Long Bridge Superhighway of Yesteryear

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Fishing from Long Bridge in 1869. Photo: by Eadweard Muybridge, courtesy California State Library

San Francisco has long found creative ways to solve complex ways, including, in the 19th Century, development of the Long Bridge.

“A lot of locals have never heard of it, but it was an architectural wonder that solved a huge problem the City faced in the 1850s and 1860s,” said Linda Day, an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute teacher.  

In those years life was oriented to the Bay. Most transport was by boat; supplies arrived, and finished products left over the water. People wanted to live near the Bay—South-of-Market, Dogpatch, and Potrero Hill—because that offered a short commute in a time when the typical workday might mean twelve hours of hard labor.

Buildable land was in short supply. As the City spilled south beyond Rincon Hill, into Islais Creek and Hunters Point, travel times expanded. The Long Bridge served as an 1850s-style “superhighway” that started in SoMa and headed south over the water for miles, using a route that follows Fourth and Third streets but which at the time was in the Bay. 

“The Long Bridge allowed people to commute much more quickly – by a new form of mass transit, the railroad, rather than by boat or foot – and made living in Hunters Point very practical,” Day said. 

On weekends, the Long Bridge served as a recreation spot, a place to stroll, fish, or launch boats into the Bay.

Another innovation related to building materials.

“The City Hotel, San Francisco’s first inn, was made of adobe because that was the material the first settlers knew best,” Day noted. “Problem is, as they quickly discovered, adobe was not very sturdy, and unsuited to earthquake country.” 

They tried wood frame structures. But those were threatened by the ever-present danger of fires. San Francisco suffered six big blazes beginning in the 1850s. Eventually steel-reinforced masonry was adopted, at least for tall buildings in the Bay Area. 

“It became possible to use locally manufactured iron after 1856 with the opening of the Pacific Rolling Mills plant. So, the City eventually settled on the best of all possible worlds, at least for tall buildings in this area: masonry reinforced, first with iron and then, after July 1868, with steel made at Pacific Rolling Mills,” Day explained. “The plant was located in China Basin and used coal from the newly opened Tesla Coal Company, which was located near Livermore.”