It is the vibrance of the color and superior artistic quality of this chromolithograph that first catches the eye. Prominent San Francisco artist Arthur F. Matthews envisioned and designed the rich scene, which was then brought to life by the city’s pre-eminent engravers of the time, Britton & Rey.
The California Sugar Refinery served as a key node in the commercial strategy of entrepreneur and industrialist Claus Spreckels. Like another of San Francisco’s most famous 19th century residents, Adolph Sutro, Spreckels was born in Germany and arrived in San Francisco in the 1850s. The Gold Rush was largely over, but the tremendous wealth it generated, along with San Francisco’s growing prominence as a maritime city, created myriad opportunities to amass new fortunes.
Spreckels entered the sugar business in the 1860s, but it was the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875, a free-trade agreement between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii, which facilitated his rapid ascent. Spreckels took advantage of the treaty to form partnerships, gain concessions, and dominate supply. In doing so, he became a powerful figure in Hawaiian politics and its economy. He built the Spreckelsville Plantation, among the largest sugar estates in the world. This sugar was shipped by the Oceanic Steamship Company, also controlled by Spreckels, to his refinery in San Francisco, the subject of our view. And finally, Spreckels was also a railroad executive, and the steam engine depicted at the right side of our view shows how the refinery connected to the Southern Pacific Railroad to distribute his sugar beyond San Francisco.
The view shows the impressive extent of the refinery operation, with laborers at work pushing wheelbarrows, loading barrels on to horse-drawn carts, and supervising the unloading of sugar directly from the company docks. The main section illustrates the large and stately building, with the Bay in the background. An inset at upper right display the refinery from the Bay itself, including an interesting depiction of the “sugar elevator” used to transfer sugar from the ships to the main building. An insert at the upper left, cleverly given depth as if on a piece of paper, features an excellent black and white portrait of Spreckels himself.
Overall, a rare and fascinating work of San Franciscana.