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Why Are Ships Buried Under San Francisco?

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During the Gold Rush ships were used as storehouses, hotels, churches and bars. (Madeline Gobbo)

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n the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District, you can grab a drink at the Old Ship Saloon. Owner Bill Duffy says the bar opened in 1851 inside the hull of the Arkansas, a ship that now lies in the dirt below the bar.

“People who wanted to go to the bar would have to get up this plank and in through the side of the ship,” says Duffy.

The Arkansas is one of 30 to 60 ships buried under the city. Some are marked with above-ground plaques, but many go completely unrecognized — a ghost fleet beneath your feet. Which brings us to the question:

Why are there ships under San Francisco?

Most of the buried ships lie under the Financial District and the Embarcadero — two of the city’s flattest neighborhoods. In a city known for its hills, you’d hardly know it taking a walk from the Embarcadero and the Transamerica Building.


“You can find the original shoreline by using your feet,” says Kevin Boyd, senior science writer at the Exploratorium, where an exhibit called “The Changing Shoreline of San Francisco” is currently on display. “As soon as you find yourself heading uphill at any significant degree, you can be pretty sure you’re close to the early shoreline.”

But why did the shoreline change? And how did the ships get buried there?

The Old Ship Saloon opened in 1851 and operated out of the hull of the Arkansas (Credit: Jennifer Woodard Madera)
The Old Ship Saloon opened in 1851 and operated out of the hull of the Arkansas (Credit: Jennifer Woodard Madera)

“San Francisco in 1848 was a small town of a few hundred. But the discovery of gold that year had a pretty big impact. The small town became a city,” says James Delgado, a maritime archaeologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and author of “Gold Rush Port.

After gold was discovered, ships pregnant with people and goods poured into the Bay Area. They dropped anchor in the deeper waters offshore, somewhere below today’s Bay Bridge.

Once moored, many of the ships never set sail again. Some vessels had arrived to the Gold Coast in a decrepit state, the owners knowingly sending the ships to the bay on their last voyage.  Other ships simply had trouble leaving once sailors caught gold fever.

An advertisement for a line of ships bringing passengers to the Gold Rush.
An advertisement for a line of ships bringing passengers to the Gold Rush.

“There were large numbers of desertions, in some cases even officers,” says Delgado.

The harbor became clogged as the number of ships climbed near 1,000. As the mass grew, the ships became a greater nuisance. Many of the ships had to have their rigging taken down in order to avoid entanglement with neighboring vessels. Contemporary observers often referred to it as a “forest of masts.”

Because the ships were stationed offshore in deep water, goods had to be slogged across half a mile of the shallow, muddy tidal flats. Merchants had to pay workers handsomely to forget about their gold fever and accept the job of a porter.

The waterfront in 1851 (San Francisco Maritime Museum National Historical Park)
The waterfront in 1851. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Maritime Museum National Historical Park)

Eventually, politicians devised a solution to lessen these hefty expenses: bring the shoreline closer to deep water. The city began selling water lots out in the Bay on the condition that buyers fill them in with land.

“In order to secure the title, you would put real property on it,” says Delgado. “You could drive pilings and build a fence around it. But the easiest, cheapest way was to do that with a ship.”

Land in Gold Rush-era San Francisco was incredibly valuable and people tried to secure these water lots any way they could.

“If you scuttled your ship, you could claim the land under it as part of your salvage,” says Richard Everett, curator of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.

A map of the buried ships under San Francisco.
A map of the buried ships under San Francisco. (San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park)

Some men used this technicality to lay claim to other people’s lots. They were known as the “hulk undertakers.”

In the dead of night, they would sail ships over valuable lots, unplug holes drilled into the ship’s keel and conveniently lose the vessel on the spot.

“There were actual open wars. One day the captain of the hulk undertakers was in the midst of giving a command when a wharf employee fired a shot at him. His mouth was open, he was yelling, and the bullet passed through one cheek and out the other, missing his tongue and his teeth. To the end of his days he wore a beard to cover those two scars on either side of his mouth,” says Delgado.

Besides land, San Francisco also needed buildings. Because the city grew so rapidly and lumber was expensive to mill, many of the early buildings were constructed of canvas tents. One visitor described San Francisco as a magic lantern city at night, because the tents covering the hillsides would glow from within. While this may have been picturesque, the residents wanted more permanent structures, so they turned to the ships in the harbor.

The junker ships were taken to “Rotten Row,” where Charles Hare and the local Chinese community systematically broke down hundreds of ships. The wood and metal were recycled into building materials.

About 200 of the nicer ships were easily turned into permanent structures. The majority were used as warehouses but other ships became hotels, offices, bars, counting houses, restaurants, auction halls, banks, cafes and a church. Even the city jail moved onto a ship once the old one became overcrowded and worn.

An illustration of early San Francisco where old ships were converted into buildings.
An illustration of early San Francisco, where old ships were converted into buildings. (Library of Congress)

“One of the prisoners actually was said to have taken the door off its hinges and carried it on his back to make a show and to demand that the jailer feed him because the jailer had skipped a meal,” says Delgado.

As lots of water was filled and the city expanded into the Bay, many of the floating buildings found themselves surrounded by land, sitting along city streets.

But then there were a series of fires. The biggest blaze ripped through the city on May 4, 1851. It took out about 20 city blocks and destroyed more than a thousand buildings.

“That was the giant fire that took out most of the waterfront. Many of the ships burned down to their water lines,” says Everett.

A print depicting the San Francisco Fire in May 1851. Losses allegedly totaled $20,000,000 (Courtesy of the De Young Legion of Honor)
A print depicting the San Francisco Fire in May 1851. Losses allegedly totaled $20,000,000 (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Permanent Collection )

Dozens of ships stayed behind, and remain firmly anchored in what today is the Financial District or Embarcadero.

The city forgot about the ships. One by one, they’ve been built over. Nowadays, we barely think about the hulks lying just under our feet.

That is, until we have to lay a new foundation or dig a fresh tunnel.

In 1994, Muni was digging a light-rail tunnel beneath Justin Herman Plaza on the Embarcadero when workers hit a ship — the Rome. The vessel was so huge they literally had to tunnel through. Now, thousands of riders on J, K, L, M, N and T trains unknowingly ride through its hull every day.


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