It's easy to take something for granted as true if it's been repeated often enough.
However, a nearby plaque bestows the honor to Henry W. Haight, a prominent banker.
They're both wrong. Haight Street wasn’t named after an influential man; it was named for a woman: Weltha Ann Buell Haight.
History enthusiast and Upper Haight native Angus MacFarlane has focused on Weltha Haight's history; with his help, we looked into her biography, and how one of the city's most famous streets came to bear her name.
Who was Weltha Haight?
Weltha Ann Buell was born in 1825 in Rochester, New York. She married a banker, Henry W. Haight, and moved to San Francisco in December of 1852. Weltha had four children: Mary (nicknamed Minnie), Flora May, Franklin Henry and Frederick Billings.
Upon arriving, Weltha became involved with the San Francisco Ladies' Protection and Relief Society and was a prominent figure in the San Francisco Protestant Orphan Asylum (SFPOA), dedicating 53 years to the organization.
The orphanage was established in 1851 to provide for children and families of all faiths and backgrounds who arrived in the city in need of assistance. In the mid-1800s, this was a common occurrence, especially as many fell sick while traveling to the frontier.
“This is truly a sad and melancholy affliction to these little ones, who are cast upon our shores parentless and helpless. They are entitled to the aid and sympathy of our people. We hope that measures will be taken at once to provide for their relief. It becomes our people to see to these little children, and provide them homes.”
The women who formed the SFPOA answered this call. When Weltha arrived in San Francisco in 1852, she immediately jumped into the society’s scene, becoming a member of the asylum’s board of directors and building committee, alongside a Mrs. R.H. Waller.
MacFarlane said Weltha’s involvement with the SFPOA is why Haight Street is named after her; Mrs. Waller received a parallel honor.
The growing orphanage required more space, so in 1853, the SFPOA procured two blocks to construct a new building and school in what is today Hayes Valley.
The asylum paid $100 for the land, and the new dormitory-style institution opened on March 22, 1854. Today’s Laguna, Haight, Buchanan and Hermann streets formed its boundaries; what is now Waller Street bisected it.
In her 1900 memoir, Some Reminiscences of the San Francisco Protestant Orphan Asylum, Weltha wrote an anecdote about the 1853-1854 move of the SFPOA:
“Before any steps could be taken towards building...it was necessary that that portion of the city should be surveyed, and the streets marked off, so that a proper site for the building could be selected. My husband, being a member of the Board of Supervisors, soon had this accomplished, and out of compliment to two of the Managers, Waller street and Haight street were named.”
With this statement, Weltha, in her own words, stated that two of the streets directly connected to the orphanage were named for two of the institution’s managers—herself and Mrs. Waller.
“This is the only first-hand mention of how Haight Street came to be named,” said MacFarlane. “And it’s done so modestly. Just that modesty gives it extra weight to me.”
Weltha passed away on February 7th, 1906. She, her husband—who died in 1869—and eldest daughter, Minnie, are buried together in Colma.
The SFPOA continued to serve orphans in its Hayes Valley location through 1919—it survived the 1906 earthquake and fire—but eventually, the organization moved to the Parkside neighborhood. Today, it’s known as the Edgewood Center for Children and Families.
Why Weltha’s legacy was lost is most likely because of how history has treated women. “It wasn’t a common practice to name streets in honor of women,” said MacFarlane.
At the time, the newspaper covered the SFPOA for a 1928-29 series called “The Streets of San Francisco.” In the article, author E.G. Fitzhamon quoted one of the SFPOA’s secretaries, Miss Nellie Stow, who assured him that Haight and Waller streets were named for the female managers of the SFPOA.
He quickly dismissed the notion, writing in a note that it was more likely the streets were named for their husbands.
Most people think that Haight Street is named after Henry W. Haight, Weltha’s husband. Henry was an exchange banker, but his bank failed in 1855. He was an assistant alderman and an involved, prominent San Franciscan.
It’s presumed that he received the honor of having Haight Street named after him because he donated the land for the SFPOA. However, there is no record of that transaction, and the sale of the land—which was well-documented—makes no mention of Henry.
The other Henry involved—Henry H. Haight—was the tenth Governor of California, but that wasn’t until 1867, 10 years after San Francisco’s streets were renamed.
So, the timing doesn’t work.
Renamed, you say? Yes. The Haight Street of today is not the same Haight Street that was originally surveyed at its birth.
In December 1851, for the Mountain Lake Water Company, Henry Dexter produced a map of what was called the Western Addition land. The map included newly-created street names, including Haight Street.
However, back then, Haight Street was located where today’s Page Street currently runs.
The streets on the early Western Addition map were named for notable pre-statehood men. MacFarlane’s best educated guess is that the Haight Street of 1851 was named for Samuel Haight (1822–1856), a hardware merchant and pioneer who arrived in 1847. He was the younger brother of Henry W. Haight, Weltha's husband.
However, when land was resurveyed in 1855-1856 as part of the Van Ness Ordinance, Haight Street was relocated and its name affiliation changed with it.
“People forget who [Haight Street] was named after,” MacFarlane told us. “It’s easy for the significance of this act—the first streets of San Francisco to be named after women—to be forgotten.”
“She’s been overlooked,” MacFarlane said, “and it’s time for her to rise up.”
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