Manholes, Patent Stamps, and Utility Covers Reveal San Francisco’s Forgotten Stories

San Francisco History


The stories of the people who built San Francisco as told by the marks they left behind

As a builder, how how why cities were built has always fascinated me. This has made me an avid student of historic and current civic growth. One of my favorite pastimes is researching the early development and construction of San Francisco. I’ve become obsessed with photographing, researching, and cataloging patent stamps on historic paving, manholes, and sewer vents. I do paving and utilities at work, so this pastime has been a natural pairing of my professional and personal passions. This led to a Facebook album to collect these images and was surprised by how much response I got by what I thought was a dorky trivial pursuit.

That album made me a serendipitous expert. I was asked to write an article for the (now defunct) San Francisco Bay Guardian to share my finds. The article put me into the public sphere which then got my project more attention. I was asked to lecture, and have been interviewed by other writers and historians.

Initially, I loved the manhole and cared less about the ubiquitous sewer vent covers. There is one in front of every building. A small percentage have the mark of the plumbing or concrete contractor that set them. I didn’t think the mass of them was altogether very interesting. As I researched, though, I realized the small sewer vents can be more interesting. Part of the draw is the crap shoot. You never even know if you will find a reference; most have no reference I can find. Some only have directory listings, which helps to date their years of operation but doesn’t really offer any more insight. However, sometimes there are a lot of publications containing information on one particular fellow. That’s the coolest part. You can piece together the life of this contractor who helped build the city so many years ago and would be forgotten if not for the iron bearing their name and some obscure references in obsolete publications. It’s kind of amazing to relive the lives of these individuals.

Unlike the intimate scale of sewer vents, large manholes bearing the marks of an obscure utility or railroad company, though exciting to find, tell the story of big business. This story is more of vast wealth and power struggles and less the story of a individual craftsmen out to seek their fortunes in the Wild West. As one of these craftsmen myself, I can relate to the little guys in the trade, so I like to discover their stories and retell them. Both big business and small business are integral in the story of America. (The difference is, most of the big utility companies already have a Wiki page.) Below are some of my cool finds!

Click on the links below to see more!

SF Gate: These overlooked fixtures of San Francisco tell the story of who built the city

Using San Francisco History: Patent Stamps: History Beneath Your Feet

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