Revitalization of San Francisco’s North Beach & its impact on 19th Century Marin

by Robert L Harrison

View southeast on Columbus (then Montgomery Ave.) to Admission Day parade, with oxen pulling covered wagon representing San Rafael parlor of NSGW. Montgomery Block in background. SFOpenHistory/ wnp15.1391.jpg © SFOpenHistory

Most residents can appreciate how certain projects and changes in San Francisco significantly affect Marin. The Golden Gate Bridge stands as the most obvious example of both a real and symbolic connection between the two counties. In the 19th century the ferries between the two counties played a similar if less dramatic role.

There were other smaller San Francisco projects that were viewed at the time as important to Marin. One of those was the decision in 1870 to construct Montgomery Avenue, a project to create a diagonal street, now known as Columbus Avenue, from the intersection of Washington and Montgomery Streets to Beach near Leavenworth Streets.

Montgomery Avenue was seen within the city as an important new link from downtown to the North Beach neighborhood. The plan was to build a gentle grade from the central area through North Beach for teams hauling heavy loads. As described in the March 19, 1870 Daily Alta California, “…North Beach has been languishing for the last fifteen years…. The main reason of this retrogression of North Beach is, that it was not accessible by easy grades.”

View northwest on Columbus (then Montgomery Avenue). At center, the California Hotel, at 1001–1017 Kearny/200–214 Montgomery Avenue, built in 1874. OpenSFHistory / wnp26.351.jpg. © SFOpenHistory

The great value of the new street was acknowledged by the Daily Alta, “Montgomery Avenue, on account of its width and easy grade and diagonal intersections of a multitude of streets, furnishing the shortest route for persons wishing to pass between many different places, will be thronged with people; and lots on it will be valuable. All of the houses fronting on it will be new, and many will be costly and elegant. Disreputable tenants will not be permitted to establish themselves there.”

This potential for a revitalized San Francisco neighborhood near the city’s northern waterfront did not go unnoticed in Marin. The route was expected to not only open the area for stylish development but would also provide a connection to the city’s waterfront facing Marin County. As reported in the Sausalito Herald in October 1872, “The northern end of the city becomes the fashionable quarter of the metropolis, the eastern slope of our county from Sausalito to San Rafael will be covered with the villas of merchant princes who can find here sites more beautiful, a climate more agreeable, and scenery grander and more varied than in the remoter valleys of San Mateo.”

Example of the kind of villa the “Sausalito Herald” expected to “cover” the eastern slope of our county from Sausalito to San Rafael with the revitalization of San Francisco’s neighborhoods near the city’s northern waterfront. Staley Collection, Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

The Marin County newspaper saw the redevelopment of North Beach as attracting wealthy residents, but equally important, the paper envisioned a commercial boom for the area. The Sausalito Herald explained it this way: “When access by a level road round Telegraph Hill and an easy grade by Montgomery Avenue to the business centre (sic) of the city are provided, there will be a strong inducement to put its extensive waterfront in order, and construct secure wharves and docks. Sausalito will be the terminus of railroads connecting with all the northern counties of the State, and all traffic crossing the Golden Gate will pass through Montgomery Avenue.”

[New Montgomery SF, looking west.] Cable cars on New Montgomery St., now Columbus Ave. Horsecar at right on Montgomery St. OpenSFHistory / wnp71.2038.jpg © SFOpenHistory

In January 1872 Marin County voted to provide a $160,000 subsidy for the North Pacific Coast (NPC) Railroad to run from Sausalito to Tomales. The Daily Alta California of February 7, 1872, observed “…the recent railroad election in Marin county, by ensuring the more speedy construction of the North Pacific Coast Road with the terminus at Sausalito, has had a noticeable effect upon property in the vicinity of North Beach, suggests an additional reason for the existence of Montgomery avenue. As the actual terminus of the Central Pacific is the Company’s wharf in this city, so the real terminus of the other road will be North Beach.” The southern Marin connection was seen by some as a potential terminus for not just the NPC but for a transcontinental railroad to compete with the Central Pacific.

The proposed alignment of Montgomery Avenue would cut across the existing rectangular city street grid pattern at an approximately 45 degree angle. Many existing properties would be disrupted including a number of theatres. As reported in the April 16, 1870 Marin Journal, “Montgomery avenue…will materially lessen the number of theatres in that city, as the Metropolitan, Maguire’s Opera House, the Pacific Theatre, and several melodeons will have to be removed.” The Russian River Flag of September 4, 1873 described the removal of “The old International Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in San Francisco, is to be torn down to give way for the second block of Montgomery Avenue.”

In its September 21, 1874 issue the Daily Alta California reported, “Montgomery Avenue has been cleared of all obstructions from end to end and will be formally turned over to the Board of Supervisors at the meeting this evening. The Board of Public Works will continue to struggle with the legal controversies which have arisen or may arise through the opening.”

The legal entanglements did indeed restrict the construction and paving of the street such that an editorial in the Daily Alta California on December 29, 1875 was titled the “The Avenue Shame.” It provided a vivid example of the muddy condition of the street. The editors had observed “a woman and little child completely swamped in the mud…” In August 31, 1876 the newspaper described the street as “….dirt, unpaved, one-sided, cumbered, dusty and miserable canal of abomination, is now in its seventh year since the bill was passed providing for its opening.”

The Daily Alta California editorialized again on October 5, 1880 “A shameful Outrage. We do not pretend to say who is at fault for the shameful condition of Montgomery avenue, in which it has been for months, and in which, apparently, it seems likely to continue through the rainy season…Month after month the avenue has remained in this shameful condition, awaiting the action of the Courts.”

The court battles over property assessments and who was to pay for the construction of the street continued for several years. The street was not completely paved until 1913. By that year Montgomery Avenue had been renamed Columbus Avenue. It remains unclear whether the delay in the street’s construction constrained the number of “merchant princes” predicted to choose to live in Marin as a result of the new street’s existence.

Originally published at



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Anne T. Kent California Room

Anne T. Kent California Room

The official Medium account of the archive of Marin County history & culture at the Marin County Free Library