A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 9, 1776:
Dedication of the Mission Dolores

Saint Francis

Two hundred and thirty-two years ago this week, the original “Mission San Francisco de Asis” — better known as Mission Dolores — was officially dedicated on the banks of Dolores Lagoon, in today’s aptly named Mission District.

I’m not talking about the graceful white-washed adobe that stands at 16th and Dolores streets today — it would be some 15 years before the good padres, in an early chapter of the church’s “problematic” relationship with native Americans, would draft members of the Ohlone to construct that edifice. No, this was more like a cabin, a temporary log and thatch structure hacked together a little over a block east of the present Mission, near the intersection of Camp and Albion Streets.

Mission Dolores plaque

The location had been selected by a scouting party sent north by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, spearheading a Spanish drive to explore and settle New Spain’s northern frontier.

Father Pedro Font, a member of the expedition, wrote poetically about the site in his journals:

“We … came upon two lagoons and several springs of good water, meanwhile encountering much grass, fennel and other good herbs. … We arrived at a lovely creek, which because it was the Friday of Sorrows, we called the Arroyo de los Dolores…. On the banks of the Arroyo … we discovered many fragrant chamomiles and other herbs, and many wild violets. Near the streamlet the lieutenant planted a little corn and some garbanzos in order to try out the soil, which to us appeared good. As for me, I judged that this place was very fine, and the best for establishing on it one of the … missions….”

The creek and lagoon have long since vanished, drunk dry and buried under asphalt and concrete, but the name lingers on, applied to the Mission, to the palm-treed street out front, and to countless other Mission District locations: “Dolores”.

October 8, 1865:
The great earthquake of 1865

san francisco earthquake 1865

It was just after noon on a sleepy Sunday, when suddenly, out of the clear October sky, it struck: The Great San Francisco Earthquake!

Those of you who’ve heard to the Sparkletack episode in which Sam Clemens recounts his experience of the original Big One already know whereof I speak, but for the uninitiated — this “Great San Francisco Earthquake” happened in 1865. And even though that title would fade just three years later when a much bigger quake hit, and of course would disappear altogether when the 1906 monster laid waste to the city, the 1865 shaker was a pretty good one.

Here’s how Sam Clemens remembered it in his pseudo-memoir Roughing It“:

“As I turned the corner, around a frame house, there was a great rattle and jar, and it occurred to me that here was an item!–no doubt a fight in that house. Before I could turn and seek the door, there came a terrific shock; the ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent joggling up and down, and there was a heavy grinding noise as of brick houses rubbing together. I fell up against the frame house and hurt my elbow. I knew what it was now… a third and still severer shock came, and as I reeled about on the pavement trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight! The entire front of a tall four-story brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a great dust-like volume of smoke!”

The local “Alta California” called it “one of the heaviest Shocks ever felt in the vicinity by “the oldest Inhabitants”, and the headline in the New York Times read “GREAT EARTHQUAKE IN CALIFORNIA.; Two Tremendous Shocks within Half a Minute. All the Bells in San Francisco Set Ringing by the Motion. Trifling Injury to Property, and No Lives Lost.”

City Hall was badly damaged. Fissures up to 3 inches wide opened in the ground, chimneys fell, walls cracked open, cornices plummeted to the pavement, and many brick structures were so badly damaged that they had to be knocked down — all of these effects amplified, of course, in the “new” areas of San Francisco, those recently created by filling the Bay.

In fact it was this very quake which finally — after dozens of shocks since the founding of Yerba Buena in 1835 — led to San Francisco’s first attempts to make buildings earthquake-proof.

October 11, 1965:
Rest in peace: Dorothea Lange

dorothea lange car

Dorothea Lange, the celebrated Depression-era documentary photographer, died in San Francisco today at the age of 70.

After starting her career in New York, Lange set off with her camera to travel the country. She apparently got stranded in San Francisco, but decided to stay, and opened a portrait studio here in 1918.

With the onslaught of the Great Depression, Lange turned her attention from the drawing room to the street — and her stark but compassionate portraits of poverty in our fair city soon led to New Deal federal employment. The “Farm Security Administration” sent Dorothea into the Dust Bowl to document the plight of America’s suffering farm families and migrant workers.

lange - migrant mother

The Feds made the resultant searing and intimate work available to newspapers free of charge, and the photos became icons of the Depression. These images profoundly influenced modern documentary photography, and make up the body of work for which she’s best remembered today.

Lange traveled widely, but made the Bay Area her permanent home, a base from which she focused her documentary lens on challenging subjects ranging from the WW2 internment of Japanese-Americans, to the founding of the United Nations.

Her catalog speaks for itself, and you can see the entire collection at the Oakland Museum of California. I’ll leave you with this thought about what makes photography “good” from Dorothea herself:

“The good photograph is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the objects. So that no one would say, ‘how did you do it, where did you find it’, but they would say that such things could be.”