Saturday, November 13, 2010

When DuPont became Grant

How many times has a street named for one prominent military figure been renamed in favor of another who fought for the same cause? Probably not too many.

Grant Street in San Francisco, the main street through Chinatown, started off in the Spanish period as Calle de la Fundacion ("street of the founding"), back when San Francisco was still called Yerba Buena, or "good herb" (a remarkably apt name for the town even today). 
Samuel F. DuPont

Grant Street, circa 1920
In 1846 the street was renamed DuPont, in honor of naval officer Samuel F. DuPont, who commanded Commodore Stockton's flagship, the USS Congress, at the outbreak of the Mexican War. DuPont's exploits in that conflict included the capture of San Diego, and operations to seize or destroy all enemy ships in the Gulf of California.

DuPont's Civil War service started off with great success against Confederate forts on the Eastern Seaboard, gaining him promotion to Rear Admiral, but after a failed attempt to capture Charleston, SC in April of 1863, his fortunes began to wain.

DuPont Street, meanwhile, became the center of the largest community of Chinese in America, many of whom refer to the street as Du Pon Gai even today. San Francisco's Chinatown was largely destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake, but soon rebuilt. Rising from the ashes, the thoroughfare was christened anew as Grant Street in honor of the 18th president. Neither Grant or DuPont lived long enough to enjoy, or rue the changeover. 

Grant Street starts at Market and one block later crosses Geary Boulevard, the only time the street intersects with another named for a Civil War general. John Geary was an alcalde before statehood, and San Francisco's first mayor afterwards (at 31, he remains the city's youngest mayor, beating out Gavin Newsom by about five years or so).

From Geary, a block below the high-end shopping at Union Square, Grant Street moves through the Financial District and passes into Chinatown at the Bush Street archway. It traverses Chinatown before crossing into North Beach, finally ending at The Embarcadero at Pier 39. Every block of Grant is steeped in history, from the early Spanish settlement, through the American conquest, the Gold Rush, and beyond.

I've encountered a number of Grant streets throughout the Bay Area (and cross the great triumvirate of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan nearly every day in Palo Alto), but none of the Grants are so grand as the old Du Pon Gai in San Francisco—a worthy tribute to the great general.

DuPont, robbed of his street in the Wild West, is memorialized today by DuPont Circle in the neighborhood or district of the same name, in Washington DC (formerly Pacific Circle). A statue of the Admiral first graced the traffic circle, but was moved to Wilmington, Delaware by relatives who subsequently hired Daniel French and Henry Baconwhose portfolio included the Lincoln Memorialto build a fountain in the statue's place (see a photo of the statue here and more photos at the bottom of this page).

The Dupont Circle fountain is a stunning work, and incorporates three figures representing Sea, Wind, and Sky. See some beautiful close-ups here and here.

Grant street, incidentally, is not the only tribute to Grant in San Francisco. There's this handsome memorial in Golden Gate Park.

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