30 March 2021
Third & Fourth Quarter 2020
On May 10, 1869, the ceremonial final spike was driven into a railroad tie at a site that remains almost as lonesome in 2020 as it was over a century and a half ago: Promontory, Utah. Of course this refers to the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad which allowed a train to cross the entirety of the North American continent for the first time. The final puzzle piece in northern Utah was much less important – then and now – than was the railroad’s destination on the West Coast: San Francisco.
By 1880, the population of San Francisco was about 234,000, making it the ninth most populous city in the country. The next most populous city west of the Mississippi was Kansas City (55,000 residents). San Francisco was the only economically important settlement in the western United States, and thus marked the end of the line for the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Our 2013 Q3 letter on the history of Los Angeles noted her misfortune when it comes to geographic features that have historically fed the growth of any great metropolis: namely, access to fresh water and a suitable harbor/port. What Los Angeles lacked, San Francisco had in the 19th century and has today. Its natural harbor is the among the best on the entire Pacific coastline, and its climate provides the abundant fresh water that becomes scarce as one travels farther south through California. For these reasons (and with an assist from the gold rush of 1849), San Francisco became the initial outpost for American expansion on the West Coast.