The city built on shipwrecks and ambition

Maksim Golivkin
May 19 · 3 min read

I love the story that in 1850s gold prospectors abandoned so many ships in the harbor in San Francisco that the city had no better use of ships than to sink them for landfill. The heist for gold was so high that as soon as gold miners arrived at the harbor, they would leave the ships behind and rush inland. It was time for ambition — miners would either get rich or die trying and there was no time to waste. In my mind, the startup scene in San Francisco still breathes the air of Gold Rush.

This is not fiction, San Francisco was indeed built on ships.

The city has started as a tiny village of no more than 1000 people called Yerba Buena, which was built around a cove. The large part of what we currently know as Financially district was a harbor covered with water.

View from Rincon Point. Telegraph Hill is on the left and the Angel Island is on the right. These pictures were made in 1853

During the Gold Rush of 1849, the city population grew from 1000 to 25'000 all fueled by an influx of prospectors and those who came with them. There were indeed ships abandoned by gold miners. In the face of such explosive population growth real estate market quickly heated up — older ships became used to salvage materials for construction of buildings. The land was running short. Some stationed ships started to be used as temporary structures: warehouses, saloons, homes, and there was even a floating prison. The great fire of 1851 burnt homes and ships in the harbor. Some land rights were granted to sunk vessels owners and it created an incentive to sink more ships. Eventually, the Yerba Buena Cove was landfilled and it came to look as we know it today.

Yerba Buena landfill and lot plan. The yellow circle is where Rome was sunk to claim the lot

As a result of normal harbor activities, the fire, and land grabs, there are indeed a number of shipwrecks under the Financial District & SOMA.

Yerba Buena Cove overlaid over the contemporary city map and showing where ships were uncovered.

Some of them were uncovered during construction in recent years. Story of “Niantic”, uncovered during construction in the 1970s (1, 2), and Rome, now a part of the Muni Tunnel, are probably the two most documented.

Rome shipwreck was uncovered during the construction of Muni tunnel
Remains of Candance dug up close to Rincon Point (source)

One could say that today the 3rd Gold Rush wave is riding through the city. Of course, it is the people and other circumstances that create venture opportunities and give meaning to the ambition of modern prospectors. Yet knowing that the very foundation of San Francisco stands on remains of vessels that carried the first prospectors into the Gold Rush just amplifies the sense of adventure in this city.

Maksim Golivkin

Written by

Engineering Manager @ Instacart, ex- Uber, ex- Kiva Systems