The Grande Dame South of Twin Peaks:
History of Fairmount Heights
"There is one thing about the Fairmount district a lad would remember and that was the sound of cowbells in the spring evenings when the grass was high and the cows wouldn't want to come home. Then the herders would listen for the bells and follow them across the fields in the dusk, and that way find the cows and drive them back to the barn." -- From Riptides, A Glen Park Boy Looks Back, Part I. San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 1947.
A short 4 to 5 miles from the bustling business center of San Francisco, the hilly region immediately south of Twin Peaks and east of Mt. Davidson was once considered rural farmland, a beautiful and idyllic place to visit but not many before the Earthquake and Conflagration of 1906 wanted to live there. Fairmount Heights (also referred to as the Fairmount Tract) has the distinction of being the earliest residential area in the region covered by the Glen Park Neighborhood History Project, predating Glen Park and Sunnyside by about 30 years, and Diamond Heights by nearly a century.
Fairmount Heights was originally surveyed as the Pacific Railroad Homestead Association in 1862 by Richard Chenery, James Laidley, Charles C. Bemis, and others at a time when construction of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad (that later became the Central Pacific, and soon after the Southern Pacific) had begun. The Civil War likely delayed the project, and it re-emerged as the Fairmount Homestead Association in 1864. The tract was bounded by Grove Street (today’s 30th Street) on the north, Bemis Street to the west, and the railroad running through the Bernal Cut as it bends southeasterly from 30th around to the line of Castro Street along today’s San Jose Avenue. The day the Association was established came in with a bang! Reporting initial capital stock of $16,000 ($235,000 today), the Fairmount Homestead Association was incorporated on February 7, 1864, the same day that San Francisco was jolted by two “severe” earthquake shocks occurring only a few seconds apart, "... strong enough to ring doorbells and break glass." Roughly triangular in shape, today's Fairmount Tract is bordered by San Jose Avenue to the east, 30th street to the north, and Castro street to the west. Chenery Street, established at the same time as the homestead, serves as the backbone for not only the Fairmount Tract but for Glen Park, as well.
The earliest known map of the Fairmount District, published in March 1863 and stated to be a reproduction of a map from November 1862 that had likely been published by the Pacific Railroad Homestead Association.. Courtesy of the San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library.
The real estate agency of Cobb & Sinton, located at 406 Montgomery Street, offered the first lots for sale in the Fairmount Tract on March 19, 1864, “... on credit for 1 to 2 years” and “Title, United States patent.” In their words, “The land is beautifully situated, commanding a fine view of the city, and is laid out so as to avoid the heavy grading which has proven so great a charge on city property.” Cobb & Sinton sold $57,000 (about $837,000 today) worth of property on the first day, postponing the remainder of the auction for a week while General H.A. Cobb recovered from a cold. “The salerooms were densely packed with earnest bidders, showing conclusively that when good property, with perfect titles is offered, our people appreciate the importance of safe and good investment.” A follow-up to the second auction was not reported.
Cobb and Sinton continued to promote the "fine garden land" and the convenience of its location, "situated opposite of the Four-mile House.” [The Four-mile House was variously described as being located near Cortland and Mission Streets (from the Bernal Heights perspective), or just across the road at San Jose Road and Randall (from the Fairmount Tract perspective). Learn more about the Mile Houses along the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad (later the Southern Pacific).] The Fairmount Tract was also only, "... about 8-minutes walk beyond the horse railroad on Valencia Street." Or,
"In 1864, if you took a buggy ride over the dirt roads of San Francisco from downtown to Fairmount Heights, you go out the country road or Mission Street. You would pass Park Street (24th Street), Yolo (25th Street) and Navy (26th Street). At New Market (Army [Cesar Chavez]), you would cross a wooden toll bridge that crossed Serpentine Creek and then proceed on to Vale (28th Street), Dale (29th Street), and Grove (30th Street) and end at Palmer (Randall) Streets."
Cobb & Sinton later held a “Grand Credit Sale” by orders of the Fairmount Homestead Association in February 1866. They announced the properties were for, “Parties in search of a snug homestead, within easy reach of the business centres, … These lots are situated on the sunny slope of the hills just beyond the WILLOWS [located on 19th Street between Valencia and Guerrero], perfectly protected from the prevailing winds, and having a soil of unsurpassed fertility. The approach by vehicles is over the finest roads and easiest grades, and the view from the premises is one of the best in the city."
Sales of lots in the Fairmount Tract continued to increase over the next several years. Residents were mainly blue collar workers, who, "... cleaned, built, and supported the folks in the 'fancy' neighborhoods in town. They supplied the workhorse behind the wheel that drove downtown San Francisco." Occupations in 1868, according to neighborhood research by Fairmount and Noe Valley residents in 1959, included "carriage makers, stablers, bakers, civil service workers, painters, and men working in the building trades."
As such, for the next few decades, residents' demands to receive the same City benefits as the more well-to-do neighborhoods in San Francisco would often fall on deaf ears in the chambers of City supervisors, as the residents of Glen Park, Sunnyside, and other neighborhoods in the Outside Lands could also attest. The Fairmount Improvement Club often joined forces with other local associations to make their voices heard for the addition of street lights and sewers, better water connections, bigger schools, improved roads, and easier access to main routes leading downtown and south out of San Francisco.
Through the years, Fairmount Heights has continued to maintain much of its 19th-century charm. It's not much of a stretch to be able to see through the eyes of Cobb and Sinton that this "fine garden land" is "beautifully situated" on the "sunny slopes of the hill."