Map Reveals Location of San Francisco’s Buried Ships

New map showing the locations of buried ships beneath the streets of San Francisco, California (Image: San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. New buried ships map)

We’ve covered our fair share of shipwrecks on Urban Ghosts, but the opening paragraph of Greg Miller’s June 2nd article for National Geographic takes abandoned vessels to a whole new level. In his feature, titled New Map Reveals Ships Buried Below San Francisco, the Portland-based science and technology journalist reports:

“Every day thousands of passengers on underground streetcars in San Francisco pass through the hull of a 19th-century ship without knowing it. Likewise, thousands of pedestrians walk unawares over dozens of old ships buried beneath the streets of the city’s financial district. The vessels brought eager prospectors to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, only to be mostly abandoned and later covered up by landfill as the city grew like crazy in the late 1800s.”

Miller explains that the city’s eastern edge, at the foot of Market Street, was once an area of water called Yerba Buena Cove, where numerous vessels were moored for often-dubious purposes during the California Gold Rush. The shoreline then extended to the site of the landmark Transamerica Pyramid, and the 19th century scenes have been described by historians as a “forest of masts”. Over time, some of these ships were abandoned and buried in Yerba Buena Cove.

The original 1963 map showing San Francisco's buried ships, these ones beneath the streets of Sydney Town (Image: San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. 1963 map of buried ships in Sydney Town)

It’s now documented that the spectral remains of various abandoned vessels are still present beneath the city streets, but the circumstances of how they came to be there may come as an additional surprise. The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park has now created a map of their location (top), based on additional discoveries made by archaeologists since the buried ships were first charted more than half a century ago (see above).

Richard Everett, the park’s curator of exhibits, told Greg Miller that during the Gold Rush, prospectors were so eager to reach California that all manner of vessels were employed to take them there. Having reached San Francisco, and with no cargo awaiting collection in port, crews would often leave their ships where they were moored as they, too, set out in search of gold.

Ships in Ships in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Cove around 1852 (Image: Nat’l Museum of American History via Nat Geo. Ships in Yerba Buena Cove c. 1852)

While some ships in Yerba Buena Cove were abandoned, others were repurposed, including the whaling ship Niantic, which was converted into a warehouse, saloon and hotel before burning to the ground in 1851. Its ravaged hulk, which now lies beneath the corner of Clay and Sansome streets, later became the foundation of another hotel.

Meanwhile, other now buried ships were deliberately scuttled in a bid to exploit a loophole in 19th century property law. Miller writes that ships could be sunk in order to lay claim to the land beneath them. “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.” Needless to say, shootouts weren’t uncommon as property was cemented and scores were settled.

Perhaps the strangest of all San Francisco’s buried ships is the Rome, “which was rediscovered in the 1990s when the city dug a tunnel to extend a streetcar line (the N-Judah) south of Market Street,” Miller writes. “Today the line (along with two others, the T and the K) passes through the forward hull of the ship.”

Click here to read Greg Miller’s fascinating article on Nat Geo in full

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