Digging up the Past

In my latest book, Beneath These Streets, coming out later this year on Kindle, I had the chance to draw on a really cool part of history: San Francisco’s buried ships.

San Francisco Behind the Golden Gate BridgeThere are ships lying deep under the streets of San Francisco. I’m not talking about fishing boats or small crafts, but actual seagoing 19th century ships that docked in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Harbor during the Gold Rush.

So you may be wondering: how did a bunch of huge sailing vessels end up under the city streets? They weren’t being sold for lumber or scrapped because they no longer sailed, but were buried whole, bow to stern, as they sank into a disappearing harbor.

buried ship map

Really cool map of the buried ships in San Francisco by Ron Filion (click for larger image)

The answer is pretty crazy. During the California Gold Rush, late 1840s-early 1850s, hundreds of ships sailed into San Francisco carrying hundreds of thousands of people hungry to make their fortune in gold. It was madness. According to Wikipedia, an estimated 300,000 people arrived in California from around the world between 1848 and 1855. Before that, San Francisco had been a small settlement with a population of 1,000, until John Sutter boasted to all and sundry about the gold nugget found at his mill. The city where I live, Sacramento, boomed as the gateway to the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevadas where gold was discovered, upriver from San Francisco. Enterprising merchants were able to inflate prices on everything from meals and lodging to mining supplies because of such high demand.

Having set the stage, we now come to the ships, dozens of ships, all stacked together along the wharves of the small harbor, more arriving every day, delivering goods and gold-seekers. Many of the crews, as eager and optimistic as their passengers, opted to leave their posts and take their chances at a fortune. The abandoned vessels remained, unwanted and ignored, while the natural harbor, like a bite out of the eastern side of the city, was gradually filled with refuse, rubble and construction waste, until there was nothing left of the long wharves, once so full of life and movement. At first a few of the ships were re-purposed as hotels, brothels, taverns and storehouses, but were eventually derelict. Many may even have had hulls still full of cargo and who knows what else — 35 baskets of French champagne were found on the whaling vessel Niantic, when it was first discovered in 1872. Even now, part of the Niantic’s bow is buried where it’s been since 1849, at the intersection of Clay and Sansome. (If you’re interested in more specifics, check out this website by Ron Filion with his detailed and helpful map.)

I first heard about the ships in Historic San Francisco, a narrative history and guidebook. One of the great walking tours it offers takes you around the edge of what was Yerba Buena Harbor and to the locations of several of the ships, including the Niantic. I took the tour on a weekend getaway to SF in the early 2000s and was hooked. I knew I had to use it in a story someday, it’s just that cool.

So those are the buried ships of San Francisco. I’m not really sure why I find this so fascinating. Maybe because it’s such an obscure part of California’s past, a testament to the hunger for gold that set the fate of the city and state. Maybe because it’s just an awesome idea. Because now when I walk down Market Street toward the Embarcadero, I know I could be walking over the buried hulls of massive ships, still keeping untold secrets of the Gold Rush in their silent tombs. Who knows what could come to light next? And that, my friends, is COOL.

“Beneath these streets lie dark and haunting secrets…”

– Emily

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