What Lies Beneath: The Ships Buried Under San Francisco

Every day in San Francisco, people walk the city’s streets unaware of the history that our concrete jungle holds in its depths.

Little do most people know that roughly 40 ships are buried underneath the Embarcadero and the Financial District, which used to be the city’s original shoreline.

Most vessels are remnants of the Gold Rush, left behind by men who arrived in the San Francisco Bay from near and far in search of fortune. Today, the abandoned ships are all around us—a hidden reminder of the city’s history.

 So much of San Francisco is its relationship to the water.

“Other cities have their claims to fame,” said archaeologist James Delgado, who has been studying SF’s ships for decades. “But beneath our streets and sidewalks lie the bones of the Gold Rush city and the decks of ships once trucked by forty-niners.”

Delgado received his first big assignment in 1978 while working for the National Park Service: excavating and studying the remains of the Niantic, one of the first whaling vessels that brought gold-seekers to the area. It had been discovered near the Transamerica Pyramid at the corner of Clay and Sansome streets. After being left behind during the Gold Rush, the ship had been repurposed to serve as a storeship, saloon, and hotel until its demise in an 1851 fire.

“That discovery inspired me as an archaeologist and an early stage in my career,” Delgado said. “I decided to focus on the maritime world because ships and shipwrecks are fascinating.”

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Today, you can see some of the artifacts: An oil painting circa 1836–1839, an elaborate letter holder shaped like the head of a duck, and a percussion pistol fragment, among others, are on display at the Maritime Museum and Visitors Center. One of the most prominent discoveries is the copper-clad ship’s stern, which still contains charred pieces from the 1851 fire.

For Delgado, the unearthed remains to serve as an important reminder of a San Francisco of the past.

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“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,” he said. “It’s the basic foundation of the city, economically and culturally. So much of San Francisco is its relationship to the water.”

The Maritime National Historical Park, the National Park Service, and its staff have worked tirelessly alongside archaeologists like Delgado on research that largely started back in the 1960s with the development of the first map depicting the possible locations of where these Gold Rush ships were buried. Over the years, that map has evolved. With the extensive archeologists’ research, the locations of the handful of vessels that have been unearthed, as well as the potential sites of the remains of others, are clearly depicted in the newest map.

While walking around San Francisco often feels rushed, it is worth it to stop by, take a second to breathe, look around, and appreciate the San Francisco that came before us.

The first one to be discovered was the Apollo, a ship discovered in downtown SF in the 1920s — along with coins and a gold nugget. The Apollo’s stem timber is now on display at the Maritime Visitors Center. Other discoveries have come since, like the General Harrison at the corner of Battery and Clay streets under Yank Sing restaurant. Among what was found: ash and melted glass from when the ship was destroyed in the 1851 fire, like the Niantic.

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“The mud exposed by the excavation is the original bay floor, sloping as it heads offshore,” Delgado said. “The water is seawater, as the tide still rises and falls in the landfill beneath the Financial District.”

While some ships, like the Niantic and the General Harrison, were repurposed for use after being left behind by forty-niners, other ships were purposely sunk. Back then, San Francisco had a law that allowed land rights over where a ship had sunk. So, folks wanting to take residence in the city took advantage of this—those ships that were sunk suddenly had an owner claiming over the land. Such is the case with the Rome, discovered in 1994 (far too large to fully excavate) located under the bocce ball courts in front of the Ferry Building. If you’re a Muni rider — especially one who rides the N Judah, K Ingleside, and T Third lines, the tunnel that the train passes through is comprised of the forward hull.

In 2005, the bones of another ship, the Candace, were found at the corner of Spear and Folsom streets. This location is known to be a former ship-breaking yard, where a man named Charles Hare would employ Chinese workers for cheap labor to dismantle ships left behind in this area. The valuable items — brass, bronze, copper fixtures, and wood — would be taken by smaller ships to sell elsewhere until the 1851 fire, which put Hare out of business.

Many people, even those with deep generational ties to the city, are unaware of these buried ships and their history. Yet they influenced and shaped the history of this city and this country. While walking around San Francisco often feels rushed, it is worth it to stop by, take a second to breathe, look around, and appreciate the San Francisco that came before us.

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“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,” Delgado said.

He wants to ensure that people understand not just the historical aspects of how San Francisco came to be but also how essential it is for future generations to value that these archaeological areas are worth preserving.

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“Beneath the streets and sidewalks, there is something more than just a romantic story or the hull of a ship,” he said. “There is an archaeological site that to the rest of the world is a Pompeii, a Gold-Rush Pompeii.”

As the city evolves into the future, people will always continue discovering remnants of San Francisco that once was.

“Ultimately, as an archaeologist, I know that old things crumble, old people die, and things go away,” he said. “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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