The San Francisco we see today is very different from what it looked like in the city’s earliest days. Much of downtown was water until Yerba Buena Cove was filled in to form the Embarcadero. In the heart of the Civic Center, before there was City Hall or the Asian Art Museum, thousands of bodies were buried in the city’s first official cemetery.
These historical snapshots come from a geographic names dataset, published by the US Board on Geographic Names (BGN). This federal agency manages the names of geographic features across the country, oversees the process of renaming places, and publishes data on those names – both current and historical.
Using historical data, The Chronicle mapped Bay Area features of nine counties that no longer exist or have been renamed in the past. The map includes both natural features, like bays that have been filled with land, and man-made places like churches, parks, and cemeteries that have since closed.
The data, however, is not exhaustive. BGN continues to add and update information about natural features, but stopped doing so for most unnatural places in 2014. As a result, buildings demolished after 2014 do not appear in the data, and even some locations that closed before 2014 are excluded, likely because the history of those locations was not recorded before the agency stopped collecting data for unnatural features.
For example, the map does not have the Fox Theater in San Francisco, which was built in 1929 and closed in the 1960s, nor the Coronet, also known as the “Star Wars Theater”, which had its day closing in February 2005.
Yet many of the city’s main historical monuments are located there. Below is a list of places that caught our attention. They include famous sites that readers will recognize, but also more obscure sites that were previously unknown even to our resident Bay Area historians in The Chronicle newsroom.
Photo: Inside Sutro Baths, a public bath built in 1894 and closed in the 1960s. (Joe Rosenthal / The Chronicle)
Sutro Baths was a bathhouse built by SF millionaire Adolph Sutro in 1894. Although it attracted thousands of people in its early days, the baths were not successful in the long term. Parts of the facility were demolished in the 1960s to create land for private residences, and a fire soon destroyed most of the remaining structure. Plans to build new apartments were halted and eventually abandoned. Some concrete slabs from the old facility still remain at the site, which is part of the larger tourist site, Lands End.
Yerba Buena Cemetery
Photo: The remains of a corpse buried in what was once Yerba Buena Cemetery. (Jerry Telfer / The Chronicle)
The triangular area of the Civic Center, bounded by Market, Larkin, and McAllister streets, is the site of the city’s first official cemetery, Yerba Buena Cemetery. It opened in 1850, but moved in just four years to make way for more development in the area as the town center grew rapidly.
The dataset contains two other records of ancient cemeteries – the Hidalgo Cemetery and the Old Mexican Cemetery in Santa Clara County.
Pictured: Motor racing at Ingleside Racecourse circa 1910 after the track was closed in 1905. (San Francisco Public Library)
On Thanksgiving Day in 1895, nearly 7,000 San Franciscans gathered in the area of present-day Ingleside Terraces to watch the inaugural horse race at Ingleside Racecourse. But after just four years of operation, visitor interest waned and the track was eventually converted into a refugee center for townspeople who became homeless after the 1906 earthquake.
Traces of the old racetrack remain today in the oval shape of Urbano Drive. But the horses that did laps around the oval have long since been replaced by carriages driven by local residents.
City of Sydney
Pictured: The waterfront between Broadway and Pacific streets, once home to the Sydney Ducks. (Lance Iversen / The Chronicle)
During the Gold Rush, thousands of Australian immigrants moved to San Francisco. Among them was a group called the Sydney Ducks, made up of ex-convicts who settled in the area at the foot of what is now Telegraph Hill, which they called Sydney Town. In the 1850s, the group was accused of setting several fires, which led to lynchings and the deportation of several of its members. The Ducks eventually left Sydney Town, and the area later became known as the Barbary Coast.
Pictured: Washerwoman’s Bay in 1858, where many residents offered laundry services during the Gold Rush. (Watkins Carleton E. 1829-1916)
Located west of Russian Hill was Washerwoman’s Bay, a lagoon primarily used for laundry during the Gold Rush. Back then, a cheap way to do your laundry was to pay someone to wash your clothes in the lagoon. At one point, hundreds of people were doing laundry there, with the Chinese becoming the dominant community to provide these services. But by the 1870s, the lagoon was full of sewage from nearby neighborhoods and was eventually filled with land.
Photo: Seals Stadium in 1958, where San Francisco’s minor league baseball team, the Seals, played from the 1930s through the 1950s. (Duke Downey / The Chronicle)
Seals Stadium, located in the Mission District, was where the minor league baseball team, the SF Seals, played from 1931 until the 1950s. It then became the home ground of the Giants during a short time before moving to Candlestick Park – another stadium which has since closed (but is not included in the data as it was demolished in 2015). Today, a shopping center stands on the site of the old Seals Stadium.
Nike SF-89C missile site
Photo: The US military built several missile sites in the Bay Area during the Cold War as a last line of defense against Soviet bombers. (GGNRA GOGA 2018 Park Archives)
During the Cold War, the US military installed hundreds of Nike anti-aircraft missile sites across the country, intended as a last line of defense against Soviet bombers. The Bay Area had several of these sites. One was on top of Mount Sutro, called the Nike SF-89C site. Although it did not store any missiles, it was the control center for detecting incoming attacks and directing missiles to the SF-89L launch site a few miles away in the Presidio.
Peter Hartlaub contributed reporting for this story.
Nami Sumida (her) is a data visualization developer at the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: email@example.comTwitter: @namisumida