Panorama of San Francisco in 1887

One of the genres I have not had a lot of experience writing is that of steampunk. However, when I was given a lead to a short story anthology with the theme of “steampunk heroes”, an idea immediately came to mind. Of course, with this genre being new to my repertoire, I had quite a bit of research to do in order to meet the theme and genre requirements. For those who are unaware, the steampunk genre has many interpretations, but in general it focuses on advanced technologies brought about by the industrial revolution in the Victorian era. What this boils down to is a lot of gears, brass, corsets, top hats, steam, and the color brown infused into the story’s setting and accouterments.

Many consider steampunk to be a sub-set of historical fiction because of its known timeframe (the aforementioned Victorian era). Consequently, historical accuracy can help to make the story believable, even if it has certain technological advances well past its original, historical context. When I started digging into the research for my story, I was surprised to find how easy it was to incorporate this historical accuracy into my writing. It was through this research that I came to a conclusion about the perfect location and perfect year to set my story: San Francisco in 1890. In fact, I would almost wager that this is an incredibly ideal setting for steampunk stories, and one that I may very well explore in future writing projects.

You may be asking yourself, “What makes 1890 San Francisco so perfect?” Well, a number of factors led me to this assessment. Foremost of all, much of what we associate with San Francisco (and California in general) already existed in 1890. These trappings help to give the modern reader something to relate to, even if they were fairly new back in 1890. In this way, historical accuracy can be (mostly) maintained while making it easier for the reader to imagine the setting. The following are a set of technologies and facts which help to prove my point (in italics and parentheses):

  • “By 1890, San Francisco’s population approached 300,000, making it the eighth-largest city in the U.S. at the time.” [Wikipedia] (Because San Francisco was so large, along with its prominence on the burgeoning western frontier of the United States, there are many amenities it would have to offer, not to mention its modern close proximity to much of the technological developments happening today)
  • Golden Gate Park existed, but not the bridge. (While this iconic landmark may be missing from the skyline, and would not be built/finished until almost 50 years later, the Park still has much to offer)
  • 23 cable car lines were established between 1873 and 1890. (Another iconic landmark of San Francisco, cable cars were likely a primary source of public transportation at the time)
  • Alcatraz was set as a long-term detention facility for military prisoners in 1868. (Even though this was prior to its famous prisoners in the early 20th Century, it still was used to hold prisoners from the various wars America was involved in at the time)
  • “Mark Hopkins, one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, chose the southeastern peak of Nob Hill as the site for a dream home for his wife, Mary. The mansion was completed in 1878, after his death.” [Wikipedia] (Now known as the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, this historic building was used in 1887 to create a panorama of the city (as seen above), thus making it ideal for a potential zeppelin mooring location for a steampunk story)
  • Telephone patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. (Despite not being the wireless telephone we’ve all become accustomed to, the fact that telephone technology existed by this time helps accommodate any “fast” communication needed by the story)
  • Edison’s Incandescent light bulb patent was filed in 1878. (Another common technology that we might take for granted today, the light bulb was readily available by 1890)
  • Southern Pacific railway becomes trans-continental by 1883. (This one is huge; the fact that a railroad extends from one side of the country to the other, let alone that one of the stations is in San Francisco, lends itself to many items being available)
  • Chinatown started in the 1850’s and grew from then into the 1900’s (On the international stage, the fact that San Francisco was a main port / point of entry for much of the Oriental world helps provide a source for global characters, as well as the potential for “magic”)
  • “In 1879 Captain Gustave Niebaum established Inglenook Winery in Rutherford, California a small village (in Napa County, California). It was the first Bordeaux style winery in the USA. Captain Niebaum’s wines became world-renowned. His Inglenook wines won gold medals at the World’s Fair of Paris in 1889.” [Wikipedia] (California wines were now recognized around the world, not to mention that the legal minimum drinking age was 16 in 1890, to be raised to 18 the next year)
  • “By the 1890s, much like across the United States, San Francisco was suffering from machine politics and corruption, and was ripe for political reform.” [Wikipedia] (Look no further for villains than those corrupt politicians who want to run the city)
  • The San Francisco Fire of 1851, which destroyed ¼ of San Francisco, had happened, but the 1906 earthquake, which started the most famous fire, had not. (Clearly, fire was a problem back then, but with our knowledge of history we can put in a few pieces of foreshadowing for the 1906 quake as well to help cement the timeframe in people’s minds)

Again, these are my thoughts on why San Francisco in 1890 is an ideal steampunk setting. Do you have anything to add to this list? Conversely, if you have a better setting for a steampunk story, reply with a comment expressing your reasoning. I’m still new to the genre, so I’m open to a lively discussion on the topic.

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