Skip to content

The Ships That Lurk Below Our Feet

May 3, 2013

@KdotCdot reminded me of this SF buried ship map. (rotated, original version here).

buried vessels crop

Much more ship discovery on FoundSF.

By the summer of 1850, over 500 vessels were recorded as being anchored in the vicinity of Yerba Buena Cove. After they had arrived, whole crews abandoned their ships, along with the passengers, to make their way up to the gold fields. Many of the vessels were eventually left to rot, others were eventually used for such purposes as storeships, saloons, hotels, jails, and some were sunk purposefully to secure water lot titles (property that was originally underwater). As wood was scarce at the time, due to the many fires that swept the city and the increasing need for building material, many of the vessels were also broken up for their timber as well as other parts such as the metal plating.

By 1851, the wharves had extended out into the cove and numerous buildings had been erected on piles near them. Over the next two decades, under various waterfront extension bills, Yerba Buena Cove was filled with sand from the downtown area. According to Bancroft, a local historian, “As late as Jan ’57 old hulks still obstructed the harbor while others had been overtaken by the bayward march of the city front and formed basements or cellars to tenements built on their decks. Even now [1888] remains of the vessels are found under the filled foundations of houses.” The cove was eventually enclosed by a seawall which was built from 1867 to 1869, and which followed roughly along the same path as The Embarcadero.

There’s even a list of ships that were abandoned, some with great details:

Almandralina — lay near Pacific Wharf; “…on the corner of Pacific and Front, was owned at the time by M. R. Roberts…Venard’s brick building to-day covers the site where she was cut out.” [82] “The vessels lying at the corner of Pacific and Front streets are the remains of the ship Almandrilina — signifying almond grove — and the brig Ricardo. These vessels were owned by Captain M. R. Roberts, and were brought around the Horn early in ’49, with full cargoes for the gold fields. The captain’s young wife followed him in 1850, by way of the Isthmus, and Captain Roberts fitted-up the Almandrilina for her reception, until he completed the building of his handsome residence—at that time the finest in town—corner of Washington and Stockton streets, where they have resided every since, and where their children were born. The vessels were then converted into warehouses, and finally into boarding and lodging houses until the city front was filled in and buildings erected on top of the hulls as they lay covered up.” [FM] “Venard, G., manufacturer…625-627 Front”

For reference, here’s the 1859 Coast Survey map, with wharf names:

1859 Coast Survey docks

And you can see a sketch of the Greenwich and Lombard wharfs at the Year of the Bay exhibit at the California Historical Society.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2013 12:03 pm

    Back around 1985 I was working SOMA, new Howard & Main. They broke ground on the building at 300 Howard and suddenly the foundation hole turned into a swarm of white-suited hazmat cleanup workers. Apparently they had dug into the remains of a blubber refinery, and the callously discarded effluent of the process was deemed to be a hazard. Looks like unused wetlands in that FoundSF map.

  2. Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable permalink
    May 3, 2013 12:37 pm

    Excellent post. When I was first studying archaeology, part of our work was classifying and filing archaeological site reports. I remember reading one that basically detailed a buried ship on the SF waterfront that had been hit during tunneling for the subway. In that case, the decision was made to NOT fully excavate it, rather only study the portion immediately bored through by the tunneling. If I recall correctly, they were able to identify specifically WHICH ship it was, and the history of the ship. However, I read this report once, about 10 years ago, so I don’t recall the details myself.

  3. May 3, 2013 1:29 pm

    The original San Francisco parking problem: abandoned ships.

    • bldxyz permalink
      May 3, 2013 9:40 pm

      In my studies of the history of architecture in Manhattan, I learned how the harbor there was extended similarly, using grounded ships as the basis for extending the land. Strangely, the term for filling in these spaces was called “cribbing the fill”. Though I thought I’d never forget the term, Google does not support this contention.

  4. May 6, 2013 9:58 am

    I was working in the Embarcadero Center in the 90s and they torn down the building where Arby’s and Yank Sing used to be and during construction they found the hull of a ship. They excavated and studied it “in place,” then reburied it and built above it, in theory to to preserve it for next time the site was razed. I loved reading about it and walking by the site during the day. Thanks for posting this!

  5. August 1, 2013 2:29 am

    Today, I went to the beach with my children.
    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and
    said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell
    to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her
    ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I
    had to tell someone!

  6. May 23, 2022 12:50 pm

    Thanks forr writing this


  1. Shipwrecks under the streets of San Francisco
  2. Map of Ships That Lurk Below Our Feet in SF_ | Oddly_Even

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: