Why there are Gold Rush-era ships still buried under downtown San Francisco

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Ships underneath San Francisco

Even today, when you walk around downtown San Francisco, there’s a good chance you will step on land reclaimed from the Bay with the help of abandoned Gold Rush-era ships.

The exact number of old vessels down under the dirt is still a mystery, but here’s why — and how — they built this city on rock and boats.

View of San Francisco, formerly Yerba Buena, 1846-7 before the discovery of gold-gigapixel-width-1000px

Ships as buildings in San Francisco from the 1850s

From Levi’s Plaza: Report on historical and archaeological resources (Olmsted et al,1978)

A “List of Vessels Remaining in the Port of San Francisco” published in the Alta California (newspaper) on June 6, 1850, gives the name, rig, tonnage, and port of last registration of no less than 526 vessels ranging from little sloops and schooners from such distant ports as Sydney or New York, to the big steamship Tennessee, which was in port that day.

Unlike the Tennessee — and many of the sloops and schooners — most of these vessels faced a long layover, for the wages it took to ship a crew scarcely encouraged sailing out of San Francisco with nothing but ballast in the hold.

The instant city needed instant buildings, and idle ships might partially meet this demand.

The Niantic (now near the Transamerica Pyramid)

Among the first, and by all odds the most famous, of the ships put to such use was the Niantic. On August 9, 1849, about the time that San Francisco’s first large wharf was pushing outward to deep water at the foot of Commercial Street, the Niantic was advertised for sale in the Alta California — “a fast sailor, and ready for any voyage, she will be sold a bargain if applied for immediately…”

Vintage Niantic whale ship from Gold Rush era San Francisco
The whaleship Niantic c1840 by an unknown Chinese artist. The original hung in the captain’s cabin until the Niantic was converted into a hotel in 1849. (CC photo by Robert Harris-Stoertz of an oil painting owned by Cynthia Riggs / minor digital restoration by Click Americana.)

The bargain went begging, and in the January 31, 1850 Alta California, she was again advertised, but for a different purpose:

STORAGE – In the Niantic Warehouse, foot of Clay Street. The owners of the ship Niantic, announce to the public of San Francisco that said vessel is now ready to receive storage upon the most favorable terms.

From the facilities offered of receiving and delivering goods, both afloat and on shore, with security against rain and fire, they confidently recommend these warehouses to the attention of the mercantile community.

Terms of storage – $1 per month per barrel of 196 lbs., or thereabouts; $10 per month per ton of 40 cubic feet. Goods are received and delivered from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. Two large lighters of about 50 tons, to let.

Apply on board to WHITEHEAD, WARD & CO.

The Niantic had been drawn up into the waterlot at the northwest corner of Clay and Sansome, her capacity greatly enlarged by the addition of what amounted to a building atop her deck, and the Clay Street entrance cut through her hull ornamented by a sign inviting “Rest for the Weary and Storage for Trunks.”

MORE: How the California Gold Rush of 1849 began, and what life was really like for the miners

With her choice and convenient location, the Niantic served as a hotel as well as a warehouse, was in part built up to two stories above the deck (which was about 8-10 feet above street level), with a balcony around the top floor, outbuildings, and broad, plank walks from the Clay Street Pier.

Like the Niantic, many Gold Rush storeships were surrounded by the rapidly advancing piers and connecting cross-streets, were burned or cut down, and their remains engulfed in the hasty filling operations of the early 1850s.

San Francisco - Old Niantic hotel

The ships buried under downtown San Francisco

A map prepared by the San Francisco Maritime Museum in the early 1960s based on the standard histories and substantial newspaper research located 42 storeships by site between Green Street and Mission Street, Sansome Street and a line inside the present Embarcadero.

Of these, 41 are identified by name, and all but two were not recorded as having definitely been removed. That the map is far from comprehensive is shown by the fact that until the Niantic rediscovery, the several encounters with Gold Rush ship remains in financial district construction activity in the last ten years have been with ships not found on the map.

