This is a selection from CELEBRATING 150 YEARS OF HISTORY AT OCTAGON HOUSE: 1861–2011 by Janis M. Horne. The article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of The Argonaut, Vol 22. No.1. The Argonaut is the Journal of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, San Francisco, CA www.sfhistory.org. See PDF of Complete Article.
The story begins in the gold rush year of 1849, when a Lancaster, Pennsylvania woman named Harriet Shober joined countless other Americans in immigrating to San Francisco. Noted in her obituary as being a descendent of some of the early settlers of Lancaster, she may have spoken German as well as English.4 We don’t know why Harriet immigrated or what she did when she first got to the city, although there is an unsubstantiated theory that she worked as a housekeeper at the first Hotel St. Francis on Dupont Street.5
Two years after Harriet’s arrival, a Martinsburg, Virginia miller named William C. McElroy also immigrated to San Francisco. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he was of Irish descent. He came from the part of Virginia that would later become West Virginia. William appears to have first migrated to St. Louis, Missouri, where he is listed in the city directories as having operated flour mills in 1848 and 1850. A disastrous 1850 fire that completely destroyed over nine blocks of buildings along the St. Louis waterfront may have led to the loss of his business and resulted in his decision to move to San Francisco.6 Once he arrived, William seems to have resumed his occupation as a miller. In 1856, he was listed in Colville’s city directory as the proprietor of Eureka Mills on Francisco Street. That very same year, Eureka Mills was advertised in the Daily Alta California newspaper as producing “guaranteed superfine” flour.7
William and Harriet presumably met in San Francisco sometime in the 1850s. They were married on June 9, 1859, by a Rev. Dr. Anderson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church located on Stockton Street. By 1860, the couple had also apparently adopted their daughter Emma Eliza McElroy, who was listed in several census records as having been born in New York of foreign parents. She was nine years old when Mr. McElroy wrote his letter in 1861.8
In that same letter, William McElroy somewhat complacently noted that, at ages forty-two and forty, he and Harriet were “a very good Looking old Couple.” Readers can judge for themselves whether this was true from the ambrotype of the family that was placed in their time capsule. Pictured with Mr. and Mrs. McElroy are their daughter Emma Eliza and a nephew named Samuel A. Wolfe. Of Samuel, an artist, little is known other than that the family hoped he would “be in a more Respectable business” by the time the time William’s letter was discovered.9
The McElroys were a prosperous, middle class couple—as Mr. McElroy wrote, “pretty wel[l] off in this worlds goods.” In addition to being a self- identified miller, William was listed in the city directories from 1863 to 1865 as the proprietor of Gough Gardens (possibly a plant nursery or vegetable market), located on Presidio Road near Gough. However, Harriet had money of her own.
As her obituary later noted, “She was a lady of remarkable business ability and energy.” Harriet owned property on Stockton Street between Clay and Washington streets believed to be worth $250 per front foot in 1861. In addition to loan- ing $1,800 to Charles T. Gough on the security of a mortgage, in 1859 she purchased from Gough for $2,500—as her separate property—the land on which the Octagon House would be built. Harriet may even have asked her future husband to sign an “ante-nuptial” agreement before their marriage.10
The McElroys built their Octagon House in 1861 on the east side of Gough Street, on a lot that ran from Presidio Road (today’s Union Street) to Vallejo Street in Cow Hollow. At that time, Cow Hollow was a very rural area, populated primarily by dairy farmers and vegetable gardeners. It was connected to the city and to Fort Presidio by the meandering Presidio Road. A major source of water, Washerwoman’s Lagoon, lay just north of that road. Beyond the lagoon, north of today’s Lombard Street, large sand hills led to the San Francisco Bay. The earliest known photograph of the Octagon House, believed to have been taken in the 1870s after over a decade of development had begun to transform Cow Hollow, clearly shows both Washerwoman’s Lagoon and the sand dunes.11
Thanks to Janis M. Horne and San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.
4. Harriet S. McElroy’s obituary, San Francisco Call, January 20, 1899. Many of the early settlers of Lancaster, PA were German. Harriet Shober’s sister’s baptismal certificate was in German, and a German Sunday-school newspaper was among the newspaper archive found with the time capsule in the Octagon House.
5. Octagon House time capsule contents; Joseph A. Baird, “A History of Octagon House,” pamphlet published by The Colonial Dames of America Resident in the State of California, 1973; Katherine Bruce Jones, C.G.R.S., “Another View of the McElroy Family of Octagon House,” unpublished paper read at Octagon House Docent Study Group, July 13, 1990, Octagon House Archives.
6. Jones, “Another View.”
7. Advertisement, Daily Alta California, June 26, 1856, p.3.
8. Marriage announcement for Wm. C. McElroy and Miss Harriet Schober, The Evening Bulletin, June 11, 1859; Jones, “Another View”; McElroy letter, Octagon House time capsule.
9. McElroy letter and photograph, Octagon House time capsule.
10. McElroy letter, Octagon House time capsule; Jones, “Another View”; Harriet McElroy’s obituary, San Francisco Call; John L. Levinsohn, Cow Hollow: Early Days of a San Francisco Neighborhood from 1776 (San Francisco: San Francisco Yesterday, 1976), p. 28.
11. William Kostura, “The Cows of Cow Hollow” and “Cow Hollow Dairyman, 1853-1911,” The Argonaut: Journal of the San Francisco Historical Society, vol. 9, no.1 (Spring 1998), p. 36; Levinsohn, Cow Hollow; Jones, “Another View.”