From Starboard to Shot Glass

A Secret History of Life along the San Francisco Coastline

By Lauren Aguilar

Before there were Happy Hours and Fernet, tech geeks and Tinder dates, there were shipwrecks and opium dens, miners and cabaret girls. Today’s tech-laden, yuppie-centric never-never land is a far cry from the debauched history of legends; legends that have been paved over, buried deep, and forgotten. Every day thousands stroll through the streets of San Francisco and work in the downtown concrete jungle, business as usual. But beneath the suits and ties, the endless sea of iMacs, and the catered business lunches lies the ruins of the ships that shaped the city.

1846 Bird’s Eye Perspective of the San Francisco Coastline

Prior to 1849, San Francisco, all of California really, was nothing but a brave new world to Americans in the East. One word, “Eureka!” changed it all. Amidst 1850’s tones of manifest destiny and a promise of gold, San Francisco was launched into American notoriety. The town was quickly inundated with young men looking for gold. The coastline filled with hastily built wharves, and served as the main point of entry for the many immigrants. Whereas New Yorkers were greeted by Lady Liberty; San Franciscans were greeted by a landscape of decks and masts. Yet the coast line we inhabit today is a far cry from the jagged, cove lined peninsula of long ago. Instead of hopping from ship deck to ship deck, residents summon an Uber to seamlessly sail through San Francisco’s many hills.

Within a few years the waterfront was full of shipwrecks, ships converted to storefronts and saloons, and served as a bustling place for the transient population. The waterfront had become its own community. Initially, the population consisted of miners and merchants, resulting in an overwhelmingly male population. The coastline quickly filled with seedy hotels, saloons, and opium dens to cater to the miners. The area, known as the Barbary Coast, became a red-light district of sorts. Finally the women came, prostitutes eager to take advantage of a budding business opportunity. Think of 1850’s San Francisco as America’s wildest bachelor party.

1872 Birds Eye Perspective of the San Francisco Coastline

In the late 1850’s in order to increase waterfront real-estate the wharves and shipwrecks were buried under sand, fill dirt, and mining waste. Notably the Yerba Buena Cove, once at the crest of Market Street, was filled completely altering the geographic coastline. The wharves and shipwrecks still exist; however they are covered by layers of dirt and contemporary buildings. These stories and the life of the debauched coastline are not completely lost among our tech-obsessed high-rise filled urban center, they exist in tiny moments if you know where to look.

In December 1849, the Arkansas ship, weighing 627 tons and carrying 89 passengers from New York, wrecked on Alcatraz Island. It was purchased for a small fee and towed to the shore at what is now Battery and Pacific. The owner, an Englishman, cut a hole in the ship’s bow and opened a saloon within the wreck. The Saloon, of ill repute, was the kind of place rumored to have trapdoors in the floors, easy to find a lady of the night, and a good place to buy and sell illegal wares. It wasn't uncommon to be a naïve new arrival looking for a fun night out only to wake up and find that you've been shanghaied, on a random ship to China after being roofied. By 1855, the coast was filled to surround the ship, effectively land-locking the saloon; a hotel was built on top of the saloon. Years later, the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the shipwreck saloon and hotel. The timbers that could be saved were used as elements of the future building, others were discarded or distributed to be used as firewood, and the deepest portion of the ship remnant was buried under the foundation. A new brick building was constructed in its place and houses “The Old Ship Saloon”. It retained the ship décor and has a commemorative plaque to inform visitors of the history beneath their feet.

Today it’s a small building, dwarfed by adjacent glass covered high rises. Its brick facade looks almost out place in the cityscape. Instead of scruffy miners looking for a wild night and worrying about gambling away their fortune, the patrons of the saloon are financial district businessmen and tech workers looking for a fun happy hour and hoping their phone doesn't run out of battery before they find a Tinder match for the night. But today’s Old Ship Saloon isn't so far removed from the past. It still imbibes the densest part of the city, still is just a stroll away from a row of strip clubs and bars; a wink and nod to the Barbary Coast lifestyle. Though the area is now part of the inland downtown financial district, the remnant of the ship and subsequent newer layer preserves the memory of the ship, original saloon, rowdy neighborhood, and previous coastline.

Excavation of the General Harrison in 2001

Several blocks away, in August of 1849, the General Harrison, a cargo ship with a capacity of 409 tons and measuring 126 feet long and 26.7 feet deep, sailed in to San Francisco. Her crew, tempted by the gold rush, promptly abandoned her. In 1850, a mercantile company purchased the ship with the intention of using it as a storehouse for luxury goods and towed it to Battery Street and Clay Street. The following year a fire sunk and burnt the ship down to the waterline along the wharf. In 1855, during bay fill efforts Chinese shipbreakers were hired to destroy the shipwreck, but never finished the job. What was left was filled over, buried, and forgotten about. In 2001, during new construction, the ships remains were discovered, excavated, and then reburied. Once construction resumed, the outline of the ship was marked along the sidewalk, artifacts from the ship are now displayed in the basement of the Elephant and Castle Saloon, and an artistic ornament depicting the hull of the ship was placed on the façade of the building.

