This extraordinary 1874 map of the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays is a bi-product of one the largest political and economic controversies in California history and an excellent illustration of the fiercely competitive powerhouses that shaped modern America. To learn more about why the Tide Lands of San Francisco Bay became such a contentious issue, scroll down to the Background section below.
On this large (67.5 x 24.5 inches) color-lithographed map, we see the Bays of San Francisco and San Pablo depicted in full. The elongated format of the map is unusual, in that it is oriented with East at the top. At its center, we find the Golden Gate with Angel Island and Alcatraz, as well as the promontories of San Francisco and Sausalito. At the northern edge (left) of the map, we find the mouths of the Novato, Petaluma, and Napa Creeks emptying into the San Pablo Bay; and at its southern end (right), the mouth of the Guadalupe River. While the map covers a much larger area, it is clearly focused on the jurisdiction of the Tide Land Commission, meaning the areas most proximate to San Francisco itself.
The map is the direct result of a large bathymetric (depth) survey of the Bay Area. This survey was conducted with the specific ambition of identifying what waterlogged areas could be reclaimed and developed into attractive real estate. Consequently, focus was on the lands surrounding the Golden Gate and its associated promontories. Being a direct outcome of this survey, the map is extensively annotated with soundings and depth measurements throughout. The highest density of measurements can of course be found around the San Francisco and Sausalito promontories, as these were the areas of greatest commercial interest. However, being an official government survey, the full scope of the two bays was covered and included on the map. There are depth gauges throughout both bays, as well as in most of the navigable inlets, creeks, and rivers. An excellent example of this is found in the Bay of San Antonio (modern Lake Merritt), which despite falling under the jurisdiction of Oakland and thus outside the realm of the most immediate commercial concerns, was also plotted and sounded in meticulous detail.
Drawn at a scale of 50.000, the professionalism behind this map is palpably clear. Not only is it extremely detailed in regard to its purpose, but also in regard to coastline, topography, and toponymy. The most important aspects of the map are nevertheless the areas colored in brown. These represent various types of land that as part of the Tideland Commission came under government consideration for reclamation and/or sale. The map’s legend in the bottom right corner defines these zones as:
Lands Disposed of by the State of California to Private Parties and Corporations, the Aggregate Area being as follows.
Tide & Submerged Lands 67,465 Acres
Salt Marsh Lands 125,564 Acres
Observers will note that the most central areas colored in brown already have had a grid superimposed. While the gridding seems to reflect the jurisdiction limits for the Tideland Commission, rather than actual formal property divisions, it does reveal that plans for the development of these areas already were well underway. The map underscores the degree to which the public waterfront areas, then as now the most valuable land in the Bay Area, were handed over to private parties. Among the most important beneficiaries to this policy were the railroads, in particular the Central Pacific Railway. It was neither the first nor the last time that large land-grabs would favor great American enterprises, but the Tideland controversy in many ways paved the way for the public outrage directed at such policies less than a decade later.
Not only were many of the sales of these public lands illegitimate, but since many of the plots either were fully or partly submerged (i.e. tide lands or salt marshes), developing them would mean redrawing the coastline, shifting fortunes in the process. Note for example the east coastline of San Francisco itself. From the southern half of Hunter’s Point, across India Basin, Islais Creek, Dogpatch and up to Mission Bay, almost all of it sits on land reclaimed after the publication of this map. The same thing goes for Marin County or large parts of Oakland, where for example the entire International Airport sits on reclaimed land.
That this map is indeed the product of an age of unbridled ambition (and considerable greed) is further indicated in the second item of the legend, a slightly darker brown line that: “shows the encroachment upon the navigable waters of the Bays, in case the sale of submerged lands is continued to the three fathom line”.
The transfer and creation of land in the century following this map made and destroyed fortunes. While the brown line may have demarcated some version of a maximum reclamation capacity, it also served as a dramatic visualization of how significantly the bays might be diminished if the process continued to go on unchecked. In that regard, this map offers a unique and very time-specific window into the history of San Francisco’s explosive growth.
Background: The Tide Lands Controversy
This official chart was originally prepared from U.S. Coastal Survey maps and other formal records. As such, it constitutes a powerful representation of the incredible development that San Francisco underwent over the course of the 19th century.
