The original Maiden Lane of San Francisco

Today Maiden Lane — named in the 1920s as a hopeful reference to more famous Maiden Lanes around the world^ — sits in the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square Shopping District, running east/west for two blocks within the bounds of Post, Kearny, Geary and Stockton streets. For those that know a bit about San Francisco history the lane’s name is ironic, as in the later part of the 19th century it was Morton Street, lined with maisons de joie. More often than not, men were lured to Morton Street and then robbed when their clothes were left uninhabited. While the street’s rebirth as Maiden Lane has become legend, the story of a Maiden Lane in San Francisco goes back to the beginnings of the city. (Sacramento Union, July 10, 1877, p. 3, c. 4; Daily Alta, Sept. 10, 1884, p. 4, c. 4; Oct. 7, 1886, p. 1, c. 3)

San Francisco’s original Maiden Lane was located just up from Yerba Buena Cove, a stone’s throw from Portsmouth Square, passing from Washington to Jackson, between Montgomery and Kearny streets. Kimball’s City Directory of 1850 — the city’s first — lists Maiden Lane as one of just eight “smaller streets & places” central to the city at the time. (p. 121) Most likely working around the topography of the block, the lane was located just west of where a lagoon used to be at the intersection of Jackson and Montgomery streets. It was one of the first blocks of the city affected by landfill, located where Chinatown, Jackson Square, and the Financial District meet today.

Old Maiden Lane SF
This detail from Buckelew’s map in 1847 shows the lagoon once located at the crossing of Jackson and Montgomery streets. Following the California Gold Rush of 1849, SF’s original Maiden Lane came to be nearby, roughly where the red line is.

Following the gold rush, Maiden Lane became lined with one to two-story wooden structures, for example in early 1850 a two-story carpenter shop/lodging house was being sold on the lane (Daily Alta, Feb. 14, 1850, p. 3, c. 4). Its claim to fame in San Francisco’s early history however came in April 1850 when it became the address of the city’s first bath house: “At last there is a place in San Francisco where the unsurpassable luxury of bathing can be enjoyed to perfection,” reported the Daily Alta. “Nothing is so conducive to health as the bath, and we have frequently expressed our surprise at the absence of any decent bathing establishment when the opening presented for one was so evident. Messrs. Mygatt, Bryant & Co. have taken the field and fitted up a neat, convenient and comfortable bathing house in Maiden Lane, a few doors from Washington street, near the National Theatre. Although they have been open but three days, customers already flock to their baths and keep them in constant use. We are pleased to find that efforts to keep our citizens in a cleanly and healthy condition are appreciated.” (Daily Alta, April 11, 1850, p. 2, c. 2) Less than a month later, Mygatt, Bryant & Co.’s bathing establishment — and everything else on the block — burned to the ground in the great fire of May 4, 1850. (Sacramento Transcript, May 14, 1850, p. 2, c. 5)

Thereafter, any regional mention of Maiden Lane, if not speaking of Maiden Lane in New York City, was generally always in reference to Maiden Lane in Marysville, Calif.,”the Gateway to the Gold Fields,” located up the Feather River from Sacramento. San Francisco’s Maiden Lane did not reappear in a directory until 1854, and had two entries: “MAIDEN Lane, from 182 Washington, N. side, near Kearny” and “MAIDEN Lane, from Jackson, south side, between Montgomery and Kearny.” (LeCount and Strong’s City Directory of 1854, p. 163) Importantly, the two entries — listed in subsequent directories as well — reveal the singular nature of the lane, which did not simply pass from one side of the block to the other in a straight line, but instead zig-zagged through the block. While its opening at Washington Street was close to Kearny, the Jackson Street opening was mid-block. Furthermore, with development of the block around the lane in the mid-1850s, Gibb Street^^ was instituted to open from the north end of Maiden Lane and run west for about 130 feet or so: “desirable Lot situated on the south side of Jackson street, and forming the westerly corner of Maiden Lane, running to Gibb street in the rear, being in size 21 feet front on Jackson street, and 68 feet in depth on Maiden Lane. This valuable Lot is located in the centre of the business part of the City, having a front of three streets, and is every way desirable as a paying investment.” (Alta, May 13, 1855, p. 3, c. 7)

1905 Maiden Lane
This detail from a Sanborn Insurance map shows what was left of the original Maiden Lane in 1905, and is basically how it remains today.

