With median house prices at around $1.1 million, San Francisco is the most expensive real estate market in North America. No wonder people are getting creative about where to lay their hat. Unable to buy and unwilling to rent at extortionate rates, some are choosing to live out of trucks and RVs, or make do on boats and in shipping containers.
In a way, this spells a return to the city’s roots as a Gold Rush boomtown. As this map shows, San Francisco is built on the discarded hulks of mid-19th-century ships once used as storage units, houses and hostels. How long before they come onto the market as ‘period rental units’, underground lofts kitted out and priced to suit the taste and the wallets of the tech crowd pushing up real estate prices elsewhere in the city?
Until 1848, San Francisco was a sleepy Mexican village of a few hundred souls, lost in the dunes of the peninsula between the Pacific and the Bay. Two events that year dramatically altered the course of history: the U.S. won the war against Mexico, acquiring vast territories including the future U.S. state of California; and gold was discovered in that territory, drawing in thousands of fortune-seekers from all over the world.
This was before planes, trains and automobiles. The overland route from the East Coast to California was shorter, but the sea route was faster. This was also before the Panama Canal, so ships had to round Cape Horn, all the way down on the southern tip of South America. Still, roughly one third chose this route. In 1849, 42,000 Americans flocked to California over land, while 25,000 boarded a ship.
The Gold Rush utterly transformed California’s demographics. In 1850 alone, the population of California grew from 18,000, mainly Spanish and natives, to 92,600, with most newcomers from the U.S. but also many from Europe and China. Only a few of the these ‘forty-niners’ actually struck it rich in the gold fields. Most turned to other trades, transforming San Francisco, the terminus of the sea route to California, into a boom town.
By the estimate of a San Francisco harbourmaster in April 1850, no less than 62,000 people from across the globe had arrived in the city by the Bay in the preceding 12 months. About 500 ships clogged up Yerba Buena Cove and vicinity.
“During the height of the gold excitement, there were at least five hundred ships stranded in the harbor, some without even a watchman on board, and none with a crew sufficiently large to work her. Many of these vessels never sailed again. Some rotted away and sank at their moorings”, wrote Herbert Asbury in The Barbary Coast.
This “forest of masts” was both a nuisance, and a business opportunity. Some ships were refurbished and set out to sea again. Others were broken up for scrap metal and wood – either firewood or building material for some of the city’s Victorian houses. Many of these ships passed through ‘Rotten Row’, Charles Hare’s ship-breaking yard, operated by Chinese crews. About 200 of the nicer ships were repurposed as storage for coal, flour, water and other goods in high demand; as boarding houses and hotels; and in one case (though not the same case) even as a jail and a church. Eventually, many of the boats that remained were sunk, to secure water lot titles.
Water lots were dispensed on condition that buyers fill them with land. This way, the city wanted to bring the shoreline closer to the deeper part of the Bay, facilitating the delivery of goods. The easiest way to claim a water lot was to scuttle a ship.
Yerba Buena Cove originally stretched all the way to Market and First streets, curving as far inland as Montgomery Street. The dozen or so wharves that stuck out into the Cove served as tendrils for the expansion of San Francisco’s shoreline. From 1851, when a giant fire reduced many ships to their water lines, it was filled with sand. The remaining ships were boxed in between roads and houses, stripped of upper works and their hulks then scuttled to make way for landfill.
By 1857, some hulks still obstructed the harbour, while others had been overtaken by the expanding waterfront, forming the basement to tenements built on their decks. By the early 1870s, a seawall enclosed the cove along a path concurrent with the present-day Embarcadero. In 1888, a Mr. Bancroft, a local historian, wrote that “even now, remains of the vessels are found under the filled foundations of houses”.
The reclaimed Cove now forms San Francisco’s flattest land – the Financial District and the Embarcadero. If in these parts you find yourself going uphill, you’re close to the original shoreline. This area is a veritable ship graveyard, although that fact was soon forgotten in the fast expanding city. Some ships have been rediscovered during later construction work, some several times. Around 45 of them are known to lie beneath downtown San Francisco. Some are marked with plaques or an outline on the street, but most ships of this ghost fleet remain forgotten. Marine historian James Delgado suspects some 30 more are still undiscovered, resting beneath a few dozen feet of silt.
