Someone once characterized San Francisco’s founding fathers
as being either adventurers or visionaries. Sometimes an individual fitted
neatly into both categories. This was certainly the case with the City’s
industrial pioneers, Peter, James and Michael Donahue.
The three young Irishmen brought not only the usual Hibernian
brawn to Gold Rush California but also industrial daring , adventurousness and
great insight and vision into San Francisco’s future.
The brothers started out small in 1849, of necessity, for
they had no money. But they soon expanded their blacksmith shop into a machine
shop and boiler works, and then added a foundry. They called their firm Donahue’s
Union Iron and Brass Works, but the public shortened the company’s name to the
Union Iron Works.
The Donahues located at First and Mission Streets, South of
Market or "South of the (cable car) Slot, in the area that tired workers
called Happy Valley. By 1853 the Irishmen were changing San Francisco
nomenclature as well as its skyline and industrial base. They added a gas works
on First, from Howard to Fremont; and the area came to be known as Tar Flat
rather than Happy Valley. This was a time before natural gas. Illuminating gas
for street lamps was made from coal, most of it imported from England.
At first, the by-product, coat tar, was thrown, or allowed to
run, out into an adjacent lot, hence the name of the whole district. (An
alternative, but less likely, origin for the name is given by some local
historians. They claim that Donahue’s Irish workmen slurred their brogues and
that Tower Flat, so-called for the Shelby shot tower across from the gas works,
became "T’ar Flat").
Peter Donahue was no ecologist, but he was a good businessman
and he soon found a use for the gas company’s (more or less "toxic")
waste, using the tar for roofing material and street paving before the day of
As early as the 1850’s, Peter Donahue say that his new
hometown must take advantage of its great resource, San Francisco Bay, in order
to handle the population growth that he knew was coming. So it was that he moved
into transportation. From ship repair and shipbuilding, and repair, maintenance
and eventual construction of locomotives, it was not too great a jump to
planning both railroads and ferries.
So Donahue built the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad
in1860. The line, which, today, hauls commuters by the thousands, will do the
same for throngs of baseball fans. But, not content with tying the Peninsula and
South Bay to the growing metropolis, he ended the North Bay’s isolation in the
1870’s by building a line from Donahue, a new port on Petaluma Creek, to the
Russian River and Cazadero. He later moved his railroad terminus to Point
Tiburon, and Donahue is now a ghost town below Lakeville. Eventually, as the
Northwestern Pacific, the railway was extended from Tiburon and Sausalito all
the way to Eureka.
To connect his trains with the City, Peter Donahue put
together a ferry fleet to run from the Embarcadero. By l871, he had rebuilt such
veteran steamers as the Sacramento, Wilson G. Hunt, and
ironically, the Milton S. La, named for his chief local rival in
transport. He placed them in service with his brand new "flagship",
the James M. Donahue, named for his brother. But another star of this San
Francisco Bay ferry flotilla was the aging Antelope. She had become
famous on the Sacramento River in the 1850’s as "Wells, Fargo’s Gold
Boat" because she carried many cargoes of gold dust and bullion. And she
brought the first Pony Express mail pouches to the Embarcadero from the capital
The equipment is much different today, but the San Jose/San Francisco
railroad is humming. There is talk, even, of restoring the old NWP right-of-way
in Marin and Sonoma Counties; perhaps for light-rail.
Ferry boats are
crisscrossing the Bay again, and more are on the way. It is apparent that the
dreams of Forty-Niner Peter Donahue and his hard-working brothers are about to