The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Buried Ships of San Francisco

Every now and again, if you pay attention, you are likely to see a story pop up in a newspaper, on Yahoo news, or hear from a guy in a bar about the ships sitting underneath the city of San Francisco. Mention of the ships usually causes people to do a double-take, and the pointing and laughing that is aimed at the person telling of the ships can be uncomfortable (although watching the person doing the pointing and laughing sneeze the coffee that they had been drinking can be hilarious). Still, as hard as it may be to believe, there are in fact ships buried underneath San Francisco, one was discovered as recently as 2005 and 2006. And I'm not talking small dingies or canoes that could be carried onshore, I'm talking big ships built to carry cargo and crew to California in the days before the railroads.

In order to make sense of the plethora of buried vessels underneath ol 'Frisco, you have to understand the circumstances under which they got there. San Francisco was nothing but a small frontier town, a village really, in 1849. When word of Sutter's gold discovery reached the rest of the world, it acted as a magnet, pulling miners and the people who wished to sell goods and services to the miners into California. San Francisco's population boomed, and there was little in the way of buildings, and so the ships that were moored in the harbor (their crews often having jumped ship to head to the gold fields on the other side of the state) were used as warehouses, hotels, jails, homes, brothels, and pretty much anything else. The sudden filling of the bay with ships and their subsequent use as buildings is one factor that led to San Francisco being dubbed "The Instant City."

A healthy chunk of San Francisco's waterfront and much of its financial district is not natural land, but rather fill* (this is also true of many other water-front cities). Land in San Francisco is a rare commodity, due to the proximity of the hills and mountains to the shoreline - the property crunch is nothing new. Ships were often sunk as a way of putting a claim on land that would be created, other ships had fill built up around them as they were moored in the docks, as shown in a famous illustration by Prentice Mulford.

So, yeah, San Francisco's always been the place where you could see what you never thought you'd see.

As time wore on, the bay filled in further, and the ships that were above ground were destroyed and replaced with buildings. In addition, parts of many other ships were used in the debris and sand fill that now accounts for a portion of San Francisco's land. The remains of many of these ships are still present below ground, and every now and again they are discovered during construction processes - and you have no idea how much I want to be on one of the contract archaeology crews called in to excavate one of these babies.

One of the cool things about these ships, from an archaeological perspective, is that they can provide some really amazing information about life in the mid-19th century that the history books tend to gloss over. Do you want to know about drinking, drugs, and gambling? That information is buried under the streets. Perhaps you are politically minded and want to know about labor relations and the bad living conditions of sailors and early Californian laborers - again, locked up in the fill.

And, hey, how many people can say that they excavated a sunken ship while on dry land?

One problem, though, is that the collecting and sale of antique bottles from these ships can be big business. Luckily, security is now better than it once was. However, you don't have to look for very long on the internet before you come across the web page of a looter bragging about his thieving exploits...bastards.

Regardless, these ships are one of the coolest aspects of Californian historical archaeology. I am often surprised at just how few people know about these amazing things.

If you'd like to read more, read here, here, and here. For pictures, go here.

*Incidentally, this is a large part of the reason why San Francisco is so easily damaged by Earthquakes. The fill is not stable, and has characteristics that are similar to a fluid whenever the ground starts shaking. So, yeah, some of the most expensive land in the world is both fake and dangerous.

1 comment:

Evan Davis said...

Holy liquefaction and mud volcanoes, Batman!

I wonder how many great finds were dug up and removed without anyone noticing.