Under San Francisco lies a buried fleet
Where store ships and water lot markers rest today, with skyscrapers as monuments above their romantic bones
by Helen D Q and Guy R Stewart
The customs broker had a taste for antiquarian research. He paused to wave his hand toward the four storied, concrete building that stands at the northwest corner of Sansome and Clay street.
“It’s good to see the old names hang on that way,” said he.
The newcomer looked at the lettering that runs above the entrance. “Niantic,” he read slowly, then questioned, “What’s Niantic?”
The customs broker spoke impressively. “It was the best known of all the old store ships. And that doesn’t mean much to you either, does it? You see, in the forties, and along into the early fifties, all this flat city front was bay — Yerba Buena Cove, they called it — and it bit into the town from over at Rineon Point, where the government reserve was clear back here to Clark’s point at Battery Street and Broadway. The water came up to Montgomery Street. Yes, you’d hardly believe it, but there were buildings along the west side of the street and beach on the east.”
The newcomer glanced up toward Montgomery Street. It was hard to believe. The Mills building towered up on the east side of it now. “But you spoke of store ships, and the Niantic,” he reminded his companion.
The broker nodded. “I’m coming to that. In those days the prices for building were clear up out of sight — they used to bring lumber in from China — and some of the merchants bought up a ship or two (there were son or 600 deserted vessels lying in the bay, their crews off at the diggings), to break up for building warehouses. But labor was high, and even breaking up the hulks cost a good deal. So some one got the idea of anchoring the ships well inshore, where they rested on the mud at low tide, and using them for warehouses just as they were.
“Godeffroy, Sillam & Co bought the Niantic and moored it here at Clay and Sansome. It had quite a history. I happened to come across an account of it in an old Alta California published some time in the ’70s, when they were digging the last of its timbers out of the spot where they’d lain for 20 years and more.
The story of the Niantic
“It was a whaling ship, to start with, owned by a Liverpool firm, and along in the early 40s, they put it on the Liverpool-Valparaiso run. On one of its South American trips, a Chilean merchant firm bought it, refitted it and sent it to Panama under Captain Cleveland. They sailed into port there in April, 1849, to find everybody flocking to California. It was billed for San Francisco immediately and came into the bay, July 5, with 250 passengers and a cargo of tropical fruits.
“Before the week was past, the crew had left for the mines and it lay in the stream till Godeffroy and his partner bought it. They began to fill in the bay late in the 50s, and the Niantic was sunk in the mud up to eight feet below the water line. When the May fire of 51 came along, it burned it down to the ground, and before the ashes were cold, they had started the Niantic hotel, using the lower part of the hull that was left for the cellar.”
“Well, that was an idea!” the newcomer broke in, laughing.
“Wasn’t it? A man named Roby leased the hotel as soon as it was built and under his management it had the reputation of being the best house in the city. He sold out before long, and it passed through a couple of other hands before Daniel Parrish bought it. While he kept it, one of his boarders was arrested for stealing a big sum of money and sent to state’s prison for quite a long term. He couldn’t be induced to tell the whereabouts of the coin, but it was rumored that he had hid it somewhere about the hotel, and Parrish made a pretty thorough search without discovering anything. Shortly after Woods, the fellow who had been clerking for Parrish, bought him out — though no one could understand where he got the money to do it — and he had not run the house long before he departed for parts unknown, taking with him, it was said, a good deal more money that he’d ever made in the hotel business.
“N H Parkell leased the building after that, and one fine day, the erstwhile convict walked into his office and asked permission to dig under the doorstep for the money he had once buried there. Some mighty careful digging followed, but no trace of the money was found, and suspicion pointed more strongly than ever to Woods.
“Finally, some time along in the ’70s, Charles L Low, the owner of the lot, decided the old house had better come down. He put up a four story brick building in its stead, and in excavating for its foundation, the keel of the old hull was completely removed. Perhaps the oddest part of the removal was the discovery, stowed away among timbers, of a good many articles which had been put there for storage during the time of its use as a store ship. Thirty-six baskets of champagne they found — Jacquesson Fils brand — put there originally by Van Brunt and Verplank. And they told me that the air had been so completely excluded that some of the champagne — a quarter of a century old, remember — effervesced slightly on being uncorked.”