Charles Crocker’s Spite Fence

Nov 24, 2020 1 comments

Back when San Francisco's luxurious destination Nob Hill was just another neighborhood in the newly incorporated city, a young German immigrant named Nicholas Yung built himself a modest three-story house at the top of what was then California Hill. Away from the hustle and bustle of the burgeoning city swamped by gold prospectors, California Hill’s steep climb afforded the undertaker and his wife Rosina a peaceful, isolated existence with stunning view of the Bay to the east and the Golden Gate to the north. Their lovely cottage-styled home and idyllic garden was awash with sunlight and fresh air from the Bay.

Charles Crocker’s Spite Fence

A view of Nob Hill. The house in the center belonged to Collis P. Huntington. Behind it is Charles Crocker’s mansion, still under construction. Photo: Eadweard Muybridge

Yung’s tranquility was disrupted with the arrival of the California Street Cable Railroad in 1878 founded by Leland Stanford, the President of the Central Pacific Railroad and the future founder of Stanford University. Soon, Stanford and his associates, Collis Potter Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—the “Big Four” of the Central Pacific Railroad—began buying up land in and around California Hill. The associates built the grandest of mansions and palatial homes, and almost overnight, California Hill became an exclusive real estate area and home to these early nawabs (or nabobs), which gave the hill its current name “Nob Hill”.

The railroad magnate Charles Crocker wanted an entire city block for himself for his mansion, the one bounded by California, Jones, Taylor and Sacramento streets. Crocker was successful in purchasing all the lots on the block, with the exception of one small parcel of land on the southeast corner—the one belonging to Nicholas Yung.

Charles Crocker

Charles Crocker

Yung was too comfortably fixed, and although not wealthy, he saw no reason why he should trade his residence for some other property just because some pompous ass wanted to build an ostentatious house. Crocker tried to buy out Yung but he refused each time. As work on Crocker’s mansion progressed, the railroad baron became desperate to have Yung’s house removed. Crocker made one last offer for $6,000 for the lot, but Yung countered with $12,000, which Crocker refused. In the eyes of Yung, it was a fair price, considering that one of his neighbors recently sold his lot for $25,000. Crocker was wealthy enough to buy out Yung at his asking price, and he should have. Instead, Crocker decided to go bully.

Crocker ordered his workmen to construct a three-sided wood fence around Yung's house. The fence rose forty feet into the sky completely boxing up the German immigrant’s house, depriving him of sunlight and sir. The Yungs felt as if they were living at the bottom of a well. The plants in their garden wilted, and they had to use candles even in daytime.

Charles Crocker’s Spite Fence

Yung threatened to build a giant coffin on his roof above the height of the fence, emblazoned on the side turned toward his aristocratic neighbors with a skull and cross-bones, to serve as an advertisement of his business but mostly to remind Crocker of his own mortality. The story of the feud was picked up by the media and the fence soon became one of the city’s most popular attraction. People started taking the California Street cable car just to look at the fence that rose malevolently above Yung’s modest home. The fence was so tall it had to braced with big timbers and cost Crocker $3,000.

The feud became politicized when a local politician named Denis Kearney of the pro-labor Workingmen's Party of California organized a mass rally at Nob Hill against the Railroad Barons, condemning their low wages and the hiring of Chinese migrants instead of white Americans. Their rage was directed not only towards Charles Crocker but his spite fence as well, which his supporters saw as the symbol of excesses in capitalism. Kearney told the crowd that had gathered that if Crocker didn't remove the spite fence, the Workingmen's Party of California would tear it down. Shortly after this address, Kearney was arrested for attempting to incite violence, and if Yung harbored any hope of vigilante justice, it never came to pass.

Charles Crocker’s Spite Fence

Charles Crocker’s residence at Nob Hill, San Francisco.

In the end Yung had no option but to move his residence to Broderick Street, but he refused to sell the now-vacant lot. After the Yungs moved away, Crocker reduced the height of the fence to twenty-five feet. This was partly because wind threatened to uproot his lofty fence, and if Crocker had not shortened it, the winds from the Bay would surely have demolished it, and that would have hurt Crocker’s pride.

Nicholas Yung passed away in 1880. His wife Rosina continued to defend her late husband’s decision and held on to the property, until Crocker himself passed away in 1888.

In 1895 Yung’s widow appealed to the Board of Supervisors, but while the board was sympathetic, the city’s attorney said the board didn’t have the power to force the Crocker family to change the fence. A quarter century of rivalry and hatred came to end in 1902, when Rosina died and her four daughters agreed to sell their property to Crocker’s descendants. The fence was torn down in 1905. The following year, the Great San Francisco's earthquake levelled Crocker’s ostentatious mansion. The Crocker family subsequently donated the whole block to the Episcopal Diocese of California. San Francisco’s largest cathedral, the Grace Cathedral, now stands on the site.

Charles Crocker’s Spite Fence

Charles Crocker’s residence destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

# James Sederberg, Crocker's Spite Fence, Found SF
# David S. Costello, Railroad Baron Charles Crocker’s 40-ft Nob Hill “spite Fence”: A Feud Lasting 26 Years, SF Examiner
# Dan Brekke, Boomtown Memories: The Nob Hill Fence That Spite Built, KQED
# Famous Spite Fence Has Outlived Its Purpose, San Francisco Chronicle


  1. The caption for the photo of Crocker's ruins:
    "Charles Crocker’s residence destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake of 1905"
    should read "earthquake of 1906".


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