Historical sites in The Balloon Boy of San Francisco
The story opens in 1853, when 14-year-old newsboy Ready Gates is rushing to the office of the Daily Alta California, which is located at Portsmouth Square—then the center of San Francisco's business district. Today, Portsmouth Square is a city park, located at 733 Kearny Street. The action in Balloon Boy often returns to this area. It's near where he meets Lydia (an important plot point). It's where the fiery street preacher, Rev. William Taylor, delivers his weekly sermons. It's where Ready glimpses John Sutter during the Fourth of July parade.

In 1853, Portsmouth Square was only a few blocks from the waterfront--also where much of the action of the book takes place. However, so much land has been reclaimed from SF Bay that today's Portsmouth Square is a considerable distance from the water. Today's waterfront is very different from how it was then.

Telegraph Hill is important to the story, but it looked very different then too. Today, the hill is covered with houses and lots of shrubbery, all topped by the glorious Coit Tower. In 1853, the hilltop was largely barren, making it much easier for Ready and the other newsboys to spot the semaphore signal tower on top. That's how the newsboys could tell when ships (bearing much coveted eastern newspapers) were nearing the harbor.

The Rassette House Hotel stood at the corner of Sansome and Bush (now in the financial district.) That hotel burned to the ground in 1853, another pivotal scene in the book.

Madame de Cassins ("the celebrated Diviner") had her fortune-telling establishment at 604 Dupont Street, between Broadway and Vallejo. The name "Dupont" has been changed to "Grant." It's now in the heart of Chinatown. (Though in 1853 the Chinese lived in a different area of town.)

Ready rode the Contra Costa ferry over to Oakland, where the fateful balloon ascension would take place. He became the balloon's unplanned passenger near the corner of Third and C in downtown Oakland. The wind carried him generally east and north. He floated over Mt. Diablo and the cities of Martinez and Benicia. He landed (safely) about where the Fairfield Costco is today (near the I-80/680 interchange.) He made his way back to Benicia, and walked down First Street past what was then the State Capitol. (Today, the red brick building with white columns is still there and open to tourists.) Ready walked to the end of the Benicia pier (still there) and caught a boat back to San Francisco.