Old Shoreline Historical Markers
The Old Shoreline Historical Marker (first marker in a set of two)
The Old Shoreline Historical Marker (second marker in a set of two)
Map of Yerba Buena cove showing the old San Francisco waterfront, which extended as far as Montgomery Street
An illustration circa 1850 showing two of the Gold Rush ships that were hauled ashore and built upon while being converted to new use as public buildings. On the right, the ship Niantic is being converted into a hotel.
Archaeologists excavating the hull of the ship Niantic, which was discovered in 1978 in San Francisco's Financial District when a construction crew was digging a foundation for a new hotel.
Backstory and Context
In the midst of San Francisco's bustling Financial District, a pair of historical markers notes the location of the original waterfront in 1848, the year that gold was discovered in San Francisco. The first historical marker in this pair states that:
"The shoreline of San Francisco Bay reached a point twenty-five feet northeasterly from this spot at the time that gold was discovered by James W. Marshall at Coloma, California, January 24, 1848."
When standing at the site of this marker, you can look northeast on Market Street towards the Ferry Building: this entire area was once underwater as part of Yerba Buena cove. In 1848, the waterfront of the cove extended as far as Montgomery Street, which is just a short distance past this marker, when heading southwest down Market Street.
During that fateful year of 1848, hundreds of ships loaded with passengers arrived in Yerba Buena cove, as the San Francisco Bay waterfront was then known. Amidst the general frenzy of people eager to begin the search for gold, numerous ships were simply left abandoned in the cove. These ships were deserted even by their crews, who preferred to join the miners. As the months went on, many of these ships were repurposed as storehouses, while still sitting in the cove. Some ships were towed ashore and built upon to create new public buildings, including saloons, hotels, and offices.
However, due to a great fire that swept through Yerba Buena cove on May 4, 1851, all of the remaining ships in the cove burned down to the water line, swiftly destroying their chances of ever setting sail again. Only the portion of the ships' hulls that were below the water remained in-tact. Thereafter, the city was quick to sell off "water lots", as people worked to deal with a mess of burned timbers in the cove. Through a new law, the city encouraged purchasers of water lots to erect pilings and fences, and to fill-in the land around abandoned ships, which were scuttled or sunk. Eventually, a good portion of Yerba Buena cove became fully filled-in, paved over, and built upon. Meanwhile, the remains of many Gold Rush-era ships became buried underneath San Francisco's city streets.
It was not until the late twentieth century that these ships were again "discovered" by archaeologists. In recent decades, four such Gold Rush-era ships have been unearthed in the Financial District. These discoveries were made by construction crews digging foundations for new buildings or for underground public transportation systems. After archaeologists were brought in to document, examine, and analyze the evidence, some ships (such as the General Harrison) were once again covered over, where they still remain buried under the street. Given the dense matrix of San Francisco's downtown streets, moving the remnants of a 400-ton ship is not always possible. In other cases, such as the rediscovery of the ship Niantic, remnants of the original hull are currently on display for public viewing at the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
The second historical marker in this pair includes a small map of the old waterline as it previously existed in 1848, before part of Yerba Buena cove was filled in to become what is now the Financial District. The text of this marker reads:
"This tablet marks the shoreline of San Francisco at the time of the discovery of gold in California, January 24, 1848."
Although the gold rush is long over in San Francisco, there is still a rich history buried beneath its city streets. To learn more about the history of the buried ships, you can visit the San Francisco Maritime Museum. This museum is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. It is operated by the National Park Service.
"Buried Ships in San Francisco", NPS. Accessed February 16th 2020. https://www.nps.gov/safr/learn/historyculture/buried-ships-in-san-francisco.htm.
"California Landmark 83", Noe Hill. Accessed February 16th 2020. https://noehill.com/sf/landmarks/cal0083.asp.
Placzek, Jessica. "The Buried Ships of San Francisco", KQED News. November 23rd 2017. Accessed February 16th 2020. https://www.kqed.org/news/11633087/the-buried-ships-of-san-francisco.
Rasilla, Azucena. "What Lies Beneath: The Ships Buried Under San Francisco", The Bold Italic. January 13th 2020. Accessed February 16th 2020. https://thebolditalic.com/what-lies-beneath-the-buried-ships-of-san-francisco-f16b2a045532.
Werner, Mark, and Purser, Margaret, eds. Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens. University of Nebraska Press and the Society for Historical Archaeology.
California Historical Landmarks; NoeHill.com
California Historical Landmarks; NoeHill.com
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, National Park Service
The Library of Congress
National Park Service (NPS)