San Francisco’s ship cemetery: The Financial District

By David Jacobson, Temblor

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Most people know that San Francisco’s coastline has been altered through the years by periodically filling in various parts of the Bay. However, fewer people know that much of the Financial District is literally built on top of old ships.

The story behind this goes back to 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. In the coming years, people swarmed to San Francisco in search of fortune. In Yerba Buena Cove, which is now the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District, over 500 ships were at the docks. Many of these were left abandoned as people headed inland to get rich.

yerba-buena-cove
Watercolor painting of Yerba Buena Cove shortly after the discovery of gold in 1848. This cove was filled in over time and is now the location of San Francisco’s Financial District. (From: artwanted.com)

 

As a consequence, many ships rotted and sank, while others were converted into warehouses, stores and hotels to accommodate the influx of people. Over time however, the ships collapsed and as the cove was filled in, ships were entombed in mud.

transamerica-tower-san-francisco-niantic
Rather than let ships go to waste, many people started using them as warehouses and hotels to handle the influx of people. For reference, the Niantic Hotel sat right next to where the Transamerica Pyramid now sits. (From: Atlas Obscura)

 

Fast-forward about 160 years, and many of the ship locations are where the high-rise buildings of the Financial District are. So, where exactly are these ships? Fortunately, the exact or approximate locations of up to 60 ships scattered throughout San Francisco has been mapped. Below, you can see a Temblor map with ship locations marked, as well as the ancient shoreline.

San-Francisco-buried-ships
Maps of the locations of buried ships within the Financial District. The red hulls mark the definite or approximate locations of all the ships in and around what used to be Yerba Buena Cove. The blue line marks the old San Francisco shoreline.

 

From the maps above, what immediately becomes startling is how much of San Francisco used to be part of the Bay. This highlights a problem associated with much of San Francisco, liquefaction. It’s important to point out that nearly all areas that used to be part of San Francisco Bay, now have a very high liquefaction susceptibility. This puts the entire area at risk in the event of an earthquake.

Liquefaction has been covered several times on Temblor, most recently when we wrote about the sinking Millennium Tower, also known as the Leaning Tower of San Francisco. To no surprise, the Millennium Tower sits right in the middle of where Yerba Buena Cove used to be. To read more about the science behind liquefaction, CLICK HERE.

While the hazard for much of San Francisco is significant, the point of this blog post is to highlight San Francisco’s history. It’s entirely possible that if you work in the Financial District, there was once an old gold rush ship beneath your building.

Sources:
SFGate
FoundSF
SF Genealogy
Atlas Obscura
artwanted.com

Liquefaction and the leaning tower of San Francisco
San Francisco’s Millennium Tower, an architectural gem, has tilted two inches and sunk over a foot since its construction in 2009.