In the early days of the Californian immigration, on the extremest point of the sandy peninsula, where the bay of San Francisco debouches into the Pacific, there stood a semaphore telegraph. Tossing its black arms against the sky, -with its back to the Golden Gate and the vast expanse of sea whose nearest shore was Japan, – it signified to another semaphore further inland the “rigs” of incoming vessels, by certain uncouth signs, which were again passed on to Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, where they reappeared on a third semaphore, and read to the initiated “schooner,” “brig,” “ship,” or “steamer.” But all homesick San Francisco had learned the last sign and on certain days of the month every eye was turned to welcome those gaunt arms widely extended at right angles, which meant “sidewheel steamer” (the only steamer which carried the mails) and “letters from home.” In the joyful reception accorded to that herald of glad tidings, very few thought of the lonely watcher on the sand dunes who dispatched them, or even knew of that desolate station.
From The Man at the Semaphore, by Bret Harte
The First Telegraph Line on the Pacific
Yesterday, a grand fete was given by Messers Sweeney and Baugh, proprietors of the Merchants Exchange, commemorative of the opening of their telegraph line between their office and the outer station at Point Lobos on the coast.
About 250 guests repaired to the spot and sat down to a sumptuous repast spread upon tables in the open air, within hearing of the breakers, upon the coast. The weather was delightful and everything contributed to render the day a pleasant one.
Thos. H. Selby, Esq. was called to the chair and Messers Haven and Hale appointed vice presidents. On the right of the President were seated the English and French consuls, and on the right of the Vice Presidents the Danish consul.
Twelve regular and a number of volunteer toasts were drunk, which were responded to by several of the guests. Among the speakers were the French, English and Danish consuls, Col. Henry, J.P. Haven and Mr. Dow. Their remarks were peculiarly felicitous. Mr J.B. Henning, the builder and operator of the Telegraph also responded to one of the toasts in a very happy manner.
After the announcement of each sentiment, a fine band of music played an appropriate air. During the festivities a constant communication was kept up with the city by means of the telegraph, and some 50 or 100 messages were received.
The day will be long remembered as commemorative of one of the most remarkable events which has ever taken place on the Pacific Coast.
From the San Francisco Herald, September 30th, 1853
The History of the Marine Exchange
In 1848 San Francisco was a small town of approximately 2,000 people perched at the western edge of the sparsely populated continent of North America. Weeks and months passed between the arrival of ships that carried supplies and news from the outside world.
Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California, in 1849 and “the world rushed in.” By the end of 1849 the population of San Francisco was 6,000 and growing. Ships called at San Francisco with increasing frequency and their arrival was eagerly anticipated. Men would wait on the western beaches and watch for approaching sails, then they would race across the barren dunes and hills to carry the news to town.
In short order the effort to gather and spread the news of a ship’s arrival became more systematic. The February 1, 1849, edition of the Alta California reported the plan of Lt. John Duer, of the U. S. Navy’s Pacific Coast Squadron, to build a semaphore station atop what was then called Loma Alta. On September 10, 1849, a public meeting was held to organize a “Merchants Exchange” to provide a clearing house for information about shipping and other commercial news. The Annals of San Francisco report that: “The undertaking, however, after going on for some time, seems to have been dropped; and in November we find Mr. E. E. Dunbar opening a subscription Merchants’ Exchange and Reading Room.”
It was November 15, 1849, that Edward E. Dunbar opened his Merchants’ Exchange and Reading Room at Washington and Montgomery Streets. The charge to read European and East Coast newspapers was five dollars per month, two dollars per week, or seventy-five cents per day. Upstairs from the Exchange, Lt. Duer was putting the finishing touches on his plans for the semaphore station that would give Telegraph Hill its name.
On December 23,1849, Dunbar’s exchange was destroyed by fire, but it reopened soon thereafter on Montgomery Street. Dunbar was busy in many other civic organizations besides the Merchants’ Exchange. Perhaps that is why L. W. Sloat, the son of Commodore lohn Sloat, became proprietor of Dunbar’s exchange. On May 4,1851, Dunbar’s Merchants’ Exchange was destroyed by fire and we find no more references to its survival. In early 1850 Ned Boehme and William Mercier began construction of Lt. Duerfs wooden semaphore on Loma Alta. They stayed on to become the first lookouts at the station. The station opened for business on April 19, 1850. The Alta California published this notice to pilots: “Pilots will confer a favor upon the proprietor of the Marine Telegraph by requesting masters of vessels bound in to hoist their colors at the masthead instead of the peak.” The first signal sent that day was “vessel in distress inside” when the English bark Daniel Grant struck Blossom Rock. Within a year semaphore stations were erected at Point Lobos and the Presidio House – and Loma Alta was known as Telegraph Hill.
