Beneath the bustling streets of San Francisco, is a hidden fleet of 19th-century ships lies entombed, remnants of the bygone California Gold Rush era.

Daily, as thousands of commuters ride the city’s subterranean streetcars or tread the pavements above, few are aware they are crossing over the skeletal remains of vessels that once sailed with dreams of fortune.

In recent times, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park has crafted a new cartographic depiction of these entombed vessels, enhancing the original 1963 map with intriguing finds unearthed by modern archaeology.

Today’s busy intersection at Market Street’s end, on the eastern side of the city, gives little indication of its past as the Yerba Buena Cove, a point Richard Everett, the park’s curator of exhibits, highlights.

This area, now overlooked by the striking Transamerica Pyramid, was once a mere extension of the bay’s waters.


San Francisco Gold Fever

Back in 1848, the fervor of the Gold Rush propelled a flotilla of less-than-seaworthy ships towards California, as recounted by Everett.

Abandoned ships in San Francisco Bay, 1850

Upon reaching their destination, many ship captains were confronted with the reality of no return cargo or passengers to ferry back home.

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Compelled by the lure of gold and driven by the same fever that gripped their passengers, many captains and their crews joined the ranks of prospectors, leaving their ships to the fate of abandonment, ultimately to be buried beneath the expanding urban landscape.

San Francisco “Forest of Masts”

The vessels docked at Yerba Buena Cove weren’t simply left to fate; they often had caretakers appointed to watch over them, though neglect led to their gradual decay.

The 1852 daguerreotype panorama featured above captures what has been historically termed a “forest of masts,” a testament to the crowded state of the cove.

”Forest of Masts”

These ships occasionally found second lives in varied roles. The most notable instance is the Niantic, a former whaler, which in 1849 was deliberately beached to serve sequentially as storage, a tavern, and lodging until a devastating 1851 fire swept through, engulfing it along with other ships.

On the Niantic’s remains, a hotel was eventually erected at the intersection of Clay and Sansome streets, a location now several blocks inland from the water’s edge.

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There were cases where ships were intentionally sunk. At that time, San Francisco’s real estate was as coveted as it is today, and the existing laws had their share of loopholes.

One could deliberately scuttle a ship to claim the land beneath it, or even commission someone to strategically sink a ship for them.

The Buried Ships of Yerba Buena Cove by Michael Warner et al., 2017 (San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, National Park Service)

As the cove was filled in, those underwater claims could transform into highly valuable land plots. This rush for land ownership sometimes resulted in conflicts and even armed confrontations.

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Among the ships deliberately sent to the seafloor was the Rome, which would resurface in historical consciousness during the 1990s when the city excavated a tunnel to lengthen a streetcar route (the N-Judah) beyond Market Street.

Now, the streetcar lines—N, T, and K—traverse through what was once the forward section of the Rome’s hull.

San Francisco Filling in the Cove

The transformation of Yerba Buena Cove into solid ground was a gradual process. Initial steps involved extending piers outward to reach vessels anchored in the deeper sections of the water, according to Everett.

A view of San Francisco prior to the California Gold Rush

He describes how the wharves kept extending, much like fingers stretching from the mainland. Subsequently, people started to fill the cove, which was naturally shallow, by dumping in debris and sand.

“By simply having workmen unload sand from your wharf,” he notes, “you could fabricate new land which then became your property.”

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This practice of land reclamation has left a legacy that is still debated today, especially in the context of a modern skyscraper that is experiencing issues due to its foundation on landfill, located near the former southern boundary of Yerba Buena Cove.

Numerous Shipwrecks Under the City: It is estimated that the remains of over 200 ships from the Gold Rush era lie underneath the streets of modern-day San Francisco, particularly in the Financial District. Image Credit: Phliar

New discoveries by these experts and their peers have enriched the updated map with details that were not included in the original version drafted by the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park back in 1963. On this newer map, red circles pinpoint locations that archaeologists have thoroughly investigated.

Hundred Chinese Workers

A notable feature on the updated map is the site of a ship dismantling yard at Rincon Point, situated at the southern extremity of Yerba Buena Cove, not far from where the Bay Bridge now touches down.

This site was where Charles Hare spearheaded a profitable salvage enterprise, employing over a hundred Chinese workers to deconstruct aged vessels.

Beneath contemporary streets of San Francisco lie the remains of many sailing ships that brought people to San Francisco during the gold rush that began in 1849

Hare’s business thrived on repurposing brass and bronze parts for reuse in other ships and building structures. In that era, even scrap wood was a sought-after material, as described by Everett.

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The great fire of 1851 marked the cessation of Hare’s operations. Archaeological digs at this location have uncovered the remains of six vessels, which are believed to have been undergoing deconstruction when the fire struck.

Portsmouth Square near harbor in 1851 — San Francisco during the Gold Rush.

Among them was the Candace, a former whaling ship that had been repurposed to transport those enthralled by the promise of gold to San Francisco. In addition, the site has yielded evidence of a lighter—a small, flat-bottomed boat typically used to ferry goods from anchored ships to the shore.

During an excavation for a development project on the corner of Broadway and Front streets in 2006, bones were unearthed that are thought to be from Galapagos tortoises, a detail marked with an asterisk on the map above.

Construction workers at a downtown site ran into this ship from Gold Rush times. Historians estimate the ship was built around 1820. Image Credit: Phliar

Many vessels, after rounding Cape Horn, would stop at the Galapagos Islands to pick up tortoises, which provided a reliable food source for the remaining journey to California.

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Upon arrival in San Francisco, it seems there was an excess of tortoise meat, prompting its common appearance in the form of turtle soup on the menus of local restaurants and lodging establishments around the cove.

Writer Ron S. Filion has written the book “Buried Ships of San Francisco,” which chronicles the locations of more than 70 ships entombed under the city’s thoroughfares.

This chart details the shifting shoreline of San Francisco from 1849 to 1857 and pinpoints the confirmed and potential sites of these sunken vessels.