The Alta California for July 31, 1852, listed 164 storeships by name and general location. Not half of them are accounted for by vessels known or believed to have been left in place, burned or dismantled by the already-active ship-breakers at Rincon Point, or refitted for sea.

From around mid-1852, it is probable that the number of storeships declined rapidly, for the building boom of 1853 outstripped previous prodigies of construction, gold production and immigration peaked out or were past their peaks, and 1854 brought rumbles to the effect that the city was “overbuilt.”

The Buried Ships of Yerba Buena Cove, San Francisco, California
The Buried Ships of Yerba Buena Cove by Michael Warner et al., 2017 (San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, National Park Service)

In general, it would appear that a large number of vessels were buried under the advancing city front in the first half of the 1850s, probably more than 25, but probably fewer than 75. Most of the original storeship fleet was afloat and was served by lighters. (See the video below for more about lighter boats.)

By 1854-57, any hulk that could be removed at small expense had value for its yellow-metal fastenings and coppered bottom, for comparatively cheap Chinese labor was available to sift the ashes of vessels burned at Rincon Point. Alternatively, vessels good enough to refit could find crews enough at wages satisfactory to the owners.


Under San Francisco lies a buried fleet (1912)

By Helen D Q and Guy R Stewart – The San Francisco Sunday Call (San Francisco, California) August 11, 1912

Where store ships and water lot markers rest today, with skyscrapers as monuments above their romantic bones

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.”

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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 someone 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.

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San Francisco with ships as buildings in 1856

The story of the Niantic

“It was a whaling ship, to start with, owned by a Liverpool firm, and along in the early [18]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 [18]50s, and the Niantic was sunk in the mud up to eight feet below the water line. When the May fire of [18]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.

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“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.

Gold Rush ships in San Francisco Bay 1851

“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.”

More blocks of ships

The newcomer looked with different eyes at the prosaic block that stands today on the scene of all these events.

“It certainly gives you a bond with the romantic past, doesn’t it?” said he. “Think of all that’s gone on under this business block!”

“That’s what I say,” agreed the other, “and it’s not this block alone. If you’ll come over to the custom house with me while I look up an invoice, we’ll come back along Battery, and I’ll tell you what I know about the ships that were located there.”

“It’s a handsome building,” remarked the stranger to San Francisco, looking at the lion-guarded granite structure as they neared it.

The other man laughed. “There was a ship here, too. The Georgean, its name was, and it lay well back from Battery on this block between Jackson and Washington. But I’ve never found out anything about it except its name and the fact that is was a storeship.

“There were two other uses for the deserted vessels,” the broker went on, as they turned in the entrance. “One was for dwellings. They say more than a thousand people lived on buildings erected on piles over the bay, or onboard the hulks, during the winter of ’50-’51.

“And it’s claimed that the ships were really the most comfortable places to live. The cabins could be made pretty livable, they were free from the wind-blown sand that made life miserable ashore, and, best of all, they had no fear of fire. Fire, you know, was the terror of early San Francisco.

“The other use was to hold the titles to water lots. It wasn’t long after filling in commenced that the businessmen began to realize that lots at the moment underwater were apt to become the most valuable business property in town. The ayuntamiento (town council) held a water lot sale on January 3, 1850, at which $635,130 was received for 434 lots.

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“But it was one thing to buy the lots and another to hold them. The Broadway and Pacific Wharf company adopted a very high-handed method of refusing to let lot owners encroach upon their slips, and from 1850 to 1853, there was a regular water lot war.

“The owners decided that the best way to perfect a title was to float a ship on to the disputed lot and sink her on the spot. This method frequently resulted in complications, as when Palmer, Cooke & Co. had the bark Cordova and the brig Garnet sunk on Davis, between Pacific and Broadway, only to discover that they were resting on land belonging to the wharf company. The only way out of it was for Cooke and Palmer to buy the entire block, which cost them a clean hundred thousand.”

More history around the corner

It was a half hour later that the two men left the custom house and took their deliberate way down Battery. At the end of the first block, they came to a halt.