It was also in 1850 that two new Merchants’ Exchanges were set up on Clay street; they were organized by the firms of Wills and Grower and Troyen and Hurlburk. Both firms established lookouts at Meigg’s Wharf at the foot of Powell Street, but in the words of an un-named source: “Neither of these institutions made much of an effort to get news; they simply posted it when it came to them and furnished a place for business men to meet where they could discuss the arrivals or non-arrivals of vessels in which they were interested.”
In late 1850 or early 1851 the Merchants’ Exchange of George Sweeney and Theodore Baugh was formally organized in the old location of Troyon and Hurlburck on Clay between Montgomery and Sansome. Lt. Duer had departed for New York August 23, 1850. Around this time Sweeney and Baugh got a jump on Wills and Grower when they paid 6,000 dollars to a M. L. Callendar and an E. V. Joice to take over “Duer’s telegraph arms.” On February 17,1851 Sweeney and Baugh took out a copyright on “Marine Telegraph Signals.”
The un-named source continues: “Sweeney and Baugh pleased their patrons so much that in two years they were able to move into the new building on Battery street…. How Wills & Grower were able to keep afloat is a mystery, but they did for a number of years, and their place was always crowded with business men, most of whom, however, it is said, paid no dues. They always had the news shortly after Sweeney and Baugh, although they made little effort to get it. It is true that they were at little expense and the owner of the building put the rent very low, so as to keep them there and make the neighborhood lively.” The exchange of Wills and Grower disappeared by the mid 1850’s.
Sweeney and Baugh did not rest on their laurels. They started correspondence with other world ports so they could anticipate the arrival of ships and the goods that they carried. They built a wharf at the foot of Dupont Street and hired men to row out to the ships that waited beyond the bar for favorable wind and tide. The boatmen brought back confirmation of the names of the ships and their cargoes, as well as the latest news and important documents. In 1853 Sweeney and Baugh installed the first electric telegraph line on the West Coast between their Point Lobos lookout and their office on Sacramento Street. The new line was dedicated on September 30th, 1853 with a large open air party at Point Lobos attended by 250 well-wishers, including the English, French, and Danish consuls. The San Francisco Herald reported: “The weather was delightful … the day a pleasant one … Twelve regular and a number of volunteer toasts were drunk … After the announcement of each sentiment, a fine band of music played an appropriate air.”
Duer’s telegraph station stood until the winter of 1870/71 when it was blown down in a storm. Until that time, to reward those who climbed the hill for the view, “There were good refreshing milk-punches to be had in the room beneath the look-out on the roof, where privileged visitors could ascend and use the telescope.” Sweeney and Baugh also made use of the station as the location of a “time ball.” Every day at noonthe time ball was dropped down a pole so that the masters’ of the ships in the harbor could check the accuracy of their chronometers.
Business went well for Sweeney and Baugh. On January 11, 1855, they moved to larger quarters at 135 Clay Street. The Annals of San Francisco reported “The opening of the new Merchants’ Exchange was celebrated by a large assemblage of merchants and an appropriate festivity” In 1857 they took still larger offices at the north-east corner of Battery and Washington. The State Capitol met in this building during the winter of 1861/62 when Sacramento became flooded.
In 1859 George Sweeney died. Baugh carried on with his Merchants’ Exchange and had the field to himself until 1865 when a rival Merchants’ Exchange was organized by William C. Ralston, R. J. Sneath, Joseph A. Coolidge, Alvinza Hayward, and Thomas H. Selby, “some of the city’s foremost capitalists.” With plenty of money behind it the new Merchants’ Exchange built its own lookout stations at Telegraph Hill and Point Lobos as well as stations on the Mission Hills and at Pigeon Point between Point Montara and Half Moon Bay. The new exchange also built a station at Meigg’s Wharf to dispatch boats to ships beyond the bar. They sent east, to New York City, for a famous maritime reporter, Bob Martin, to publicize their efforts. Baugh brought in his own New York reporter, Bob Silby, but the tide was running against him. Around 1869, Baugh changed the name of his Merchants’ Exchange building to the U. S. Court Building and gave up the ship reporting business. He had done well with real estate investments and lived comfortably till his death in 1881.
In 1866 the new exchange established its own lavish quarters at the corner of Leidesdorff and California, a three story edifice combining Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian architecture, surmounted by a lookout tower 120 feet above street level. Not content to let the subscribers come to them they had on standby a horse and rider to carry the news of arriving ships to all the important hotels and bars in town.
In 1876 the new exchange demonstrated its own commitment to technology: “for as early as 1876, the same year in which it was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, an experimental line was rigged between Meigg’s wharf and the Merchants’ Exchange, proving again the wide awake character of this organization.”
