Corbett Road: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

We always loved this photo taken by D. H. Wulzen, showing the bucolic and rural feeling of what is today Upper Market Street/Portola Drive in 1902. Then it was all part of Corbett Road, originally a toll road made to collect nickels from day-trippers like the couple in the horse and buggy.

Corbett Road, April 27, 1902.Corbett Road, looking south to today’s Diamond Heights, from roughly where Market Street becomes Portola Drive, April 27, 1902. (wnp13.012.jpg; D. H. Wulzen photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

Wulzen ran a pharmacy at the corner of Market and Castro Streets. By the time he took this image the franchise for the toll road had expired and the dirt path was free and open, if not well maintained. In the background the gash on what was then called Red Rock Hill was a quarry for material to semi-pave streets and make bricks. Today Red Rock Hill is home to the Diamond Heights development of midcentury townhouses and condominiums.

We recently received a very welcome email from Western Neighborhoods Project member Denise Crawford (Not a member yet? Join now!), who informed us the humble cabin in the photograph, reputedly the old toll house for the road, played a big part in her family’s history.

Denise’s ancestors lived in the structure at the time of the photograph above. Great-grandfather Denis Buckley was a carpenter and a small sign tacked on the eucalyptus tree beside the house reading as much advertised his services. Denis Buckley and his brother Michael came from County Kerry, Ireland to San Francisco around 1879. They originally lived south of Market, and Denis is first listed on Corbett in the 1895 directory.

Ellen Buckley in front of old tollhouse before remodeling by the family. Note sign advertising Denis Buckley’s services as a carpenter. (Courtesy of Denise Crawford.)

With five children, the Buckleys needed a little more elbowroom than the little house offered. Since her great-grandfather was a carpenter, Denise writes, “he was well equipped to modify the presumably small tollhouse….Corbett was a popular road, with many billboards along the way. Denis knew what to do with unattended lumber, and in the cover of darkness he would relive the passersby of the blight of advertisement. Aunt Alice tells of how he installed the boards with the ads facing inward (for obvious reasons), giving them unusual wallpaper.”

In the middle of rebuilding the city after the 1906 earthquake and fire (in which his skills as carpenter were much in demand) Denis died from a fall and Denise’s great-grandmother Ellen was resourceful in keeping her family afloat. Another great story from family lore: “She is said to have gone downtown to inquire about sewing machines, and was given one to take home ‘on trial,’ for a few days. She took it back up to Corbett Road, where she sewed at a frantic pace, day and night. Then she took the machine back saying, ‘I couldn’t get it to work at all…’ She kept small farm animals, and would walk a goat cart to the back doors of the fancy hotels, selling chickens, eggs, butter, and milk directly to the chefs.”

Buckley residence improved with a new entry, windows, and window boxes. At the time, the Buckley residence was addressed as 1063 Corbett, roughly where the line of 25th Street would intersect the road if it continued west up the hill. (Courtesy of Denise Crawford.)

No remnant of the old tollhouse remains. The Market Street extension and creation of Portola Drive replaced Corbett Road as the main road west over Twin Peaks in the 1910s, and then the widening of the street as an expressway with a viaduct replaced the cliff side entirely. The family didn’t move far, relocating to a house built by the Buckleys on Fountain Street, which still stands today.

Our great thanks to Denise for sharing her family history and bringing even more life to one of our favorite historical photos.