Ross Alley is a one-block alleyway in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown District, running north and south between Washington, Jackson, Stockton, and Grant streets. While there are many one-block alleys in Chinatown, Ross is heavily traversed by visitors in search of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, the last place in Chinatown still making fortune cookies the old-fashioned way. Given this foot traffic, a number of folks in the Chinatown community thought Ross a choice spot for a historical plaque. “Alleyways in Chinatown were created during the early settlement of Chinese in the late 1870’s,” reads the plaque on Ross’s east wall near Jackson Street. “During that period, the rapidly-growing community was restricted by anti-Chinese sentiment to a six block area behind the back streets of the Barbary Coast. To maximize space within the confines of its boundary, the community created a maze of secondary streets and pedestrian walkways.” This is not true.
While it is true that an exploration of Chinatown reveals a maze of alleys unlike other districts of San Francisco, the reason has nothing to do with the factors mentioned on Ross’s plaque. The truth is that most all of the alleyways in Chinatown date back to the time of the California Gold Rush of 1849, when the exploding population was centered around and pushing out from the Plaza, that is Portsmouth Square, otherwise known as “the cradle of San Francisco.”
Ross Alley is named for Charles L. Ross, one of the city’s pioneer merchants, who built a house next to where the alley is all the way back in 1847, when the town was still known as Yerba Buena. The alley itself was not instituted until the later part of 1849 however, and was originally called Stout’s Alley, as at the time Dr. Arthur Breese Stout, one of San Francisco’s pioneer physicians, had turned the old Ross residence into a hospital.^
A native of New York, Dr. Stout arrived in San Francisco on Feb. 28, 1849, aboard the steamship California. The California was the pioneer of the North Pacific Steamship Line, and therefore a sign of things to come for a town about to undergo amazing transformation: “as she came in sight off the Town,” reported the Weekly Alta, “called forth cheer upon cheer from our enraptured citizens, who were assembled in masses upon the heights commanding a view of the Bay, and in dense crowds at the principal wharves and landing places. She passed the vessels of war in the harbor under a salute from each, returned by hearty cheering from the crowded decks, and at eleven was safely moored, at the anchorage off the Town.” (Constitution and By-Laws of The Society of California Pioneers (San Francisco, 1912), p. 157; Weekly Alta, March 1, 1849, p. 2, c. 3)
While Stout initially opened a “private Hospital on Pacific street, near Dewitt & Harrison’s store, at the Embarcadero [Pacific and Sansome at the time],” by November of 1849, he’d purchased Ross’s “elegant” old residence up from the Plaza on the east side of Washington Street, between Dupont (Grant) and Stockton streets, and transformed it into his new hospital. In January of 1850 one reported: “The building is large and is divided into suitable apartments; it is upon high ground, dry and well ventilated. Great care is taken to preserve cleanliness, and few institutions in any part of the country offer greater facilities to treat the sick more successfully, or secures to the convalescent greater comforts than are here provided.” (Weekly Alta, May 17, 1849, p. 2, c. 2; Weekly Alta, Nov. 8, 1849, p. 3, c. 2; Daily Alta, Jan. 25, 1850, p. 3, c. 1)
Stout’s hospital was located on a lot which in today speak took up the NE corner of Washington Street and Ross Alley. While Stout’s Alley does not appear in a city directory until Parker’s Directory of 1852-53 (Appendix, p. 7), it’s quite clear that the institution of the alley was in tandem with access to Stout’s from Jackson Street.
Jumping back to the plaque: “Ross Alley is located in the center of this maze,” the plaque continues. “The alley is a narrow passage running between Washington and Jackson Streets. Ross is actually an extension of Spofford Alley in many ways [Not true]. In the past, both alleyways were infamous as a place for gambling and prostitution [as were most alleys in San Francisco’s old downtown area in the later part of the 19th century]. Ross is known as ‘Gau Leuie Sung Hong’ (Old Spanish Alley) because of the many latins that patronized the area. [Not true. The reason the Chinese community called it Old Spanish Alley was due to the fact that in the 1850s and 1860s, the alley was a Latino enclave. In other words, the Chinese community didn’t begin to inhabit the alley until the 1870s.]”
In the 1870s, the Chinese population in San Francisco rose steadily, especially with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad which saw many immigrant workers coming to the city. While anti-Chinese sentiment was already present surrounding labor issues, etc., it swelled to new heights at this time, not only locally, but nationally, escalating all the way to the federal government’s passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. It was indeed dangerous for members of the Chinese community to venture outside of Chinatown. Therefore, the Chinese community expanded out from where it first settled during the gold rush on Sacramento Street between Kearny and Dupont (Grant) into places like Ross Alley. What this plaque gets terribly wrong is the fact that Chinatown’s history and make-up didn’t suddenly appear in the 1870s, instead, the Chinese community came to inhabit much of the original downtown area of San Francisco as it shifted toward Market Street in the later part of the 19th century. The alleyways were already there, as they had been since the gold rush. But in the 1870s, they became part of Chinatown.
^ While the alley is first listed as “Ross” in Langley’s City Directory of 1861 (p. 366), Ross Street, Ross Alley, and Stout’s Alley were all listed and used interchangeably by the press throughout the 19th century.