The Merchants’ Exchange was the nerve center of the city. It was not just a ship reporting agency, it was also a forum for the important men of the day to gather and discuss their business. In 1898 President McKinley was assassinated. The popular feeling at the time held that William Randolph Hearst was responsible because of his virulent agitation against McKinley in his newspapers. Hearst was ostracized in many circles, people boycotted his newspapers, and the Merchants’ Exchange refused to provide him with shipping information. In 1901 Hearst opened his own “Marine Exchange” with duplicate lookout stations at Point Lobos and Meigg’s Wharf so that his newspapers could report the shipping news.
In 1903 the San Francisco Produce Exchange merged with the Merchants’ Exchange. To accommodate itself, the enlarged Merchants’ Exchange razed its former quarters and built in its place the building that stands today at 465 California Street. In 1906 the great quake, and subsequent fire, gutted the new building causing 750,000 dollars in damage. The Merchants’ Exchange, that had supplanted the exchange of Sweeney and Baugh, was in its zenith and funds were quickly raised to repair the structure. In April 1910 the assembled membership raised 4,089,000 dollars in two hours time to pay for the Panama Pacific Exposition that was planned for 1915. In July 1911 James Rolph, Jr., president of the Merchants’ Exchange, reported to the members that the value of Merchants’ Exchange properties was worth 1,950,212 dollars. After consideration of outstanding bonds to pay for the repair of 465 California, and other liabilities, (including 966 dollars to one William Coulter for some “picture panels”) President Rolph reported a surplus of 15,331.65 dollars.
In 1909 James Rolph, Jr., then in his first term as president of the Merchants’ Exchange, announced to the board of directors his intention to unite all of the city’s commercial associations into one body. In 1911 Rolph carried out his promise. The Merchants’ Exchange, the Downtown Association, and the San Francisco Grain Trade Association disappeared into the newly incorporated San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. The Exchange became the Marine Department of the Chamber of Commerce, “thus the Merchants Exchange, like the other organizations, more or less lost its identity” The Chamber of Commerce was given an option to purchase the Merchants’ Exchange building at 465 California “on or before the 31st of December, 1912,” and control of that property and its historic Coulter maritime murals passed out of the hands of the maritime community.
Robert O’Brien, in his “The Beginnings of the Marine Exchange”, said the Exchange had entered into “an era that has reflected not so much the decline of shipping as the rise of other interests important to the commercial life of the city” In 1914 the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce closed the ship reporting operation, that had been started in 1865, and instead subscribed to Hearst’s Marine Exchange at a cost of one hundred-twenty dollars a month.In 1924 the Chamber of Commerce voted to purchase Hearst’s Marine Exchange for 2,500 dollars, including his stations at Meiggs’ Wharf and Point Lobos. The main hall at 465 California Street, with its Coulter Murals, was once again the center of maritime news in San Francisco.
In late December 1937 the Chamber of Commerce moved its Marine Department from 465 California to 333 Pine Street. The Shipping Register of March 26, 1938, reported “that a wave of protest immediately registered with the Chamber of Commerce. The marine interests of San Francisco appointed committees to work out a plan with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce wherein the Marine Department of the Chamber would be moved back to the old historic floor in the Merchants Exchange building. In order to accomplish this, a new non-profit organization was formed to be known as the ‘Marine Exchange of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce,’ with its own officers and board of directors, thus placing the management of the Marine Exchange in the hands of the shipping fraternity, where it really belongs.” The new Marine Exchange moved back to 465 California Street on March 19, 1938 with Harry S. Scott, of General Steamship, as president of the board and Marc Cremer as secretary-manager of the operation. The San Francisco Chronicle of March 8, 1938 reported that “open house and appropriate ceremonies will be held on the famous floor of the Exchange, Friday, March 25. City, State and Government leaders and navy officials will attend.”
The new Marine Exchange was charged with a double mission: Not only to provide timely information on ship activity but also to promote the Bay Area maritime community. The Commercial News on July 26, 1940 reported “Delegates to the Foreign Trade Convention will be invited to visit and inspect the Marine Exchange of San Francisco, M. A. Cremer, its manager, announced yesterday. The delegates probably are not aware, few San Franciscans are, that this exchange is an unique American institution. Moreover, there are only two other similar trading exchanges in the world, Lloyds of London and the Florence exchange.”
In 1947, 465 California passed into new hands. The Marine Exchange was unable to pay the new rent demanded and moved its main office to 318 California Street in the Cahil Building. O’Brien reports: “on moving day in 1947, it is said, a white-haired member took a last look about the big room at 465 California Street and muttered: ‘This isn’t progress. We’ve gone back 40 years.”
The Bulletin of the Marine Exchange for May 1948 shows that the Exchange was broadening its scope beyond the city of San Francisco: “As ship movements are area-wide, the Exchange is area-wide in coverage and membership. Dependent on its services are marine insurance companies, banks, admiralty attorneys, forwarders, exporters and importers, manufacturers, government agencies, wholesalers and retailers, maritime labor unions … Noteworthy are the many engaged in selling and servicing the host of items that are necessary to operate as well as to build and repair ships.” The Exchange began to investigate the use of radio telephone and radar to improve its ship reporting service to members.
