The Ghost Ships of San Francisco


At the start of 1848, San Francisco was a sleepy Mexican village with a population of under two hundred Spanish-speaking fishermen and farmers living on the shores of a picturesque bay. But unbeknown to the residents, their lives were about to be transformed by outside events. Many hundreds of miles to the south a peace treaty was being signed to bring the Mexican-American war to an end. It included the transfer of a huge slab of Mexican territory, including all of modern-day California, to US control. But becoming citizens of the US was only the start of the changes being imposed on them. A few months later news came of the discovery of substantial gold deposits in the mountains near San Francisco, prompting the start of the Gold Rush.


Over the next two years tens of thousands of people flocked to California, mainly from the east-coast states, but also from as far afield as Europe and China. Some made the perilous overland trip across the interior of North America, at the time largely uncharted and full of hostile Native Americans. But most opted for the quicker and safer passage by sea, around South America, to land directly in San Francisco. In April 1850 the San Francisco harbourmaster estimated that 62,000 people from across the globe had arrived by sea in the preceding 12 months, and the village was now a booming city. But he also reported a major problem. There were now over 500 ships clogging up the bay, most of which had been simply left there to slowly rot at their moorings. Photos from the time show forests of masts in Yerba Buena Cove from this vast armada.


Some of the ships had been abandoned by crews gripped by the same gold-fever that had infected their passengers, but most had been deliberately abandoned by their owners. The reason for this was that the sea-borne flow of people and prospecting supplies was all one-way. No one wanted to return back to the East coast, and California produced almost nothing to export at the time. As a result, ship owners chose to send their oldest and most worn-out ships for a final, highly profitable, one-way voyage. Ships like the Balance, built in Calcutta and captured during the War of 1812 which was already 92 years old when she arrived in San Francisco in 1849.


As the number of ships in this ghost fleet approached a thousand, the city authorities were forced to act. Many were broken up, either for firewood or to provide building materials for the growing town. Two hundred of the more promising ones were repurposed, becoming incorporated into the waterfront. Many were used as warehousing to store coal, flour, water and other goods. Others were converted into boarding houses. One was even converted into a jail and another into a church. The whaling ship Niantic was used as a saloon and hotel before it burned down in a huge fire in 1851.


In the 1850s the San Francisco authorities decided that they needed to move the shoreline out into deeper water, and the decision was made to incorporate much of Yerba Buena Cove with its clutter of decaying ships into the growing city. The area around the ships was landfilled, ready for construction work. Many of the ships were simply stripped of their upperworks, sunk where they were and then buried under dirt and rocks. Others formed the basement to tenements built on their decks. By the early 1870s a seawall enclosed the old cove, leaving a new area that would eventually become San Francisco’s Financial District and the district now known as Embarcadero. Covered over by successive layers of roads and buildings, the ghost fleet vanished from memory as the years passed. But buried ships can last a surprising length of time.


One of the first to be rediscovered was a lighter happened in 1912 during the digging of foundations for a new building at the corner of Folsom and Main streets. As the twentieth century progressed more redevelopment occurred accompanied by deeper excavations, and the hulls of other ships regularly come to light. In the 1990s a ship called the Rome was discovered when the city dug a tunnel to extend a streetcar line south of Market Street. Today the line passes through what was once the forward hull of the ship. Over sixty ships have now been discovered, with more coming to light all the time. Some are commemorated on the surface with plaques or an outline on the street, but most remain unmarked. Those so far discovered almost certainly represent a minority of those down there, and it is anyone’s guess how many remain, waiting to be discovered.

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