The Truth about Joice Street & the Man it was Named For: Erastus Volney Joice

Joice Street is a three-block, alley-like street, on the east side of Nob Hill, boxed in by Powell, Pine, Stockton and Clay streets, just up from Chinatown. On its south end, there’s a wide staircase that cascades from a dead end, where on a break halfway down sits a shrine to St. Francis of Assisi (I am purposely not including photos of this stretch, as hopefully you’ll see it for yourself one day). In relatively recent years, local writers and historians have assumed – because of late 19th century Sanborn Insurance Maps – that Joice Street was originally known as Prospect Place; however, the block between California and Pine has been called Joice Street since San Francisco’s beginnings. What has been overlooked, is that Prospect Place was between Clay and Sacramento streets, while the bit between Sacramento and California was first Buena Vista Street.* Today, the entire three blocks between Clay and Pine are called Joice, and while the street’s secret gets told periodically, the story of the man it was named for has remained unknown, until now.

11 march 1850

Advertisement in March 11, 1850 Daily Alta California for rentals at California and Joice, captured from California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside.

Erastus Volney Joice was born in New York in 1810. At twenty-three years he was a counsellor at law and a commissioner of deeds in Albany, and by his early thirties was a lawyer in New York City, residing at 65 Wall street. But 1843 wasn’t a good year for Erastus, who the New York Evening Post reports bankrupt as of Thursday, Feb. 23, 1843, at 11:00 a.m. Perhaps done in by the financial climate of the times, Joice must have had a bit of premonition, for whatever he did from that moment on had him walking around Portsmouth Square in January 1849, ready to call San Francisco home, just as the gold rush was taking off.#

By October 1849, Joice was prominent enough within the San Francisco community to get elected vice-president at the city and state’s first meeting of Democrats. As California was not yet part of the Union, and with San Francisco’s political make-up still loosely under the Mexican system, “the chief object of the assembly was to effect a party organization previous to the approaching State elections.”+ Soon after having established himself, it appears Joice went on a bit of a land claiming tear. After buying his first San Francisco lot from Alcalde John W. Geary on Nov. 28, 1849 at a town sale, on Jan. 3, 1850, Joice secured three more. Clearly, Joice’s fortune was turning, and as he wrote to the Daily Alta California in a letter that circulated through August 1850: “Know ye that I, the said E.V. Joice, under and by virtue of the laws of the United States, did on or about the sixth day of May, 1850, enter the following described farm of land, situated on Humboldt Harbor, on Trinity Bay, near the shore of the Pacific Ocean, in Upper California… I have made the same my residence, and am now in the actual occupation thereof. That I have taken and shall maintain my title to said lands, and by all constitutional and legislative authority hold my right of pre-emption to the same under the laws of the United States now in force and to be enacted.”

If his residence was indeed in Humboldt and his actual occupation thereof, it was short-lived, for Joice was accounted for in S.F. on June 14, 1850, when during a major fire burning the downtown area he helped establish and organize a volunteer fire department called the St. Francis Hook and Ladder Company, No. 1. Their station was later located on DuPont Street (now Grant), between Clay and Sacramento streets. “This is one of the original companies of the permanent organization, and has always maintained its position in the department. In the years 1850, ‘51 and ‘52, the principal work at conflagrations fell on the hook and ladder companies, owing to the impossibility of obtaining water for the engines.”+

IMG_3953

Joice Street from its north end at Clay (the block originally Prospect Place); when blown up, notice the middle block between the stop sign and the car, now part of Joice, that would have first been undeveloped hill, then Buena Vista Street, and later part of Prospect.

It was in the summer of 1850 when Joice inked the biggest business deal of his life. Again showing foresight, as California was officially admitted to the Union on Sept. 9, 1850, Joice, along with A.A. Selover and John Middleton~, had begun construction on the Union Hotel at the corner of Kearny and Merchant streets. The grand opening of the Union Hotel was on Nov. 7, 1850, and it was a sight to behold, “the first really substantial and elegant hotel of the city.”+ An advertisement in the Daily Alta California championed it as “built of brick, entirely fireproof, five stories high, fronting on Portsmouth Square… 100 rooms, all finished in the most substantial manner, lathed and plastered, and hard finished walls. Each room is furnished with a stove and other bed-room furniture complete; bells are fitted up, communicating with the office from each room. The dining room will accommodate 150 persons… all the delicacies of the season will be found on the table, and the wines the best the market affords.”

