Beneath the streets of San Francisco’s financial district lie the remains of dozens of sailing ships that once brought people to San Francisco during the gold rush of the mid-19th century. These ships were beached near what was then a small Mexican village called Yerba Buena. In those early days, the waters of San Francisco Bay came all the way up to where is now Montgomery Street—the site of the iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Once the city started to grow, the cove was filled in and the downtown of the city built over it. Many of the ships that dropped anchor there never moved.
When news of the gold rush began spreading in 1848, people were so desperate to get to California that they got hold of any ship they could find and set sail. Many vessels arrived in such poor state that there was no way they could have made the journey back home safely. These were left to rot where they stood. Other ships didn’t have crews sufficiently large to man as many sailors were out in the gold field trying their luck. The hysteria of gold fever was so high, that many times when vessels came into port, sailors allegedly jumped ship before the anchor had dropped and the sails had been taken up.
At the height of the gold rush, there was between five hundred and a thousand ships moored at the harbor. Many ships lay abandoned with not even a watchman on board.
As San Francisco grew and land became scarce, the city began selling off plots of water in the shallow bay. People drove stakes in the ground and built platforms on top of the water. Others pulled their ships to a convenient spot and intentionally sunk them to claim the land.
The most famous example is the whaling ship Niantic. She was intentionally run aground in 1849 and used as a warehouse and hotel, and was a prominent landmark in the booming city for several years. The nicer ships were turned into permanent structures. The majority were used as warehouses but other ships became hotels, offices, bars, restaurants, banks, church and more.
Then a massive fire broke out on the night of May 3, 1851, and gutted nearly the entire city. Many ships went up in flames and sank in the bay. When the fire was put out several days later, the waterfront was a mess of smoldering timber that was too unstable to rebuild on. So the bay was filled up with earth from the nearby hills and the ships were forgotten. But they continue to come up whenever a new foundation is laid or a tunnel is dug. In the 1990s, when the city dug a new light-rail tunnel beneath the Embarcadero, workers hit a ship named Rome. The vessel was so huge that they had to tunnel through it.
It is estimated that there are still between 40 and 70 ships buried underneath the streets.
Collage depicting ships piled into Yerba Buena cove by Satty, from “Visions of Frisco” edited by Walter Medeiros, Regent Press 2007.