History is so much fun for me because it consistently reveals two of the most human of all natures-greed and ingenuity. A case in point is the history of water lots in San Francisco. Yerba Buena Bay was not really a very good deep water port to build a metropolitan city upon. The terrain resembled more of a narrow mud flat than a anchorage for sea going ships.
In addition, the city was growing rapidly, with very few flat places to construct buildings for housing and commerce. Demand for space was a serious issue. The solution was water lots.
City authorities commissioned the sale of parcels of land covered with shallow water in the bay. In order to meet the criteria for ownership, those who won the auction process were required to fill in the shallow marshland with dirt and to build on the property.
In 1847 the military governor extended the existing street lines far into the shallow cove and began auctioning off water lots. The incredible demand for building space caused a flurry of activity. There was a mad dash to the auctions. Original lots sold for as little as $50. Soon the mania drove prices through the roof. Please note, the current real estate mania in San Francisco is not new. Speculation ran rampant. Prices of these pseudo lots went through the roof.
Surveying the lots was precarious. The view of surveyed lots from the shore looked like a row of stakes inserted into the water and anchored in the sandy bottom below. On January 3, 1850, 434 water lots were sold for $635,130. That is an average of a little more than $1,400 per lot. Don’t ask what such a lot would cost you today.
Demand was terrific. Tens of thousands of Argonauts were entering California and they needed space. Merchants needed building to store their goods. When the demand curve continues to stay ahead of the price curve, greed and ingenuity will abound. The water lots were the ingenious answer to the demand for space.
How they filled the lots with dirt and debris was another interesting bit of ingenuity. Dirt was dug off the hills and brought by horse drawn wagon to the edge of the bay. Teams of men spread the dirt to claim a new coastline from the sea. This was tedious work, at best. To compliment the dirt fill, various debris was mixed in to reduce the need to bring soil. Abandoned ships were drug by large teams of horses and mules onto the marshlands and then dirt was filled in around them. In this way, San Franciscans killed two birds with one stone. They filled the water lots and created buildings required by the authorities, as part of the contract to acquire the property.
As explained in my blogs about “Gold Ships” and “The Niantic”, hundreds of deep water sailing ships were abandoned in the harbor. What was considered junk became treasure.
Water lots, “Gold Ships” and incredible growth pains of San Francisco in mid 19th Century are all woven into the plot of my novel, Equal and Alike. I think you will enjoy it. Order it from Amazon, Barnes and Nobel and other fine purveyors of book.