Tales of a 50-Plus History-Lovin' Traveler

Shipwrecks Under San Francisco

Shipwrecks Under San Francisco

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Shipwrecks Under San Francisco

Buried Gold Rush Ships that Built the City

Located beneath the streets of San Francisco lies the graveyard for dozens of sailing ships. From present day Pier 23 down to the Oakland Bay Bridge, their buried hulls form the foundation of the buildings above them and the present day coastline. Now the San Francisco National Maritime Museum has created a map of these buried hulls and updated the earlier 1963 map with the latest discoveries.

Ships anchored in Yerba Buena Cove San Francisco in 1849
Ships anchored in Yerba Buena Cove San Francisco as seen from Portsmouth Square in 1849

The Gold Rush Begins

One hundred and seventy years ago, miners discovered gold in the high Sierra mountains of California. Once word spread, it set off the greatest migration of people this hemisphere had ever seen. Thousands of fortune-seekers came from around the world with visions of gold dancing in their heads. In once year, over 62,000 of them came by ship into San Francisco Bay. And the minute those ships  dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay, passengers and crew abandoned those vessels and they would never sail the seven seas again.


Impact on Sleepy San Francisco

By 1850, there were over 500 various versions of every kind of floating vessel imaginable left to rot in the Bay.  These derelict ships became hazards for the new cargo ships coming into port. In the wood-strapped burgeoning city, ship-breaking yards opened up to dismantle and repurpose the abandoned vessels. Some vessels were repurposed to become offshore storage lockers, or brought ashore to become saloons, warehouses, hotels or jails. Other ships were deliberately sunk, as a sunken vessel would secure the water lot title for the ship owner. Once that was complete, all you had to do was cover the ship with landfill and voila, you now owned waterfront property in San Francisco.

Maritime Museum Map of ships buried under San Francisco
Maritime Museum Map of ships buried under San Francisco


One of the additions from the old 1963 map is the inclusion of Charles Hare’s ship-breaking yard at the southern end of the map in Rincon Point. Here, Mr. Hare employed Chinese laborers to tear apart the abandoned ships. Metal parts would be repurposed in buildings and wood would be used to build them. Archeologist found the remains of six ships in the yard and were able to excavate and preserve one of them. The recovered “lighter,” used to ferry passengers from the anchored ship to the shore, is undergoing restoration now.

Charles Hare Ship-Breaking Yard:

The is located at the Hyde Street Pier. They have tours of several sailing vessels, including the Balclutha (aka Sister ship to the Star of India in San Diego)

Admission is nominal and the views are superb. And I dare you to stand aboard her decks and not feel a wee bit like a pirate yourself.

How to Get There:

San Francisco National Maritime Museum and Park

ADDRESS: 2905 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 
PHONE: 415-447-5000
LOCATION: Close to Pier 39 and Fishermans Wharf
TOURS: Entrance Fee to Board the Historic Vessels – $10.00
Per person fee to board the historic ships at Hyde Street Pier. Good for seven days. Children 15 and younger are free.
HOURS: Ticket to board the historic ships is not sold after 4:30pm. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Days.
  • Sunday:  – 
  • Monday:  – 
  • Tuesday:  – 
  • Wednesday:  – 
  • Thursday:  – 
  • Friday:  – 
  • Saturday:  – 

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