The Ghost Ships of San Francisco: Dozens of Wrecks Buried Beneath City Streets

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There is a graveyard of ships under the city of San Francisco, California. These ships date to the middle of the 19th century, when the California Gold Rush occurred. Many ships that came to San Francisco with gold prospectors simply did not return to the ports from which they came, and were just left in the harbor. Eventually, the ships were built over, and, with the passage of time, mostly forgotten. The laying of new building foundations, or the digging of tunnels under the city, have, however, unearthed some of these ships, and brought them back to public attention.   

Top: The Charles Hare Lighter was discovered during a construction excavation at the corner of Folsom and Main streets in San Francisco. (William Self Associates/ National Park Service ) Bottom: An article about the ships buried under San Francisco in ‘The San Francisco call’, August 11, 1912. ( Chronicling America )

The Gold Rush Sets in

During the first half of the 19th century, San Francisco was a small village of little importance. In 1848, this little village became part of the United States of America, as a result of the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican-American War. In the following year, the California Gold Rush began, when gold was reported to have been discovered by James W. Marshall in Coloma, California. Consequently, gold prospectors were drawn to the state, and the village of San Francisco, which, at that time, had an estimated population of several hundred, quickly grew into a city of several tens of thousands.

he gold mania of 1848 and 1849 inspired a number of satirical cartoons such as this comical print. The gold hunter is loaded down with every conceivable appliance - much of which would be useless in California.

The gold mania of 1848 and 1849 inspired a number of satirical cartoons such as this comical print. The gold hunter is loaded down with every conceivable appliance – much of which would be useless in California. (ca. 1850) ( Public Domain )

There were two routes that could be taken by those wishing to join the Gold Rush. One was the overland route and the other by sea. Assuming that you were starting the journey from the East Coast, the former was the shorter of the two routes, though the latter was the quicker one. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that the majority of the prospectors decided to travel by sea.

Sailing card for the clipper ship California, depicting scenes from the California gold rush. (ca. 1850)

Sailing card for the clipper ship California, depicting scenes from the California gold rush. (ca. 1850) ( Public Domain )

Many of these ships, having arrived in San Francisco, were abandoned in the harbor. In some cases, the ships were in too decrepit a shape to make the journey back to the ports they left, and their owners had sent them knowingly on their last voyage to San Francisco. In other cases, crew members, including sailors and officers, joined the Gold Rush and abandoned their ships.

Collage depicting ships piled into Yerba Buena cove by Satty, from "Visions of Frisco" edited by Walter Medeiros, Regent Press 2007.

Collage depicting ships piled into Yerba Buena cove by Satty, from “Visions of Frisco” edited by Walter Medeiros, Regent Press 2007. (Found SF/ CC BY NC SA 3.0 )

Solution to a Clogged Harbor

The number of these abandoned ships grew, almost reaching a thousand, which caused the harbor to be clogged. One of the consequences of this is that other ships had to be anchored in the deeper waters further away from the shore. This meant that goods had to be transported over the shallows, and for this, porters were needed. Therefore, much money was spent hiring these porters, which reduced the merchants’ profits.

The San Francisco harbor at Yerba Buena Cove in 1850 or 1851.

The San Francisco harbor at Yerba Buena Cove in 1850 or 1851. ( Public Domain )

Eventually, the city authorities decided to solve this problem by having the shoreline brought closer to the deeper waters. Their plan was to sell water lots along the shoreline, with the condition that buyers did the land reclamation on their own. It may be added that as the population of San Francisco swelled, so to was the demand for land, which was one of the reasons contributing to the success of this initiative. As a result of this land reclamation, the shoreline of the city shifted further into the Bay of San Francisco. In the process, some of the abandoned ships were buried under land fill. Other ships were taken apart for their timber, and yet others had businesses set up inside them.



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