By 1860, if not already, the fate of Maiden Lane was sealed to back alley status when its opening at Washington Street was built upon. Strangely, following this development, an opening at the north side of Vallejo Street between Powell and Stockton (connecting with Card Alley) took on the name of Maiden Lane as well. Today this street is known as Emery Lane, but circa 1861 became a second Maiden Lane for over 20 years until it was renamed Vulcan Lane in 1883. (Langley’s City Directory of 1861, p. 364; 1882, p. 121; 1883, p. 132)

That said, though much of the original Maiden Lane remained, in 1873 it was further  truncated when Montgomery Avenue (renamed Columbus circa 1922) was cut through the grid to “afford an easy grade from the heart of the city to the North Beach portion of the city, which [had] been kept back for years in consequence of the steep grades to be overcome in reaching that section.” (Daily Alta, Feb. 2, 1870, p. 1, c. 3; Nov. 11, 1873, p. 1, c. 5) After this happened, less than half of the Jackson Street opening remained, and the lane became listed in directories as opening from the west side of Montgomery Avenue between Washington and Jackson streets. This is how it remains today. (Crocker-Langley’s City Directory of 1921, p. 167; 1922, p. 209)

Ils - Gibb Street
This photo is taken from where the old Maiden Lane would have originally opened at Jackson Street, before Columbus cut through the block (Columbus is the street with cars on it). The red circle highlights the entrance to what is left of old Maiden Lane, called Ils Lane today. You can see the Gibb Street sign on the wall above the person pulling the blue trashcan.

Without a doubt, in the wake of the gold rush, San Francisco’s original Maiden Lane was named for Manhattan’s Maiden Lane. However, the Maiden Lane that exists today was not. Despite this difference, the old Maiden Lane and the modern Maiden Lane are indeed related within the vortex of San Francisco history.

When the Dewey Monument — honoring Admiral George Dewey for his victory at the Battle of Manila during the Spanish-American War — was placed at the center of Union Square in 1903, Morton Street was renamed Union Square Avenue since standing on Kearny Street one could glimpse the monument two blocks away down the lane. To make sure the relationship was clear, the name of the street was changed to Manila Street in 1910, though most folks continued to refer to it as Union Square Avenue, or Union Square Street. (Crocker-Langley’s City Directory of 1903, p. 96; 1910, p. 116)

At the beginning of the Roaring Twenties however, with the continuing shift of San Francisco’s shopping district from Kearny Street to Union Square, the Downtown Association put in the request to city officials to change the name of Manila Street/Union Square Avenue to Maiden Lane, not in regard to Manhattan’s Maiden Lane, but in reference to Maiden Lane in London. This was at the height of the British Empire, when Britain ruled a quarter of the world.

Ils Lane-old Maiden Lane
What remains of San Francisco’s original Maiden Lane.

“Changing the name of a street does not necessarily change its odor, no more than changing the name of ‘garlic’ will alter its perfume,” read a Letter to the Editor in 1922. “The Down Town Association suggests changing the name of Union Square avenue into Maiden lane as there is a street in London by that name, which is the headquarters of manufacturers of gold goods. If it is necessary to have a London name for a street, I would respectfully suggest the name of Threadneedle street, upon which is located the Bank of England.” (Chronicle, Aug. 14, 1922, p. 18, c. 4-5)

On July 27, 1922, after having passed through the Board of Supervisors, Mayor James Rolph Jr. approved an ordinance “changing the name of Union Square [Avenue/Manila] Street to Maiden Lane, and changing the name of Maiden Lane to Ils Lane.”^^^ (Chronicle, July 28, 1922, p. 16, c. 7) Today’s Maiden Lane was born, and the city’s original Maiden Lane became even more obscure. Like all of San Francisco’s best forgotten streets, seeking out and walking Ils Lane today feels like you’re trespassing. But what you soon discover once enveloped by its lost solitude is the feeling that in some genuine sense you are connecting with the greater and amazing story that is San Francisco.

—___—–__-_—–____-_-_–_-_-_——-_____—–__–_-

^ In a chapter about Maiden Lane, Robert O’Brien writes, “at the suggestion of a businessman who had a jewelry store where the alley met Kearny, city officials renamed it . . . Maiden Lane, after the street which is the center of New York’s jewelry and silverware trade.” Robert O’Brien, This Is San Francisco (N. Y.: Whittlesey House, 1948), 93. My own research came to a slightly different conclusion which is presented in the article.

^^ Still known as Gibb Street today, this short street was most likely named for Daniel Gibb, who was a 49’er and early merchant of San Francisco.

^^^ Renamed for John G. Ils of John G. Ils & Co., who owned the building between Maiden and Gibb before it was destroyed in 1906. There they manufactured “French ranges and broilers, kitchen and bakery outfits, bake ovens and furnace castings.” Following the destruction of 1906, Ils rebuilt his operation South of Market on Mission Street. (Crocker-Langley’s City Directory of 1905, p. 966; 1908, p. 927)

1 thought on “The original Maiden Lane of San Francisco

  1. Do you have any info here on Jasper Alley? My dad grew up on that street.

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