As shown by the infographic and the maps below, San Francisco’s Waterfront area is actually built on the discarded hulks of mid-19th-century ships once used as storage units, houses and hostels.
The Gold Rush utterly transformed California’s demographics. In April 1850 a San Francisco harbourmaster estimated that no less than 62,000 people from across the globe had arrived in the city by the Bay in the preceding 12 months. About 500 ships clogged up Yerba Buena Cove and vicinity.
According to Big Think, many of these ships passed through ‘Rotten Row’, Charles Hare’s ship-breaking yard, which was operated by Chinese crews. About 200 of the more valuable ships were repurposed as storage for coal, flour, water and other goods in high demand; as boarding houses and hotels; and in one case (though not the same case) even as a jail and a church.
Eventually, many of the remaining boats were sunk to give way to water lots, which were dispensed on condition that buyers fill them with land (to bring the shoreline closer to the deeper part of the Bay). Around 45 of them are known to lie beneath downtown San Francisco. Some are marked with plaques or an outline on the street, but most ships in this ghost fleet remain forgotten. Marine historian James Delgado suspects some 30 more are still undiscovered, resting beneath a few dozen feet of silt.
The maps below list the ones we know of that are still ‘anchored’ in Yerba Buena Cove, roughly a century and a half after it was filled in. Many more can be found in a list of over 300 ships, which among the ‘sepulchred vessels’ also mentions the Cadmus, which brought Lafayette to America in 1824, and the Plover, which sailed the Arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition. Here’s in another go at the same thing, with more ships and their graves indicated (and their fates detailed below).
Le Baron – Owned by Fairpool & Jonse, lay for a long time near Long Wharf, and finally sunk near North Point dock.
Palmyra – Inside of India Dock, or what is now Battery, between Greenwich and Filbert, was a small brig. Her position was about what is now the corner of Battery and Greenwich streets.
Japan – Captain Hoyt had the bark Japan. She was finally broken up by Batchelder at Cowell’s wharf.
Envoy – The vessel went down north of Union street between Front & Battery streets and when the mud was squeezed up by filling Front street the old hulk reappeared and Burns stripped copper from the Hull selling the metal for 10 a pound.
Philip Hone – A store-ship, named after the Mayor of New York, gradually covered up by the filling in. The houses on Union street, opposite the Union street school, came out in this vessel.
Fortuna – aka Fortune. Used for a period as a hotel on the block now bounded by Battery and Front, Vallejo and Green streets. She was finally broken up by Hare.
Arkansas – aka the Old Ship. The ship was hauled up Pacific street, to near the northeast corner of Battery, and was used for many years as a store ship, and finally her forecastle was used as a tavern. A hotel was finally built over her. These days, you can still get a drink at The Old Ship Saloon, at 298 Pacific Avenue.
Garnet – An American brig.
Cordova – Used as a storeship for some time and finally as a water ship. Water sold for $1 and $2 a bucket in those days.
Elmira – Sunk by Captain Crowell at the corner of Pacific and Davis streets.
Inez – An old New Bedford whaler, sunk at the northwest corner of Pacific and Drumm streets on the line of Drumm, with her bow toward Pacific.
Edwin – Lay near Pacific Wharf, was made a bonded warehousing ship, built over.
Almandrilina – Owned by captain M.R. Roberts, brought round the Horn in ’49. When his wife followed him by way of the Isthmus, Roberts fitted the Almandrilina for her until he completed his residence, on the corner of Washington and Stockton Streets.
Ricardo – Lying next to the remains of the Almandrilina, it was also owned by capt. Roberts and brought round the Horn by him, with full cargoes for the gold fields, afterwards converted into warehouses, and finally into boarding and lodging houses until they were covered over.
Magnolia, Brilliant – Brigs used for storage ships and boarding houses.
Balance – Built in Calcutta of teak wood, 92 years old when she arrived in San Francisco. She was captured from the British in the War of 1812 by James DeWolf’s Yankee privateer True Blooded Yankee, who re-christened her the Balance to balance a ship lost by him a short time before captured by a British cruiser. Went into the mud to remain at the corner of Front and Jackson streets.
Globe – Used as a cistern for the storage of water to be used in case of fire.
Alida – A white-painted ship, brought into port by two Norwegians.
