San Francisco as we know it was born of the Gold Rush, and the East Cut was its ground zero.
In the mid-1840s, when San Francisco was a ragged collection of adobe and frame buildings with a population of little more than 200 residents, Rincon Hill was an isolated shrub-covered landmark, rising 120 feet above the uninhabited sand dunes south of present-day Market Street.
But the discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley in 1848 sparked the Gold Rush and a record-setting migration to the Bay Area. As news spread of the discovery, tens of thousands of prospective gold miners traveled by sea or land to San Francisco every year in search of riches. By 1880, San Francisco’s population had swelled to over 200,000.
As ships made land in Yerba Buena Cove, the barren Rincon Hill was soon transformed by wealthy pioneers who began building homes on the shrubland. Rincon Hill’s views and sunny climate made it attractive to families of merchants, sea captains, and influential San Franciscans who sought refuge from the notorious Barbary Coast, when Pacific Heights was still wilderness and years before Nob Hill became fashionable.
One of the more colorful residents of Rincon Hill at the time was a pioneer and gold rusher by the name of Thomas Henry Selby. In 1865, he opened a large-scale lead smelting facility at 1st and Howard Streets in the East Cut. The factory featured a 200-foot tall tower used to create rifle pellets by pouring molten lead from the top of the tower through sieves below. Thomas Selby went on to become Mayor of San Francisco in 1869 and the Shot Tower remained in production until it was severely damaged in the 1906 earthquake and fires.
At the time, the Selby Shot Factory was the tallest building in San Francisco, coincidentally just one block south of the city’s tallest building today, the Salesforce Tower. The photo below with Selby Tower in the background echoes the current view of Salesforce Tower from the city’s west side.