by Judith Kahn
An article in the San Jose Pioneer, dated Sept. 15, 1897, points out that few of the people living in San Francisco at the time knew much, if anything, about how the streets were named.
“Outside of a few prominent streets … and those bearing the names of presidents, little seems to be known among San Franciscans as to whom and what the pioneers were whose names remain on the maps of their city,” the article said.
Although much more information is available today than was in 1897, there is still more knowledge to be discovered as to the origins of the diverse street names in San Francisco.
According to Louis K. Lowenstein, in his book “Streets of San Francisco,” a researcher is still often left to intuition, judgment and even wits in the search for how streets got their names,
Although books, articles and newspaper stories on the origin of San Francisco streets have appeared sporadically over the past decade, there is still a lot to be discovered.
Finding out the history of street names in San Francisco has always been problematic, especially since the 1906 earthquake destroyed many city records, along with a new City Hall.
In 1882, 28 alleys and courts and more than three dozen streets were given new names, but there are no records explaining how that occurred.
Street naming in San Francisco was often a chaotic process, but there were three periods in San Francisco’s history when most of the street naming took place. The most prolific time was in 1909, when a committee of the SF Board of Supervisors gave almost 100 streets new names.
San Francisco named streets after people from many occupations, including explorers, surveyors, military personnel, mayors, millionaires and prominent/influential citizens.
Such was the case with Richmond District street names.
The Richmond was originally composed of rolling sand dunes and was one of the last sections of the City to be developed. The district got its name from an early Australian immigrant and art dealer, named George Turner Marsh. He called his new home “the Richmond House,” after Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. The district is bordered by Golden Gate Park to the south, Pacific Ocean to the west, and Lincoln Park, Lands End, Mountain Lake Park and the Presidio to the north.
Anza Street was named in honor of Capt. Juan Batista de Anza, the “father of San Francisco,” who led a sizable party of soldiers and settlers from Sonora, Mexico, north to Monterey. The journey took longer than expected and de Anza was obligated to return to Mexico to oversee his administrative responsibilities. Second Lt. José Moraga continued on to San Francisco Bay.
The origin of Balboa Street’s name was attributed to Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475 -1519), an explorer who discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513.
Clement Street was named in honor of the New Yorker, Roswell Percival Clement, a lawyer who arrived in California in 1853. Clement served as an attorney for the San Francisco Gas Light Company and was also a member of the SF Board of Supervisors.
Cabrillo Street got its name from navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who discovered Alta California. Cabrillo was the first sailor to cruise the Pacific as far north as the Russian River.
Cornwall Street is thought to have gotten its name from the southwest corner of England, which was once inhabited by Celtic Christians.
Funston Avenue is named after Brigadier Gen. Frederick Funston. He was acting commander of the Army’s Pacific Division during the turbulent times after the 1906 earthquake, when city streets were destroyed and chaos reigned. As general, he had the difficult task of maintaining order in the city.
Fulton Street was possibly named after an early pioneer, Daniel J. Fulton, or after the inventor of the steamboat, Robert Fulton.
Geary Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in the City, was named in honor of John White Geary, San Francisco’s first mayor and first postmaster. He had his clerks stay up all night sorting mail, with the post office doors locked to keep impatient crowds outside. It was said that people thought nothing of standing all night in the mud, with a heavy rain pouring down on their heads, just to get word by mail.
In August, 1849, Geary was elected alcalde. Later, he established a municipal court, organized a paid police force and bought the ship Euphemia, which was used as San Francisco’s first city jail. The Euphemia was one of the many ships that was abandoned in Yerba Buena Cove.
The origin of the Lake Street name comes from none other than Mountain Lake, which is located at 12th Avenue and was an early water source for the Presidio and emerging city.
San Francisco is always in the process of naming and renaming streets, to honor new heroes or outstanding citizens of the City, or to remove the names of those deemed unworthy by today’s standards.