Armada Of Ships Under
By James Donahue
A contractor excavating
for the foundation of a new condominium development recently came upon the hull of the remains of a gold-rush era sailing
ship deep under the City of San Francisco.
The discovery sparked
an archaeological recovery of the vessel’s aging timbers, and also kicked some dust off a piece of San Francisco history that nearly became lost in the contemporary rush.
It seems this great hulk
of an ocean-going vessel was one of an estimated 600 ships that now lie buried under a part of the city that grew right out
into what was once known as Yerba Buena Cove, once part of San Francisco
Yerba Buena was the old
name for the town that was there in 1847 when the territory was claimed as part of the United States. That same year the town’s name was changed to San Francisco. It consisted of 79 buildings and a population of under 800.
Historians will tell
you that it was the very next year, 1848, that gold was discovered in the area. When news of the discovery reached the eastern
states, it launched the great Gold Rush. In those days there were only two ways to get from New York
to California, by covered wagon or by ship. Overnight, San Francisco became the major port for hundreds of ships carrying potential
prospectors hoping to get rich quick.
By the end of 1849, the
population of San Francisco had risen to 100,000, making it the largest city in California. It was said that an average of 30 new houses were being
built every day. A single plot of land in San Francisco cost
$16 in 1847, but rose to $45,000 within the next 18 months.
There was such a demand
for land that developers began filling in portions of San Francisco
Bay for new building sites. It is said that since the Gold Rush, San Francisco Bay
has lost about 40 percent of its area to landfill.
The arrivals at that
port were so crazed with gold fever as soon as the ships were docked, passengers and even the crew members left their decks
and headed directly to the hills in their search for personal wealth. Hundreds of ships were literally abandoned and left
anchored and rotting in the bay.
The abandoned vessels
were clogging the harbor while people ashore were desperate for room to expand. Some creative developers decided to utilize
the abandoned ships to help solve their problem. Some of the ships were torn apart for their wood. Other ships were towed
ashore for use as a jail, hotel and other facilities. By 1851 the wharves were extending far out into the cove and numerous
buildings were erected on piles beside them.
Over the years Yerba
Buena Cove was filled with sand from the downtown area. Local historians say the old hulks were still obstructing the harbor
as late as 1857, yet others were by then being used as basements or cellars to tenements built on their decks. They eventually
were buried under landfill and the area was closed in by a seawall.
Now after more than a
century, many of the buildings constructed on this site are being razed and new developments are occurring. As foundations
are laid for these new structures, the remains of the old fleet of ships are turning up. It is said the tunnel for BART, the
local underground transit system, passes directly through some of these hulls.
Many of the old ships
were dug up in years past and then reburied under newly constructed buildings. It is said that personal belongs, including
bottles of liquor, dishes and nautical items were found still inside them.
Many of the buried hulls
have been identified and some history of them recorded. They include:
a 119-foot wooden sailing vessel with copper bottom plating. It had been pulled ashore to the corner of Clay and Sansome Streets
in 1849 for use as a building. It was badly damaged by fire that swept the city in 1851. A brick hotel was then built on top
of the old hull that was buried in the ground. That building was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906 but the hull remained
untouched. It was discovered again in 1978 during a new construction project and parts of the ship were salvaged by the Maritime Museum. Found
in the remains of the ship were a windlass, two pistols, a rifle, derringer, 13 bottles of champagne, stoneware ink bottles,
leather-bound books, bolts of fabric, cabin doors, brass paper clips, copper sheeting and nails.
--The Arkansas was uncovered during a demolition project along the north side of Pacific Street in 1889. The vessel had been hauled to that spot,
near the corner of Battery, and used for years as a store. Her forecastle was used as a tavern.
A door was cut in the bow to allow entry. Later the old Chicago Hotel was built on top of it.
was brought to Davis Street where it was used as a
store ship and later as a water ship. Fresh water was stored in the vessel for local residents to use.
was used as San Francisco’s first jail. Its remains
were found in 1921 during an excavation for construction of the Federal Reserve Bank at the corner of Sacramento and Battery Streets. Among the artifacts found in it were bronze splices, a copper
spike, and rotted timbers.
was found in the same area as the Euphemia. Found in the ruins were some old coins, pipes, a large nugget, a sextant,
and ship’s fittings.
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