A Signal Station on Telegraph Hill:
Gold Rush Communications

In 1850, ship arrivals were of great interest to Gold Rush San Francisco, as all supplies and communications came in by sea. Local businessmen G.F. Sweeny and T.E. Baugh set up a lookout station on a high hill in San Francisco. From the hill, lookouts had a view of the Golden Gate and provided the first report of ships entering the Bay. A fixed semaphore system - two arms hinged on a tall mast - showed what kind of ship it was and if it needed assistance. The signal could be read from downtown and the waterfront. The system, called a "telegraph," gave its name to the hill on which it stood.

In 1851, a second lookout station was built near the Golden Gate at Point Lobos. It communicated via semaphore with Telegraph Hill, though visibility was often hampered by fog. In 1853, an electric telegraph was installed, linking Point Lobos to downtown San Francisco and making the Telegraph Hill station obsolete.

Above, San Franciscans were alerted to the arrival of ships by the Point Lobos (outer) station, which relayed semaphore signals to the Telegraph Hill (inner) station.

The signal station appears above abandoned vessels in Yerba Buena Cove in 1853. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institute, William Shew.
The code of signals used by the Telegraph Hill station was published as a broadside by Sweeny & Baugh so that any citizen of the City could interpret it. During a performance of a popular play, "The Hunchback," an actor spread his arms out and asked "What is this?" A wit from the audience replied, "A side-wheel steamer." Image courtesy Library of Congress.