This map lists the ones we know of that are still ‘anchored’ in Yerba Buena Cove, roughly a century and a half after it was filled in. Many more are to be found in a list of over 300 ships, which among the ‘sepulchred vessels’ also mentions the Cadmus, which brought Lafayette to America in 1824, and the Plover, which sailed the Arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition.
Le Baron – Owned by Fairpool & Jonse, lay for a long time near Long Wharf, and finally sunk near North Point dock.
Palmyra – Inside of India Dock, or what is now Battery, between Greenwich and Filbert, was a small brig. Her position was about what is now the corner of Battery and Greenwich streets.
Japan – Captain Hoyt had the bark Japan. She was finally broken up by Batchelder at Cowell’s wharf.
Envoy – The vessel went down north of Union street between Front & Battery streets and when the mud was squeezed up by filling Front street the old hulk reappeared and Burns stripped copper from the Hull selling the metal for 10 a pound.
Philip Hone – A store-ship, named after the Mayor of New York, gradually covered up by the filling in. The houses on Union street, opposite the Union street school, came out in this vessel.
Fortuna – aka Fortune. Used for a period as a hotel on the block now bounded by Battery and Front, Vallejo and Green streets. She was finally broken up by Hare.
Arkansas – aka the Old Ship. The ship was hauled up Pacific street, to near the northeast corner of Battery, and was used for many years as a store ship, and finally her forecastle was used as a tavern. A hotel was finally built over her. These days, you can still get a drink at The Old Ship Saloon, at 298 Pacific Avenue.
Garnet – An American brig.
Cordova – Used as a storeship for some time and finally as a water ship. Water sold for $1 and $2 a bucket in those days.
Elmira – Sunk by Captain Crowell at the corner of Pacific and Davis streets.
Inez – An old New Bedford whaler, sunk at the northwest corner of Pacific and Drumm streets on the line of Drumm, with her bow toward Pacific.
Edwin – Lay near Pacific Wharf, was made a bonded warehousing ship, built over.
Almandrilina – Owned by captain M.R. Roberts, brought round the Horn in ’49. When his wife followed him by way of the Isthmus, Roberts fitted the Almandrilina for her until he completed his residence, on the corner of Washington and Stockton Streets.
Ricardo – Lying next to the remains of the Almandrilina, it was also owned by capt. Roberts and brought round the Horn by him, with full cargoes for the gold fields, afterwards converted into warehouses, and finally into boarding and lodging houses until they were covered over.
Magnolia, Brilliant – Brigs used for storage ships and boarding houses.
Balance – Built in Calcutta of teak wood, 92 years old when she arrived in San Francisco. She was captured from the British in the War of 1812 by James DeWolf’s Yankee privateer True Blooded Yankee, who re-christened her the Balance to balance a ship lost by him a short time before captured by a British cruiser. Went into the mud to remain at the corner of Front and Jackson streets.
Globe – Used as a cistern for the storage of water to be used in case of fire.
Alida – A white-painted ship, brought into port by two Norwegians.
Hardie – An English brig, about twenty feet from the Noble and directly opposite Clark street.
Noble – Used as a storage ship.
Bethel – English ship buried at the corner of Drumm and Clark streets. Her bow points toward Drumm.
Georgean – Between Jackson and Washington, west of Battery Street.
Louisa – A schooner, previously a yacht of the King of the Hawaiian Islands. Did storage duty for a time, then broken up.
Niantic – Stranded on the corner of Clay and Sansome, was covered over with a shingle roof and converted into offices and stores on deck, while the hull was divided into warehouses. A hollow pile was driven down through the stern below the salt-water line and about the best water in the town was pumped from that well. After a fire destroyed most of the structure, what remained became the foundation for the Niantic Hotel, which stood until 1872. At its most recent rediscovery, in 1978, most of the stern was destroyed, and numerous artifacts salvaged, including two pistols, a rifle and derringer, 13 bottles of champagne, stoneware ink bottles, leather-bound books, bolts of fabric, cabin doors, hundred-year-old brass paper clips, copper sheeting, and nails.