Hardie – An English brig, about twenty feet from the Noble and directly opposite Clark street.
Noble – Used as a storage ship.
Bethel – English ship buried at the corner of Drumm and Clark streets. Her bow points toward Drumm.
Georgean – Between Jackson and Washington, west of Battery Street.
Louisa – A schooner, previously a yacht of the King of the Hawaiian Islands. Did storage duty for a time, then broken up.
Niantic – Stranded on the corner of Clay and Sansome, was covered over with a shingle roof and converted into offices and stores on deck, while the hull was divided into warehouses. A hollow pile was driven down through the stern below the salt-water line and about the best water in the town was pumped from that well. After a fire destroyed most of the structure, what remained became the foundation for the Niantic Hotel, which stood until 1872. At its most recent rediscovery, in 1978, most of the stern was destroyed, and numerous artifacts salvaged, including two pistols, a rifle and derringer, 13 bottles of champagne, stoneware ink bottles, leather-bound books, bolts of fabric, cabin doors, hundred-year-old brass paper clips, copper sheeting, and nails.
General Harrison – Uncovered at the northwest corner of Battery and Clay during construction in 2001. An 11-storey hotel now stands over the site. An outline of the hull on the sidewalk memorialises the ship.
Fame – A brig on the corner of Clay and Front Streets, broken up by Hare, and mentioned in 1857 as “fast disappearing”.
Francis Ann – On the corner of Clay and Front streets, broken up by Hare.
Elizabeth – Used as a bonded storeship for the port, eventually broken up and sunk about 100 feet along East street, between Clay and Merchant, in about thirty-five feet of water.
Apollo – The rotting hulk was rediscovered several times during construction work in the early 20th century. In it were found coins of 1840, an American penny of 1825, a British penny of 1797, pipes, a large nugget, a sextant, ship’s fittings, and more.
Euphemia – Used as San Francisco’s first jail and simultaneously as California’s first insane asylum, until the asylum was built at Stockton.
Thomas Bennett – Contained a grocery store. At the southwest corner of Sacramento and Front, she lies parallel with Sacramento with her bow pointed towards Battery street.
Henry Lee – Lay for a long time on California Street on the site later occupied by Selby’s store.
Tecumseh – On the southwest corner of California and Battery streets, sold by the United States Marshall and broken up.
Salem – Lay for several years on California street on the site of Hooker’s store.
Autumn – A storeship, on Davis street, near Market, broken up by Hare.
Rome – A three-masted vessel sunk in 1852 at the southwest corner of Market and East streets, its hulk used as a coal ship. Her bow touched the edge of Market Street. Later, the Ensign saloon was built over her. In the mid-1990s, crews digging an extension to the Muni Metro system rediscovered her. She was deemed too large to remove. Thousands Metro passengers travelling outbound from Folsom Street to Embarcadero Station unwittingly pass through the Rome’s forward hull each day.
Othello – Used as a storeship on Stewart street.
Byron – The bark Byron was broken up at Mission Street near Main street in the early fifties.
Trescott – On the corner of Main and Mission. Goss & White, owners, and Captain L. L. Batchelder, keeper. Finally broken up.
Panama – Converted into Seamen’s Bethel, for which she was used for many years. There was a Methodist Church in the Panama, on Davis street, between Washington and Clay, and Father Taylor was the minister. He had a real pretty wife and I think that was the reason that the boys chipped in so liberally. Finally, some parties who did not have the fear of God in them, stole all the pews one fine night, and others carried off the pulpit, and that ended the conversion of sinners on the water front. When religious services were no longer held there she was taken to Beale and Mission and cut up.
Callao – At Mission & Beale Streets, the Calleo was broken up and left there.
In the comments section of the article on Big Think, one reader mentioned discovering a ship with over 320 Chinese skeletons on board while doing construction work in the early 70’s, at Fremont and Market: “The other operator, a despicable individual whose name I’ll keep anonymous in case he’s still alive, worked alongside me, and he was stealing their gold teeth”. A Chinese benevolent society eventually buried the remains at Colma, a curious city south of San Francisco that was founded as a necropolis, with cemeteries for every denomination. An independent city even today, the dead outnumber the living (app. 1,800) by about a thousand to one.