The buried ships beneath San Francisco

Dozens of vessels that brought eager gold prospectors to the city in the 19th century still lie buried beneath San Francisco streets.

San Francisco – on top of everything else, is literally a ship burial ground. Thousands of pedestrians walk unawares over dozens of old shipwrecks buried beneath the streets of the city’s Financial District.

Back in the Gold Rush era of the late 1840’s and 1850’s, approximately 60,000 eager prospectors from across the globe arrived in San Francisco. People were so desperate to get to California that all sorts of dubious vessels were pressed into service. Upon arrival, ship captains found no waiting cargo or passengers to justify a return journey. So many crews – eager to try their own luck in the gold fields, just abandoned their ships and left them to rot in the harbor.


Photograph – National Museum of American History.

Because so many people arrived in such a short space of time, San Francisco had to expand quickly, leading to proposals for waterfront extensions that stretched the original shoreline out to what we know as the Embarcadero.

So any ships that languished, sank or didn’t have anywhere to go were scuttled and built on top of as landfill.

Ships were sunk intentionally. Then – as now, real estate was a hot commodity in San Francisco, but the laws at the time had more loopholes. Richard Everett, The San Francisco Maritime Park’s Curator of Exhibits said “You could sink a ship and then claim the land under it.  You could even pay someone to tow your ship into position and sink it for you. Then, as landfill covered the cove, you’d eventually end up with a piece of prime real estate. All this competition for space led to a few skirmishes and gunfights”.

It was a land-grab strategy with lasting ramifications for the construction industry – as evidenced by the ongoing controversy over a sinking, tilting skyscraper recently built on landfill near what was once the southern edge of Yerba Buena Cove. Large parts of the Financial and Marina Districts are built atop landfill that would be victim to the phenomenon known as liquefaction in the event of a large earthquake and greater awareness of this situation renews the call for seismically-safe structures.


Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park has created a new map of these buried ships, adding several recent fascinating discoveries made by archaeologists since the first buried-ships map was issued in 1963.

san francisco ships map

Map courtesy San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

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