John K. Duer & how Russian Hill was almost Telegraph Hill (plus the Origin of Merchant Street)

In February 1849, during the gold rush, Lt. John King Duer of the United States Navy, sailing master of the U. S. store-ship Southampton, grandson of William Alexander, also known as Lord Stirling (one of Washington’s generals during the Revolutionary War), presented San Francisco’s merchant community with the “suggestion of a cade of signals for the Harbors and Ports of California.” Duer’s designs/plans/drawings were “skilfully and beautifully executed,” and of Duer’s effort the Alta wrote: “There can be no doubt that such an undertaking is demanded by the great and growing commerce of this Port, and we sincerely trust that our citizens will take the matter in hand.” (Weekly Alta, Feb. 1, 1849, p. 3, c. 1) It took Duer a year to get it all together, but in early-1850 he was indeed engaged in putting together a signal station in San Francisco, and it was on Russian Hill; however, during the set-up, a fire “destroyed his flags and books, together with [the] grant of land on Russian Hill (the high land to the north of the town), which had been conveyed him for the use to which his enterprise might apply the same. [Duer] petitioned the city council [for] $2000 to enable him to proceed at once to the erection of the work.” (Daily Alta, Feb. 12, 1850, p. 2, c. 2) Given that Russian Hill was almost totally undeveloped at this time, with simple, wooden-frame houses just starting to reach Vallejo and Mason, Duer’s planned station would have been at the summit of the hill with a view of the Golden Gate.

1849 sketch looking at the Golden Gate from Telegraph Hill.
1849 sketch looking at the Golden Gate from Telegraph Hill.

In spite of the setback, just two months later in April 1850, with aid from the merchant community Duer completed the signal station; in fact, his completion of the telegraph instituted the formal establishment of the Merchants’ Exchange situated in Ward’s Court*: “The undersigned [Wells & Gower] beg leave to inform the public and the subscribers to the above association [Merchants’ Exchange and Reading Room] that, having obtained a sufficient number of names for the purpose . . . will . . . open the large room lately arranged in the building erected in Ward’s Court expressly for the object. The latest papers, from all quarters of the globe, will be found there, as well as the best periodicals published in our own country or in England. The arrivals and clearances of vessels will be reported in books kept for the purpose. As an apartment has been arranged, forming the head quarters of the telegraph lately established by Lieut. Duer, U. S. N., the very first information may there be obtained with regard to vessels either entering or leaving our harbor. It is particularly desired that the merchants of San Francisco will unite, as soon as possible, forming themselves into a board of trade or commerce, and make such by-laws . . .” (Daily Alta, April 6, 1850, p. 3, c. 4) After his Russian Hill equipment burned up, Duer’s telegraph was completed on what is known today as Telegraph Hill. Following said completion, and its successful operation, the merchants of the city tried to parlay Duer’s efforts into a role/job with the city, but the Aldermen rejected the idea; therefore the”enterprising young naval officer” left San Francisco aboard the Tennessee. The Alta reported Duer’s embarkation with regret: “Not meeting with [the] support and success which the enterprise entitled [Duer] to, he was unable to carry out his views to the extent he had originally contemplated; his design, however, was sufficiently carried out for all practical purposes and found most useful. We can only regret that encouragement which would have resulted to his pecuniary benefit, instead of his loss, was not afforded him, as he is thoroughly qualified to manage a marine telegraph establishment of the kind.” (Daily Alta, July 16, 1850, p. 2, c. 1) Before taking leave from San Francisco, Duer had leased the telegraph house to George F. Sweeny of Sweeny & Baugh, and a proprietor of the Merchants’ Exchange, who the following month commenced the “second telegraphic station-house . . . on the coast at . . . Seal Rock, thus completing the communication from the sea to the inward bay.” (Sacramento Transcript, Aug. 3, 1850, p. 3, c. 1; Daily Alta, April 20, 1851, p. 2, c. 6)

View from south foot of Telegraph before Broadway was graded through
SW foot of Telegraph Hill in 1851, looking south upon the city.

By January 1851, Telegraph Hill was well-known as such: “San Francisco can certainly boast of containing a spot, from which one of the grandest views in the world may be enjoyed,” wrote the Alta. “We climbed to the summit of Telegraph Hill, yesterday, and spent an hour in gazing upon the scene around us. On the one side was the Golden Gate of our noble harbor against whose rocky portals the white waves of the Pacific were dashing. Far off in the distance to the edge of the horizon, lay old ocean, sleeping calm as a child upon its mother’s breast — and the well-filled sails of vessels, laden with the riches of the Eastern world, were bearing then into our harbor. . . . The scene is one of grandeur and of beauty, and our citizens can spend a pleasant hour in taking a morning or an afternoon stroll to the top of Telegraph Hill.” (Daily Alta, Jan. 30, 1851, p. 2, c. 5) Duer returned to San Francisco Bay in 1854 aboard the U. S. steam frigate Susquehanna following a period of engagement “in cruising in the Chinese and Japan seas.” (Daily Alta, Nov. 16, 1854, p. 11, c. 3) Of Duer’s brief visit, the Alta wrote: “AN OLD FRIEND. — Mr. Duer is one of this city’s oldest friends, having passed most of the years 1848, ’49 and ’50 on this coast, attached to the squadron in our waters. He was the first to devise and carry into execution a system of Marine Telegraph from the present station on Telegraph Hill, and was also one of the first pilots for sea-going vessels to Benicia. His services will be remembered by all who were here at the time.” (Daily Alta, Nov. 17, 1854, p. 2, c. 1) Soon after, Duer returned to the Eastern States, and was attached to the U. S. surveying schooner Varina, working as an assistant in the coastal survey of Florida’s western coast. Born on Dec. 26, 1818 in Albany, N. Y., Duer died in Apalachicola, Fla. on June 14, 1859, aged 41 years. (New York Evening Post, June 27, 1859) He was survived by his wife, Georgiana, and five children.

North Point, Telegraph Hill and part of North Beach from San Francisco Bay circa 1855. Up atop the hill you can see what is most likely the old telegraph house.
North Point, Telegraph Hill and part of North Beach from San Francisco Bay circa 1855. Up atop the hill you can see what is most likely the old telegraph house.

— _- – – -__ — –_ —-_- — –_ – –_- — _____ —– – – – — -___ -_—- -_– – —-___—-___———– — – – – —— – * In 1850, Ward’s Court opened from Montgomery, between Clay and Washington streets. It’s most likely this was the original name of the opening of today’s Merchant Street, that is the original block, west of Montgomery Street (the block running from the Transamerica Pyramid to Portsmouth Square today). (Sacramento Transcript, April 5, 1850, p. 2, c. 4) In late-1850, once the Merchants’ Exchange was well-established at Ward’s Court, a petition came in from Palmer, Cook & Co., &c., with a hopeful ordinance to open a “new street to be called Merchants Street, extending from Kearney [sic] to Montgomery Street, between Clay and Washington streets. The property holders on the line of the street will deed to the city the land for the street to within 137 feet of Kearney Street, and it is proposed to purchase sufficient to extend the street to the plaza. The ordinance was adopted.” (Daily Alta, Oct. 26, 1850, p. 2, c. 4) Therefore it’s likely that Merchant connected to, and therefore renamed Ward’s Court. At the end of December 1850, when Merchant Street was almost opened, the Alta wrote, “Mr. Niles’ building, or so much of it as projected over the line of the street, having been removed on terms satisfactory to all parties. From its location, Merchant Street is destined to become one of the principal business streets in the city.” (Daily Alta, Dec. 21, 1850, p. 2, c. 2)

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