“Here,” said the broker, waving his hand to indicate the northwest corner of Battery and Clay, where four stories of cream-colored brick raise themselves today, “was the location of the General Harrison. She was one of the better-known store ships, owned by E Mickle & Co.

“But I must confess, I want to hurry you on to the next corner. It’s the most interesting, except the Niantic, of them all.”

MORE: Take a look back at old downtown San Francisco in the 1970s

“It doesn’t look it,” objected his companion, glancing with some disfavor on the building of dark, red brick, upon which white signs tell the passer that flannelette underwear is made and printing done at the northwest corner of Battery and Sacramento.

“It was here,” the San Franciscan told him, “that Beach and Lockhart anchored the storeship Apollo, which, unlike many of the other hulks put to the same use, became a fixture.

“In time, it was raised to stand firmly on piles, a platform extended under it. and from it boat stairs ran down to the water. A coffee stand was made in its stern by cutting into its hull just under its cabin windows, and a sloping roof extended over it.

Old San Francisco from Clay Street
From California Life Illustrated, by William Taylor (1858)

“Standing as it did, right on the waterfront, it’s not surprising to hear that many a pioneer just ashore from the weary voyage around the Horn, or the scarcely easier one across the isthmus, took his first meal in California at the Apollo stand.

“Everything served here was two bits, whether it was a cup of coffee, a piece of pie or a couple of doughnuts. In those days, though, nearly everyone said ‘dos reales.’ ‘A quarter of a dollar’ and ’25 cents’ were terms practically unknown.

“Directly across Battery from the Apollo, where this vacant lot is now, the prison brig Euphemia was moored. The first money the Ayuntamiento appropriated was for her purchase, and she was the first jail in San Francisco sufficiently secure to keep prisoners in actual custody.

“Moored up Sacramento a block, there at the corner of Sansome, was the Thomas Bennett, beside the Sacramento Street wharf. For a long time, she was the headquarters for the crowd of young southerners known as the ‘Baltimore boys’ — Stroebell, the Gough brothers, Billy Buckler and a lot more.”

MORE: Treasure hunt: Are there still any shipwrecks left to discover?

Still ships yet to rediscover

“Is her hulk there still?” the newcomer asked him.

“No. She was one of the transients, as were the most of them. But they tell me that in the blocks bounded by Drumm, Jackson, Davis and Pacific — not much of a place to look at, I warn you, covered with one story saloons and barbershops — there are four of them, and that they’re there yet. They are the English brig Hardie, the ship Bethel, also English; the Noble and the Inez.”

“You’ve got all the names down, haven’t you?” laughed the newcomer.

San Francisco newspaper - Buried ships 1912

“Wait a minute,” commanded the broker, fishing a red leather notebook out of his pocket. “Let me read you a list of names for which I haven’t found the locations: Regulus, Thames, Alceste, Neptune, Golconda, Mersey, Caroline Augusta, Dianthe, Genetta de Goito, Candace, Copiapo, Tulca. Some names those, aren’t they?

“But these are the two I’m most anxious to locate — the Plover that sailed the Arctic in search of Franklin, and the Cadmus, the ship that brought Lafayette to America in 1824. If I could track that last down, wouldn’t it be a discovery?”

MORE: Take a look back at old downtown San Francisco in the ’70s


Plaque at Niantic site

The emigrant ship Niantic stood on this spot in the early days “when the water came up to Montgomery Street.” Converted to other uses, it was covered with a shingle roof with offices and stores on the deck, at the level of which was constructed a wide balcony surmounted by a veranda. The hull was divided into warehouses entered by doorways on the sides.

The fire of May 3, 1851 destroyed all but the submerged hulk, which later was utilized as the foundation for the Niantic Hotel, a famous hostelry that stood until 1872.

This tablet was placed by the Historic Landmarks Committee of the Native Sons of the Golden West, September 19, 1919.

You can learn more about the buried ships under downtown San Francisco, and even see a map of where the ruins lie, on the SFGenealogy.com website. Also check out FoundSF.com for more on the history of the city in the early 1850s.

Plaque at Niantic site

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