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Exploring the Origins of California in Telegraph Hill, San Francisco

A glimpse into some of the earliest settlers, innovators, and innovations from 19th century San Francisco's "Loma Alta" down through its most notorious neighborhood.

Launch the free audio tour as you're walking to uncover hidden stories in the area. Here’s a preview at what you'll hear…

Telegraph Hill and the Dawn of California

Panoramic view of Telegraph Hill buildings with the sky and clouds in the background.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Before California’s first telegraph was installed in 1853, there was actually something called a semaphore in its place. The semaphore was itself a crude form of telegraph manipulated by the watchman on the hill to give San Franciscans a head’s up as to what type of freight was pulling into the harbor. When President Fillmore agreed on September 9, 1850 to forgo California’s status as a territory and skip straight to statehood, the news was loaded onto the SS Oregon and shipped via Panama. Five long weeks later, on October 18th, 1850, the Oregon chugged in through the golden gate, firing flares and flying celebratory flags to confirm to those atop the hill: California was officially the thirty-first state in the Union, and the semaphore shared the good news with the rest of the city straight away.

The Garden Compound

Closeup of a statue of Valetta Heslet in the Heslet Garden Compound, surrounded by trees and other green plants
Photo credit: Stan Teng for the Northeast San Francisco Conservancy

Valetta Heslet and her husband moved here in the 1930s, and with her mother, Grace Marchant, they bought out a series of decaying cottages below the castle, overseeing an unofficial anarchist collective of “bootleg architecture” known as The Compound. But the real legacy of the family is the pair of gardens built along the steps, and the wild, Neotropical parrots who live here. Inspired by her daughter’s gardening on these Greenwich Steps, Mrs. Marchant spent three decades building the garden on the Filbert Steps. After a legal battle against developers in the early 1980s, the community has since bought out Grace’s Garden, and it’s been in the hands of her successors ever since.

31 Alta Street

You’re looking for a tiny cul-de-sac named Alta Street. The oldest house, perhaps in the entire city, is #31. Once a “tea room” during Prohibition, it was advertised as having “all the atmosphere of the Montmartre with a marine view,” according to historian Rand Richards. The hostess was a celebrated chef amongst her fellow residents, and when her speakeasy was busted by the cops, she became a celebrated chef amongst her fellow inmates.

The Duck House

Duck house mural on a wall with a yellow building. Painted by Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli.
Photo credit:

Directly across Alta Street, amidst the brutally modern apartment buildings, look for an orange mural poking through the trees at #60. This is the Duck House, so-named given the ducks painted there by its original owner, an artist named Helen Forbes who painted similar works at the San Francisco Zoo.

After Forbes, a dancer named Mayris Martin lived there and reportedly entertained Eleanor Roosevelt -- her longtime “friend” -- on several occasions. After Martin, San Francisco’s most legendary journalist Herb Caen occupied the space, not to mention the author Armistead Maupin, who wrote a good chunk of his Tales of the City series on the premises before dedicating the first three volumes to his Alta Street neighbors.

Washington Square

In this piazza named Washington Square, you'll find a statue of Benjamin Franklin. Built from cheap “monkey” metal by a wealthy temperance advocate named Cogswell, the statue is perhaps the last of hundreds of anti-booze water fountains he installed nationwide in the 19th century. Chiseled into the base is a reference to the time capsule buried here in 1879.


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