Old School Economics: Telegraph Hill Provides Lookout

When I was on my way out to Alcatraz, I once again noticed Telegraph Hill in the distance, protruding high above the city buildings (I first saw it on my urban hike to Nob Hill).

Telegraph Hill as seen from Russian Hill.

It’s a beautiful site – but I never understood what the hell it was. When I asked my server at Nob Hill Grille, she said, “A tourist trap.”

Fair enough – I can see how people would say that – it was one of San Francisco’s original seven hills and its purpose now is to shelter feral parrots (seriously).

I knew there had to be a story though, something to make me appreciate its existence for a reason other than its beauty. When I asked the guide at Alcatraz, he let me in on the deal:

Observers in the tower would watch the boats coming into the bay towards Fisherman’s Wharf, and raise flags in a configuration that corresponded to the type of ship approaching. By knowing which ships were entering port, observers could gain a significant advantage: If they could predict the cargo that was about come into port, merchants and buyers alike could anticipate the upcoming price shift.

For example, a person without the advance information on the cargo might overpay for a good that is about to drop in price (due to a incoming shipment of the same good).

Pretty cool – I dig that sort of history, seeing how the people got by without all the technology and tools we have today to aid our decisions.

Such as Wikipedia, which brings me to another general observation: I was told my entire life (within the educational system) that Wikipedia is unreliable, but I’ve got to be honest: It seems to be pretty spot on for most general information, especially in this case, as well as in my experience over the past few years.

Not that I recommend that sort of introverted approach – it’s better to get the story from a local’s mouth – just saying – I use it a lot to get the quick jist of things, and it has never gotten me in trouble or led me astray.

Photos:

Telegraph Hill as seen from Russian Hill.
Telegraph Hill as seen from the bay.
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