Deep Below San Francisco Lies A Maze Of Relics – And They’re Exposing The City’s Incredible History

You probably don’t think much about what’s beneath your feet – well, until you step into an open manhole, anyway. That’s no doubt true if you’re visiting San Francisco, where you’re more likely admiring the sights above ground than keeping your eyes fixed on the sidewalk. But below the lofty skyscrapers that line Frisco’s Financial District, some spectacular hidden treasures have emerged. And these remarkable remnants all tell captivating stories of the city’s past.

If you look around San Francisco today, you’d struggle to imagine that it was once anything but developed. After all, it’s a hub of finance and culture that’s known all over the world. But towards the end of the 19th century, the Californian city was a very different place.

This period in California’s history was significant, and it’s undoubtedly left its mark on San Francisco. Since the mid-20th century, in fact, archeologists have been mapping a particular aspect of the city’s history in the hope of learning more about its past. And you would be amazed by some of the spectacular things they have found.

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Some discoveries have shed light on what ordinary life in 19th-century San Francisco would have been like. But other finds have been downright bizarre – linking the American city with totally faraway places. Yes, it turns out that beneath the surface, a whole world of history was just waiting to be explored.

As you might imagine, archeological works are no mean feat. It usually takes a lot of dedication and graft before anything truly significant emerges from such activities. But experienced archeologist James Delgado has been putting in the hours to tell the tale of San Francisco’s intriguing past.

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Delgado’s archeological life really got underway in the late ’70s, when he was employed by the National Park Service. An amazing discovery had been made not far from the famed Transamerica Pyramid building around this time. Yes, the remnants of a ship known as the Niantic were found in 1978.

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And Delgado remembers the discovery of the Niantic with great fondness. He told The Bold Italic in January 2020, “That discovery inspired me as an archeologist [at] an early stage in my career. I decided to focus on the maritime world, because ships and shipwrecks are fascinating.”

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San Francisco is actually the perfect place if you happen to be interested in old shipwrecks. And the city’s boundaries were once very different indeed. Today, the eastern edge of the city boasts some highly developed streets and buildings – like the 850-foot-tall Transamerica Pyramid building. But in the mid-19th century much of this land was underwater as part of the Yerba Buena Cove.

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The Yerba Buena Cove has gone now, but its mark remains on the contemporary city. Evidence of the old coastline can be seen in discoveries like the Niantic – a vessel that ran aground in San Francisco in 1849. Instead of moving the ship at this time, its owners instead converted it into a storage unit and hotel. The Niantic served its purpose for a couple of years, but it then fell victim to a tremendous inferno.

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Yet the Niantic was far from the only loss that resulted from the San Francisco Fire of May 1851. In a matter of mere hours, in fact, the blaze engulfed many of the city’s business quarters. The disaster has been attributed to the work of arsonists, as purposeful fires weren’t exactly uncommon at this time.

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But was anything salvaged from the ill-fated Niantic? Well, a painting dating back to between 1836 and 1839 was recovered, as were smaller artifacts such as a letter holder. The stern of the vessel – which bore evidence of the 1851 inferno – has also been excavated.

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The recovery of the Niantic had a profound impact on Delgado. As he explained to The Bold Italic, “I provide a perspective of the creation of San Francisco and the ongoing success of it as a port city – something that kept it going for well over a century. It’s the basic foundation of the city – economically and culturally. So much of San Francisco is its relationship to the water.”

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The Niantic was indeed a fascinating discovery, but it isn’t exactly unique. Several other wrecked vessels have been found at the heart of contemporary San Francisco, though the Niantic was discovered notably far inland. Yet it wasn’t the first ship to be excavated. That honor goes to the Apollo, which was originally unearthed in the 1920s.

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Many other ships have been found since the Apollo was first brought to light. The General Harrison, for instance, was discovered around the intersection of Clay and Battery streets. Like the Niantic, this vessel had also been lost to the fire of 1851. And it, too, bore the marks of the destruction.

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In the mid-2000s the remnants of another vessel known as the Candace were uncovered. This had been found near the intersection of Folsom and Spear, at a site where ships were once taken apart. This yard had been run by one Charles Hare, who hired workers from China to disassemble these boats.

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The basic idea behind Hare’s business was that the ships in his yard would be stripped of their most valuable parts and subsequently sold. These components might have included valuable things like bronze, copper or even wood. Though Hare’s yard was sadly another victim of the 1851 blaze and his business was ruined.

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When you walk around San Francisco today, it can be difficult to gain a sense of how things used to be here. Yes, it’s easy to forget now that the city is inextricably tied to the sea and the vessels that once crossed it. Yet the signs of this history are there if you look beneath the streets.

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Delgado talked to The Bold Italic about how an awareness of this maritime history has affected him. He said, “As someone who grew up in the Bay Area but hadn’t really paid too much attention, I remember standing there looking at a historical plaque outside the Transamerica Pyramid and trying to imagine that somewhere below me was the beach upon which the tide had once lapped.”

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As some of you may know, shipping was a huge industry for San Francisco during the 19th century. And these activities continued on into the following years. More to the point, incidents at sea continued to occur and hundreds of vessels were lost. One of the most significant events, perhaps, related to the SS City of Rio de Janeiro.

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In February 1901 the SS City of Rio de Janeiro sailed towards San Francisco by way of the Golden Gate strait. It had come all the way from Hong Kong, but now as the vessel neared its destination it ran into trouble. With visibility compromised by fog, it hit the Mile Rock and quickly sank. Sadly, many of the people aboard also went down with the boat.

