San Francisco, California
 

1874-1885

Will Frost set off for California in 1872, with little money to finance his venture. He worked his way across the country, stopping when necessary to earn the money he needed. For a time, he served as school principal at Lewistown Academy in Pennsylvania . Planning to become a journalist, he thought it might be beneficial to learn a new method of note taking called Pitman shorthand. His tutor was Isabelle Moodie, who he fell in love with and married. Shortly afterward, Will left his bride to go ahead to California to get settled. He traveled on the newly completed transcontinental railroad. He found work immediately as a reporter for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, which gladly welcomed the Harvard graduate to their staff. Isabelle joined her husband shortly before the birth of their first child.

 
The Cliff House Beach
 
 

 

 Early cable cars C 1873
 
San Francisco C. 1877
From the Encarta Encyclopedia which has a remarkable 360 degree photograph taken in
1877, showing the density of the city.
 
 
The Cliff House 1863 - 1894
 
 
Woodward's Gardens 1876
 
 
 
 
 
 

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City Hall after the earthquake of 1906
 
 
Near Nob Hill after the quake
 
 
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

"All the way home I kept remembering"

 Back to Poetry and Places

 Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874 in a neighborhood of San Francisco known as Nob Hill. It was the most tumultuous of times. The city had grown tremendously following the Gold Rush period of the 1850's and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The first cable car was put into service in 1873. The telegraph was being implemented to connect the country, and San Francisco was a hotbed of political and social unrest. Will Frost was exhilarated to be a part of this scene. The night his son was born, he threatened the doctor with a Colt revolver lest anything should go wrong with the delivery.

Isabelle soon knew another side of Will Frost as a drinker and gambler, traits he had acquired at Harvard. He could be a harsh man to live with, but she abided his habits as a dutiful wife who relied on her own strong religious faith. In 1876, she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanie.

The Frosts enjoyed family life in San Francisco, often taking trips to the local parks and beaches to enjoy the spectacular scenery. In those days, the Golden Gate was a park, not a bridge. The Cliff House beach was a favorite, reached by an exciting horse-car ride. Frost's poem Once by the Pacific recalls a boyhood memory at the Cliff House, when he thought he was lost on the beach.

"The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes."
 
It goes on to describe layers of shore, backed by the cliffs, backed by the continent, and a night - and then an age - of dark intent. The poem ends:
 
"There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last Put out the light was spoken."

Another favorite place was Woodward's Gardens, a magnificent Victorian park with botanical gardens and zoo. The family would take a picnic and enjoy a day out of the crowded city. Once, Robbie took a magnifying glass and teased one of the monkeys until the creature snatched it out of his hand and broke it. That experience was later the subject of a poem called At Woodward's Gardens, which concludes, "It's knowing what to do with things that counts." The poem is a clever comment on the Scopes monkey trial of the 20's.

The family lived in numerous places and the children had difficulty in school suffering fear and nervous strain. Isabelle over compensated for her husband's harshness by allowing the children to be schooled at home. She was a qualified teacher and put her skills to good use. Will Frost was swept up in the political turmoil of the day. He ran for City Tax Collector and was defeated. His hard life style was taking a toll on his health and he contracted tuberculosis.

In spite of all the instability in his young life, Robbie loved his father and the wildness of San Francisco. Will Frost died in 1885, leaving his family almost destitute. His last wish was to be taken back to his family home in Lawrence, Mass. for burial. Isabelle and the children took Will's body home by railroad and arrived with $8.00. There was little choice but to stay in Lawrence and begin a new life.

In 1906, San Francisco was hit by the great earthquake and fire which destroyed much of the city including the neighborhood where Frost had grown up and City Hall which held his birth records. For many years his actual birth year was uncertain. "Loss" is a recurring theme in the poetry of Robert Frost. It all began here in San Francisco, with the loss of his father and eventually the scenes of his childhood.

Grace Cathedral in San Francisco honored the birth of Frost with this magnificent stain glass window created by Gabriel Loire of Chartres, France. It is part of the "Human Endeavor" series of windows.

The San Francisco Public Library holds a collection of Frost memorabilia created by William Gahagan and the California Friends of Robert Frost. This organization no longer exists. Perhaps a Frost enthusiast will come forward to carry on their work.