San Francisco Telegraph Hill


Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill

Historic Telegraph Hill is one of the Seven Hills of San Francisco. It’s as well known as the San Francisco cable cars and Fishermans Wharf and it’s the site of the distinctive and quite unique Coit Tower. Thousands of people visit Coit Tower annually and if your upcoming plans include a visit to San Francisco, this is one stop you do want to add to your trip or vacation planner.

A Semaphore for Telegraph Hill

Today’s Telegraph Hill was known by several different names over the centuries. The Spaniards who were the first to occupy present day California had named the hill “Loma Alta” which meant “high hill”. After that, the earlier settlers on San Francisco referred to the hill as “Goat Hill“. Eventually, the name Telegraph Hill took hold and for a reason. During September 1849, just a year before California’s statehood and after the U.S. took control from Mexico, a semaphore was built on the hill as a means to alert citizens of the ships entering San Francisco Bay. The semaphore consisted of a pole that had two arms. Depending on the configuration of the pole’s arms, the operator could send a message as to what type of vessel was entering the city. Was the vessel a steamboat?, a side wheeler?, a sailboat?, a frigate?, a sloop?, etc.

View of Oakland Bay Bridge and Treasure Island from Coit Tower observation deck

Why This Was Important

One might ask why this signaling form the semaphore on Telegraph Hill was so important. The fact of the matter was that it proved itself quite useful in the realm of finance and trade.

The knowledge of the character of the cargo entering the bay and thus entering the city could and did reflect on prices set. If a trader was unaware of what type of cargo would be unloaded, the prices he or she paid might be too much. This is an example of the law of supply and demand up close. If whatever cargo an arriving vessel carried would add a surplus to current inventories, then prices were apt to drop and drop quickly. Those who made a living through speculation would become daily observers of the Telegraph Hill semaphore.

The Electric Telegraph

Most people know the effect that the transcontinental telegraph had on the short lived yet still famous Pony Express system. As soon as the telegraph lines were completed, the Pony Express vanished within just a few months. After the electronic telegraph was completed in 1862, the semaphore on Telegraph Hill was eventually taken down. Even though the semaphore was gone, Telegraph Hill retained it’s famous name and is today one of the top attractions for those visiting San Francisco.

Lillian Hitchcock Coit

The Building of Coit Tower

Those visiting San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill today will be able to explore Coit Tower. The twenty-one story high tower was constructed in 1933 during the time of the Great Depression.

Coit Tower is named after Lillian Hitchcock Coit, who donated much of her fortune to the City of San Francisco. Lillie Hitchcock Coit came to San Francisco with her parents in 1851. Her father was a surgeon and a graduate of West Point.

Coit had a colorful history. Aside from being seen smoking cigars and wearing trousers, the wealthy socialite also had an affinity for gambling and in this pursuit often dressed as a male. Lillian Coit was also very enamored with the city’s firefighters. In fact, Lillian Hitchcock Coit was listed as a volunteer firefighter. She became such a fixture at fires around San Francisco that she was actually named the official mascot for Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5. She was awarded a gold badge from the volunteer firefighters honoring her membership. It has been said that Lillian Coit was always fascinated with the fireman’s red shirt and helmet.

Mural inside of Coit Tower

Lillian Hitchcock Coit passed away in 1929. The funds used for the building of Coit Tower represented about one-third of her entire fortune. Coit also funded the construction of the “three firefighters statue” in San Francisco’s Washington Square Park.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History photo article on the Cable Cars of San Francisco. On our Western Trips site see our visit to San Francisco’s Nob Hill.

Visiting Telegraph Hill

Telegraph Hill today is mostly a residential area. You can actually drive up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower where there is parking available. As a walking tour, there are a several ways to reach the top and Coit Tower. You can walk up from Lombard or Greenwich Street. The Filbert Street steps, just to the south, lead through much more of the lush landscaping.


(Photos from author’s collection)