Between 1850-1852 there were six great fires, and while the logic behind “fireproof” buildings such as the Union Hotel made sense, it didn’t turn out to be the case most of the time. With all of the wooden buildings and cloth in gold rush S.F., it just took the right breeze off the bay blowing the right flame to waste chunks of the city at a time, sometimes the same blocks within weeks of being rebuilt. E.V. Joice got lucky, though. For whatever reason, whether it was because of a lawsuit he was tied up with, or just another premonition, on April 1, 1851, just six months after its opening, Joice sold his portion of the Union Hotel to John Middleton. Just a month later – with Joice’s notice of sale still running in the paperthe Union Hotel was destroyed in the fire of May 3-4, 1851.

1866: Last ghost of what the Union Hotel once was at right; middle, the 3rd Jenny Lind Theatre, now City Hall; left, originaly the El Dorado, now Hall of Records

At right, a ghost of perhaps what the Union Hotel once looked like, a rebuilt version in 1866. Today, a Hilton stands at this block.

Next move for E.V., living on Clay near Portsmouth Square in 1852, was returning to familiar roles he’d held back home in his twenties and thirties in New York, though now he was notary public for the city and county of San Francisco. E.V., within an office at the N.E. corner of Washington and Battery streets, also worked as secretary for the San Francisco Gold and Silver Mining Company. Living with his wife in a house at 807 Stockton, which apparently was an “odd looking little box of a place” near Sacramento Street, a member of both The Society of California Pioneers and the Pacific-Union Club, Joice was known as a “good natured” man, “full of spirit and fun.” Though E.V. did reside relatively close to Joice Street, keep in mind that Joice Street was already there, and because of this fact, Joice himself is probably the only person that could ever tell the story of his ties with that singular block, if there was one indeed.

In 1864, Joice listed an advertisement in the Daily Alta California trying to sell a stock ranch called “Joice’s Island,” a 3,500-acre island in the northern section of Suisin Bay, northeast of San Francisco Bay, known as Grizzly Bay, directly east of San Pablo Bay, near the delta leading to Sacramento. Exactly when Joice came to own this island is hard to determine; however, with “its improvements [consisting] of a comfortable Dwelling, Barn, Sheds, etc., and one of the best Corrals in the State,” one has to wonder if Joice ever spent much time there, was it randomly acquired through business, or possibly something he’d claimed back in 1849-50? With no takers, Joice would try to sell the land again in 1867, finally putting it to auction in 1870. Today, Joice Island is part of the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area in Solano County, controlled by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and is known for wild pig hunts.

By 60 years of age, Joice had moved into selling life insurance for a company called Economical Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Providence Rhode Island with an office at California and Leidesdorff streets. It was during this time he began his duties, again as he’d done back in Albany, as commissioner of deeds for California in regard to states such as Idaho, Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado, etc. On March 29, 1885, Joice’s wife, Emeline S., died at the age of 71. E.V. followed her on Nov. 22, 1891 at the age of 82, having retired to East Oakland in his last days.

Looking across California street at the northside of the original Joice block.

Looking across California Street at the southern-most and original Joice block.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

* This determination comes from studying early city directories as well as William M. Eddy’s official 1849 re-survey of O’Farrell’s 1847 city plan. Advertisements for building lot sales in the Daily Alta California going back to 1850 (see photo in post) corroborate this as well. On Dec. 7, 1868, another ad read, “HOUSE AND LOT NO. 217 JOICE STREET. Between Stockton and Powell, Pine and California Sts.”

# My assumption is that Joice was already headed to California before news of the gold leaked out, if not already there somewhere, as someone in New York City hearing about President Polk’s address to Congress on Dec. 5, 1848 confirming the Sutter Mill find could never have made it to S.F. by January 1849. The journey from New York to San Francisco in that era, whether by ship or land, would have taken at least six months.

+ Frank Soule, John H. Gihon, Jim Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. San Francisco: 1855.

~ A.A. Selover was an S.F. alderman and businessman, also from New York. Becoming a multimillionaire in the wake of the gold rush, Selover would later in life become known for beating up robber baron Jay Gould in August 1877, New York City. John Middleton was an auctioneer, whose claim to fame in S.F. came later as a politician when he masterminded the “2nd Street Cut” that brought down Rincon Hill.

3 responses to “The Truth about Joice Street & the Man it was Named For: Erastus Volney Joice

  1. Very interesting. Impressive research. Generally agrees with the small amount of family history passed down to me,

    • Hi Robert, Glad you found and enjoyed this… Joice Street, doing the research, and compiling this piece, was what inspired my current efforts. I plan to include this piece in a larger work I’m at work on, and it will also be more documented in regard to footnotes, etc. You don’t happen to know of any photos of Erastus, do you? Also, any other info you have is welcomed and appreciated. Thanks for reading.

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