The map was produced in California on the order of The Board of State Harbor Commissioners for the United States Commissioners on San Francisco Harbor, as a way of definitively establishing what parts of the marsh-, tidal- and submerged lands had been selected for reclamation and sale. In order to underline its official character, both the US Commissioners (Rear Admiral John Rodgers, Major G.H. Mendell and Prof. George Davidson) and the State Harbor Commissioners (Samuel Soule, T.D. Mathewson and D.C. McRuer) are named on the map, alongside its maker, T.J. Arnold (see more below).
Nowadays, the sale of California Tide Lands is constitutionally prohibited, but this was not always the case. With the demographic growth of the Gold Rush, the State Legislature allowed the sale of Tide Lands in San Francisco Bay to private enterprise. A body known as the Board of Tide Land Commissioners (BTLC) was created to oversee this process, which had unleashed hundreds of competing land claims and was fraught with politics and corruption. As early as 1868, long before any form of construction was viable, the BTLC had begun mapping out and selling entire blocks of waterfront real estate, the result of which is evident from this map.
The California State Lands Commission provides the following summary of the history of the Tide Land legislature:
In 1863, the Legislature enacted Chapter 306, Statutes of 1863, establishing the state Board of Harbor Commissioners. The Harbor Commissioners were authorized to take possession of and hold all that portion of the San Francisco Bay lying along the waterfront of San Francisco, and adjacent thereto, to the distance of six hundred feet into the waters of the bay, together with all the improvements, rights, privileges, franchises, easements and appurtenances connected therewith, excepting such portions of said waterfront as may be held by parties under valid lease.
In 1868, the Legislature broadened the development plan and extended it throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. This was done through the creation of the state Board of Tide Land Commissioners (BTLC), created pursuant to Chapter 543, Statutes of 1868. The Board was authorized to take possession of and to survey and subdivide all of the remaining tide and submerged lands still owned by the state out to a depth of 24 feet of water at low tide along the bay. By extending the pattern of the subdivision for the upland streets and blocks into the bay and creating channels and basins and by selling the lots and blocks, the state created a new waterfront.
In 1870, pursuant to Chapter 388, Statutes of 1870, the Board’s authority was extended to salt marsh and tidelands in San Francisco Bay out to a depth of nine feet at low tide, and located within five statute miles of the exterior boundaries of the City and County of San Francisco, as fixed and established in Section one of Chapter 190, Statutes 1857.
During the 1879 Constitutional Convention, both access to and the sale of the tide and submerged lands in the San Francisco Bay Area was a source of major discussion. The debate over whether to create a constitutional prohibition on the sale of tide and submerged lands took place over two days. Of note is that at least one delegate was the owner of tidelands. By a narrow vote, the “ayes” prevailed and the 1879 Constitution included what became known as Article XV (Harbor Frontage, etc.), below.
SECTION 1. The right of eminent domain is hereby declared to exist in the State to all frontages on the navigable waters of this State.
Sec. 2. No individual, partnership, or corporation, claiming or possessing the frontage or tidal lands of a harbor, bay, inlet, estuary, or other navigable water in this State, shall be permitted to exclude the right of way to such water whenever it is required for any public purpose, nor to destroy or obstruct the free navigation of such water; and the Legislature shall enact such laws as will give the most liberal construction to this provision, so that access to the navigable waters of this State shall be always attainable, and that the people shall not be shut out from the same.
Sec. 3. All tide lands within two miles of any incorporated city or town in this State, and fronting on the waters of any harbor, estuary, bay, or inlet, used for the purposes of navigation, shall be withheld from grant or sale to private persons, partnerships, or corporations.
The amendment adopted in 1879 is similar to what exists today. The key difference is that a street created by the Board of Tideland Commissioners may be sold if the Legislature makes specific findings.
While this official summary of the events surrounding the BTLC and the reclamation of land in San Francisco Bay provides a good overview, it does not fully capture the duality that characterizes this particular map. On one hand, we see the government with all its capacities at work here, overseeing and managing a massive and difficult process – or at least providing the cartographic data on which to do it. On the other hand, and despite being imbued with this spirit of great possibility, it is also a manifestation of the darker drivers in the great story of America. It represents a process in which the well-positioned stakeholders stood to win massively, where others lost out: a process in which political decisions were informed and often funded by private interests. Rarely can one find as impressive a chart that encapsulates this difficult dichotomy so clearly.