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Around 130 of the 210 people onboard tragically lost their lives, according to Atlas Obscura. But the survivors managed to hold onto the debris and were eventually saved by a fisherman from Italy. And in recognition of the tragedy, a lighthouse was later constructed in the hope that such an event wouldn’t occur ever again.

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Several hundred vessels apparently lie underwater or beneath the streets of San Francisco, according to Atlas Obscura. A whole history is concealed just out of view of people walking around the streets of the city. And as many locals will tell you, there are some wrecked boats that can actually be seen poking out of the water today. These are the Ohioan, the Frank Buck and the Lyman Stewart.

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The SS Ohioan was originally a cargo vessel, but it was later utilized as a navy craft during World War I. It became grounded at San Francisco in 1936, but it was initially hoped that the boat would become operational again. For a number of days after it became stuck, people watched from the shore hoping that the tide would free the boat. Other actions to salvage the ship were carried out, but none were successful.

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What about the other two ships: the Frank Buck and Lyman Stewart? Well, these two vessels were closely related. They had been constructed at the same site, and both had run aground at a similar position. The Lyman Stewart was the first to go – becoming wrecked in 1922. The Frank Buck then followed 15 years later. In 1938, then, it was decided to break up these ships with explosives. But despite such efforts, their engines can still be seen when the tide is low today.

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The wrecked ships of San Francisco are a fascinating illustration of the city’s past. Yet so many of them remain completely out of sight – and therefore we don’t tend to think of them. Thankfully, though, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park has enlisted the help of archeologists like James Delgado to produce a map of the city that shows where such wrecks are located.

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This map allows people to gain a sense of how many vessels once passed through the waters of San Francisco Bay. But it doesn’t necessarily explain why these boats came to the region in the first place. The map also fails to make clear why the vessels were so readily abandoned.

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So why were so many boats left to their fate in the area? The explanation for this is actually quite simple. It all has to do with what was going on in California in the middle of the 19th century. You see, in 1848 gold was discovered in Sacramento Valley. News of this soon spread – drawing huge numbers of people to the area. And with this, the California Gold Rush had begun.

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Large numbers of ships arrived to California during this period – and sometimes they would simply remain there. At times, you see, sailors couldn’t find a reason to go back to where they’d come from, and some opted to stay in California to search for gold. In any case, numerous vessels built up in San Francisco’s waters.

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Sometimes these vessels would be maintained by a keeper, who was paid for their services. But a lot of the time the boats just stayed afloat – slowly beginning to decay. The Yerba Buena Cove was full of ships, so much so that historians have described the inlet during this time as a “forest of masts.”

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Interestingly, some of the vessels that remained in the waters of San Francisco were eventually put to other uses. The Niantic served as a storage unit, saloon and inn before it was lost to the San Francisco Fire of May 1851. Since that time, a hotel has been built on the site of where the ship once stood.

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Richard Everett is in charge of the exhibitions at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. And given his role, it’s hardly a surprise that he has some insight into why so many ships were wrecked in San Francisco. Speaking to National Geographic, he described a strange technicality that meant it was worthwhile for people to destroy their own ships. He told the publication in 2017, “You could sink a ship and claim the land under it.”

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Apparently, you could even employ someone to send your vessel to the bottom of the seabed. As the Yerba Buena Cove became filled in over time, then, the boat’s owner would legally own the new land where the ship had once been. It was a bizarre state of affairs that could sometimes lead to outright violence over space.

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Yerba Buena Cove eventually became a thing of the past, as people constructed more piers that could lead them to ships floating far from the coast. In addition to actual promenades, though, people also started to dump material like sand into the water. As Everett explained, “By having guys with carts and horses dump sand off your pier, you could create land that you could own.”

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This behavior altered the face of San Francisco, and the effects are still being felt today. In fact, a 58-story skyscraper that’s been built in the former Yerba Buena Cove is now beginning to sink. Constructing atop hastily created land, it seems, could ultimately prove to have truly disastrous consequences.

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Though the development of such massive buildings does allow for some fascinating archeological discoveries to emerge. For example, in 2006 a construction project was underway in the vicinity of Front and Broadway streets. And here, something bizarre was found in the ground. Workers came across the remains of tortoises that seemingly derived from the Galapagos Islands.

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But how on earth did these creatures end up in San Francisco? Well, it seems that sailors coming from Chile’s Cape Horn would stop off at the Galapagos Islands before continuing to California. Here, they’d stock up on tortoises, which they could then eat on their long voyage. When they got to their destination, though, they’d often arrive with leftover turtles.

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As we’ve seen, there are countless fascinating stories lying beneath the surface of San Francisco. And people like Delgado believe that those tales are vitally important for people to hear. After all, they help to explain the core of San Francisco and its character. These are things worthy of remembering and protecting.

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Delgado spoke to The Bold Italic about the importance of discovering the heritage under San Francisco. He explained, “Beneath the streets and sidewalks, there is something more than just a romantic story or the hull of a ship. There is an archeological site that to the rest of the world is a Pompeii – a Gold-Rush Pompeii.”

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San Francisco’s maritime past is a fascinating aspect of its character – even if it’s no longer immediately apparent in the city today. But thanks to the work of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and people like Delgado, this history will be preserved. And this is a worthy pursuit.

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Speaking to The Bold Italic, Delgado concluded, “Ultimately, as an archeologist, I know that old things crumble, old people die, things go away. The city will once again go into a transition, but we know that people will pick up and keep going. While things pass, there will always be a San Francisco.”

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