Sectional View: The Original Location of the General Harrison in Relation to the Elephant and Castle

The Elephant and Castle Saloon fits much better with today’s cityscape. It’s an 11-story building, above the saloon is a chain brand hotel - not the kind of hotel that would ever be over-run with prostitutes. Directly adjacent to the saloon and still within the ship outline is a Starbucks. It seems almost fitting that an ex-store ship, the pride of a budding corporate merchant, would become a franchise-laden urban center. While the General Harrison isn't fraught with the mischief of the Arkansas, in a lot of ways, the basement of the Elephant and Castle is physically the closest any of us will ever be to 1850's San Francisco; underground drinking in a basement, in the exact location that would have been underwater in the hull of a ship nearly 165 years ago.

Not all ship ruins grow-up to be bars though, ironically, the Apollo and Euphemia lie below the Federal Reserve Bank on Sansome and Battery. The Apollo, a 121 foot long merchant ship, arrived in San Francisco in September of 1849 from New York. Her crew also abandoned her. The owner, unable to recruit a new crew, elected to convert the Apollo to a saloon, coffee shop, and office space. The Apollo was a popular place to go for a drink, or grab coffee and a donut after a night out.

Meanwhile, in October of 1849 the Town Council of San Francisco purchased the 90 feet long Euphemia docked adjacent to the Apollo. They converted the ship to a prison to replace their nearby make-shift log cabin-esque prison. Prisoners of the Euphemia were promptly fit with a ball and chain and ordered to work public construction and maintenance along the water front. At night they returned to the ship.

Artist depiction of Apollo and adjacent Euphemia in use in 1850

The Euphemia was also California’s first insane asylum, holding at least 12 persons deemed insane. However the Euphemia did not last long, living conditions proved to be unbearable and it lacked the space to hold a growing criminal population. A proper brick and mortar prison was finished in 1851 and the Euphemia was abandoned. Later that year, both the Euphemia and the Apollo burnt to the waterline in a fire and were soon buried and forgotten during Bay fill efforts.

Today, the Federal Reserve Bank lies on the bones of the Euphemia and Apollo. Its inhabitants are perceived as a far cry from the criminals, drunks, and insane of San Francisco’s past. The current building has a neoclassical beaux-arts aesthetic that has a sense of permanence and esteem. It’s the kind of aesthetic that turns its nose to the makeshift ship buildings it stands upon. Even so, the Federal Reserve Bank is still surrounded by pubs eager to lure the stuffy office worker out for happy hour specials.

Though the ships were largely buried following the 1906 earthquake, the Barbary Coast culture defined the adjacent neighborhoods. Immediately adjacent to the ship-laden cove and red-light coast culture, the original location of the financial district was removed from the wharves and saloons, but close enough to be convenient to the merchants shipping in and out of the city. The 9-square block location of Chinatown was pushed to the edge of the Barbary Coast and functioned as lawless overflow space housing the darkest opium dens, shadiest saloons, and riskiest gambling halls. It was the only place Chinese immigrants were permitted to exist, and consequently was neglected by law enforcement and lacked social services. The Union Square Shopping District is also steeped in Barbary Coast culture. The prostitutes that served the new arrivals needed a place to stay, a place adjacent to their clients in Chinatown, the wharves, and the central business district. They also needed a place to spend their growing paychecks, a place to shop to their hearts’ content. Hence, Union Square as a shopping center was born.

Today there are at least 40 known ships buried under San Francisco, together they articulate a broader spatial history. Though ships are only one part of the rich and expansive urban fabric, the palimpsest is an unavoidable process that builds and composes cities and urban conditions. Historically, cities preserve the sites they value. These sites serve as a base to generate and drive development.

From a city full of the rowdiest ships, to a tech haven, and everything in between it is clear that much has changed in 165 years. Yet, San Francisco began, and remains, a city for those who aren't afraid to try something different; miners leaving everything behind for the unbuilt West and today’s techies literally writing the code for our digital lives. Despite how new and innovative life in contemporary San Francisco seems, we unavoidably inhabit a built history; a compilation of ruins, remnants, and new spaces. Think of today’s San Francisco as simultaneously a greatest hits album and a new release; a city driving forward, but not without checking the rear view mirror.

It is impossible to predict what lies ahead for San Francisco, but for an iterative city steeped in magic, one can imagine layer after layer of stitched together stories, lives, and collective histories.