotel Ross Shire, when the main regrade of Sixth took place in 1914. In this image from January 1914, you can see an excavator at work on the hill holding up the Ross-Shire. On the corner of the building is a sign advertising the Ross-Shire Cafe.

Ross Shire Cafe, January 1914 - City of Seattle Municipal Archives

Eleven years after the regrade, Harvey M. Todd bought the house. He made significant changes to the original structure, adding apartments, sleeping rooms, and a “modern hot-water heating system,” as well as lowering the yard to allow light into basement apartments. According to Paul Dorpat, the building ended its life when I-5 was built. By this time, it was part of a complex known as the Marion Hotel.

Later in the life of 603 Marion, a bad preproduction from the Seattle Times

I have one final comment and I don’t mean it to be too critical of the wonderful images created by Clayton Kauzlaric but I am a bit compulsive about trying to get the facts straight. His image faces the wrong way. The McNaught house was on the southeast corner of Sixth and Marion and Kauzlaric’s image puts it on the northeast corner, or at least he has the image facing northeast. He may have done so for artistic reasons—the composite is framed beautifully—but to see a correct now-and-then shot, you can go to Paul Dorpat’s web site, which has some additional information about McNaught and the property.

Material for for this story comes out of research I have done for my new book on Seattle – Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.

If you so desire, you can like my geologywriter Facebook page.