Many of the early San Francisco newspapers came into existence and went just as fast - it was the readers who stayed. The denizens of the new city consumed commerce bulletins, compared auctioneers' advertisements, studied steamship schedules and public notices, evaluated price lists for dry goods, posted body, soul and worldly belongings in personal classifieds, and gleaned the latest gold and silver mining news - all of which filled the text-only pages of the pioneer publications of San Francisco in the days of early settlement and statehood. By the end of 1850, San Francisco could boast of no less than five daily newspapers - all competing in cutthroat fashion in a turbulent local economy whose very foundation rested on equal parts ferment, gambling and speculation. The number of dailies rose to eight in early 1851, fell to only two a year later, then expanded to an even dozen by the end of 1853.
The first Pacific coast evening paper, the DAILY EVENING PICAYUNE debuted with the August 3, 1850 issue. Published Monday through Saturday by Dr. John Hancock Gihon & Co., the PICAYUNE was guided editorially by former San Francisco Sub-Prefect P. A. Brinsmade and erstwhile attorney W. W. Shepard. The paper lost no time in championing the miraculous enterprise of lusty pioneers and a city of destiny, rising to a rendezvous with greatness:"In little more than one year almost the entire town has sprung, like magic, into existence. During that period, too, it has twice been nearly destroyed by fire, but it has each time suddenly arisen, Phoenix-like, from its ashes, with additional strength and beauty. There is unquestionably existing a spirit among our citizens superior to all difficulties, capable of leaping every obstacle, and of achieving any great undertaking . . . ." August 5, 1850
Within three weeks, the PICAYUNE had its first big scoop. On the morning of August 23, 1850, the steamer California docked in the bay, bringing with it news of the death of President Zachary Taylor. That afternoon, black borders framed the front page of the Daily Evening Picayune, detailing a national story the morning papers didn't carry until the next day.Always topical, the Picayune took pains to laud the civilizing tendencies of 'virtuous females' in the growing city, offered approval of various public works projects (such as the 'grading and planking of the principal thoroughfares of the city'), saluted the opening of the Union Hotel (and approved its subsequent moratorium on in-house gambling a month later), and alluded toward big dreams of California independent nationhood:
"No people can lay under the uncompensated exactions which have, for the years past, been forced upon us; and the people are with great plausibility, familiarizing their minds with the idea, long entertained and boldly promulgated before the close of the Mexican War, by those now in places of executive power and legislative influence at Washington - that united with Oregon . . . . we may build up here a great western Republic, independent of the world beside."
Amongst other interesting features which appeared in the early newspapers published in San Francisco were the special columns and sections devoted to the many non-English immigrant settlers, particularly those toiling in the mines. The DAILY EVENING PICAYUNE ran a regular feature in French by 33-year-old Etienne Derbec, a former contributor to the Journal des Debats. Derbec gained a loyal following, and later published the first-ever French and Spanish newspaper in San Francisco, L'Echo du Pacifique and El Eco del Pacifico.
Operating under a spate of different owners during its final year (which included A. M. Macy, George O'Doherty, Sanford Biden and others), the PICAYUNE experienced financial difficulties severe enough to put it out of business. O'Doherty himself, in the role of proprietor, looked ahead to the time when the gold and silver would someday run out:
"The impression for some time has been steadily gaining ground, that the real basis of prosperity in California is her agriculture; that however great the amount of wealth drawn from her mines, it is her soil which is to make her a state."
The final issue ran on April 17, 1852, and the paper was subsequently absorbed by the SAN FRANCISCO TIMES. Though short-lived, this fascinating journal offers the historian unique, contemporary insights to the early development of the city, from vigilance committees to fire companies to culture and arts.