General Harrison – Uncovered at the northwest corner of Battery and Clay during construction in 2001. An 11-storey hotel now stands over the site. An outline of the hull on the sidewalk memorialises the ship.
Fame – A brig on the corner of Clay and Front Streets, broken up by Hare, and mentioned in 1857 as “fast disappearing”.
Francis Ann – On the corner of Clay and Front streets, broken up by Hare.
Elizabeth – Used as a bonded storeship for the port, eventually broken up and sunk about 100 feet along East street, between Clay and Merchant, in about thirty-five feet of water.
Apollo – The rotting hulk was rediscovered several times during construction work in the early 20th century. In it were found coins of 1840, an American penny of 1825, a British penny of 1797, pipes, a large nugget, a sextant, ship’s fittings, and more.
Euphemia – Used as San Francisco’s first jail and simultaneously as California’s first insane asylum, until the asylum was built at Stockton.
Thomas Bennett – Contained a grocery store. At the southwest corner of Sacramento and Front, she lies parallel with Sacramento with her bow pointed towards Battery street.
Henry Lee – Lay for a long time on California Street on the site later occupied by Selby’s store.
Tecumseh – On the southwest corner of California and Battery streets, sold by the United States Marshall and broken up.
Salem – Lay for several years on California street on the site of Hooker’s store.
Autumn – A storeship, on Davis street, near Market, broken up by Hare.
Rome – A three-masted vessel sunk in 1852 at the southwest corner of Market and East streets, its hulk used as a coal ship. Her bow touched the edge of Market Street. Later, the Ensign saloon was built over her. In the mid-1990s, crews digging an extension to the Muni Metro system rediscovered her. She was deemed too large to remove. Thousands Metro passengers travelling outbound from Folsom Street to Embarcadero Station unwittingly pass through the Rome’s forward hull each day.
Othello – Used as a storeship on Stewart street.
Byron – The bark Byron was broken up at Mission Street near Main street in the early fifties.
Trescott – On the corner of Main and Mission. Goss & White, owners, and Captain L. L. Batchelder, keeper. Finally broken up.
Panama – Converted into Seamen’s Bethel, for which she was used for many years. There was a Methodist Church in the Panama, on Davis street, between Washington and Clay, and Father Taylor was the minister. He had a real pretty wife and I think that was the reason that the boys chipped in so liberally. Finally, some parties who did not have the fear of God in them, stole all the pews one fine night, and others carried off the pulpit, and that ended the conversion of sinners on the water front. When religious services were no longer held there she was taken to Beale and Mission and cut up.
Callao – At Mission & Beale Streets, the Calleo was broken up and left there.
Many thanks to Joel Winten for alerting me to maps of San Francisco’s ghost fleet. This map found here at SFGate. Description of the ships found mainly in the aforementioned list, found here at SF Genealogy. More on the buried ships in this 1912 article from the San Francisco Call, this article on FoundSF, and this one on Upout (1).
Strange Maps #795
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(1) In the comments section of this article, one reader mentions discovering a ship with over 320 Chinese skeletons on board while doing construction work in the early 70’s, at Fremont and Market: “The other operator, a despicable individual whose name I’ll keep anonymous in case he’s still alive, worked alongside me, and he was stealing their gold teeth”.
A Chinese benevolent society eventually buried the remains at Colma, a curious city south of San Francisco that was founded as a necropolis, with cemeteries for every denomination. An independent city even today, the dead outnumber the living (app. 1,800) by about a thousand to one. Famous burials include Phineas P. Gage, a railroad worker who survived an accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his skull, destroying much of his brain; William R. Hearst, the infamous newspaper tycoon; Wyatt Earp, of O.K. Corrall fame; Levi Strauss, popularizer of blue jeans; Joe DiMaggio, baseball legend; Abigail Folger, heiress of the coffee empire and murder victim of the Manson Family.; and Joshua A. Norton, the so-called Emperor of the U.S.