In 1949 the Marine Exchange ended it relationship to the Chamber of Commerce. In 1956 the Exchange moved its headquarters to the new World Trade Center in the Ferry Building. In 1957 the lookout station at Meigg’s wharf was moved to Pier 45.
All the while, the Exchange was at work to promote the establishment of a World Trade Center, a Foreign Trade Zone to increase imports, a Bay Area traffic and transportation bureau to “protect the Bay Area against loss of business due to prejudicial rates and charges,” and the Northern California Ports and Terminals Bureau to lobby for harbor improvements and aids to navigation. The Exchange devoted its energies to such events as National Maritime Day, National Foreign Trade Week, Harbor Day, Pan-American Day, and Navy Day. Its committees lobbied from Denver to Paris and London to attract shipping to the Bay Area.
In June 1958, Marc Cremer, secretary-manager of the Exchange, passed away. In 1959 Robert Langner became the new director of the Marine Exchange. Under Langner’s leadership the Exchange continued to promote the Bay Area maritime community Langner published Merchant Shipping on a Sea of Red Tape which led to a world wide effort to cut paper work for shippers. The efforts of the Exchange led to the establishment of the nation’s first Coast Guard vessel traffic management system for the ports and waterways of the Bay Area.
The Marine Exchange today is the successor to, and the beneficiary of, the efforts of many people and many exchanges since 1849. Through the years the idea of service to the maritime community has endured. Today’s Exchange plans to live up to its history and its responsibility.
Information on Lt. Duer, deaths of Sweeney and Baugh, Loma Alta and early Telegraph Hill, quotes from Alta California from San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill by David F. Myrick, Howell-North Books, Berkeley, 1972.
Annals of San Francisco by Frank Soule,John H. Gihon M. D., and James Nisbett; Appleton And Co., New York City, MDCCCC. As quoted, also other activities of Dunbar.
California Historical Society Quarterly Volume 22,1943, “California Copyrights, 1851-1856 With Notes on Certain Ghost Books” by Edith Margaret Gultau, for information on copyrights of Sweeney and Baugh.
Volume 38, 1959 “Rational Amusement in Our Midst, Public Libraries in California, 1849-1853″ by Hugh S. Baker, for information on Edward E. Dunbar, L. W. Sloat, and subscription rates of the reading room.
First noted references to the Exchanges of Wills and Grower and Troyon and Hurlburk as well as the “un-named source” mentioned above. Also strong opinions about the Exchange and the Chamber. “‘History of the Merchants Exchange’ and “Marine Exchange In Former Quarters” Shipping Register Volume 20, Number 13, March 26,1938. No author.
Milk punch at the look-out station from a reprint of 1873 book by T. A. Barry and B. A. Patten Men and Memories by Biobooks, Oakland 1947.
State Capitol at Merchants’ Exchange from History of California by Theodore H. Hittel, N. T. Stone and Co., San Francisco 1898. Details on telephone from An Historical Review of the San Francisco Exchange; (i. e. the telephone exchange;) by R. S. Masters, R. C. Srnith, W E. Winter; The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co., San Francisco, 1927.
Details on William Randolph Hearst, reaction to McKinley, reaction of Merchants’ Exchange, and Hearst’s Marine Exchange from San Francisco Port of Gold by William Martin Camp, Doubleday and Co., Garden City 1947
Details on sum raised for Panama Pacific Exposition from Panama Pacific Exposition, Building an Exposition by A. H. Markwart, Assistant Director of Works, published by Panama Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915, Many histories casually toss out the figure 10,000,000 dollars in fifteen minutes. I believe Markwart is in a position to know.
Details on financial health of merchants’ Exchange and Rolph’s plans to James Rolph, Jr., July 1911. ‘To the employees of the Exchange … I trust that their welfare, in the future, will never be lost sight of by succeeding boards of directors, and that, with prosperity to the Exchange, will come prosperity to them…their faithful service should be recognized.”
Also, “The Beginnings of the Marine Exchange” by Robert O’Brien, circa spring 1950, which seems to have first been published in observance of National Maritime Day May 21, 1950? It has served in many forms through the years as the “official” history of the various Merchant and Marine Exchanges.
Also “Marine Exchange Takes the Lead” by T. Douglas MacMullen, Pacific Marine Review October 1949. “1955-1956 A Report and a Program” no author, archives of the Marine Exchange. “San Francisco’s Marine Exchange” no author, Marine News March 1957. “What the Marine Exchange Means to San Francisco Bay” Daily Commercial News May 22, 1957.