Join 3,516 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


We Built This City on Sunken Ships
May 18, 2009 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Ship to Shore. Much of downtown San Francisco, including everything in this photo, is built on landfill based on sunken ships that were abandoned during the Gold Rush (see the map linked at the bottom of the page).

Notes on ships and wharves. 1852 map of downtown. There are markers along the original shoreline. Flickr pool.

The ships weren't only used as landfill. The hull of the Arkansas was turned into the Old Ship Ale House. The hull of the Niantic was converted into a hotel. When the Niantic was dug up in 1978, excavators found bottles packed in straw that still contained champagne. The sunken ships occasionally turn up during construction projects.

The downtown area is a seismic hazard zone that could liquify during an earthquake. (Much of the Marina is built on landfill based on rubble from the 1906 earthquake.)
posted by kirkaracha (26 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is all quite interesting. And from the "Niantic" link:

The Niantic was 120 feet in length and only a portion of the hull extended into the excavation lot. The remainder of the ship forward to the bow, was and is still entombed under the pocket park situated between the excavation pit and the Transamerica pyramid building. Simply to remove the hull could cause adjacent land--such as the intersection of Sansome and Clay, and the vest pocket park next to the Transamerica building--to collapse.


So he's saying that just removing old bits of wooden ship hull would make the underlying area unstable enough to bring down office towers?
posted by Burhanistan at 10:32 AM on May 18, 2009


They don't build office towers just resting on the ground. You have to drive foundation pillars either down to bedrock or deep enough to generate enough friction to hold the building up. So no, removing a wooden ship isn't going to topple a building. Earthquakes are a problem of course, but then they are a problem even if your land isn't resting on top of a bunch of wooden ships.

Interesting links.
posted by DU at 10:35 AM on May 18, 2009


The Toronto waterfront is the same way.

What's now the harbour 60 steakhouse (map - the actual steakhouse is not at the placemarker but to the left in the center of the map) currently on Lakeshore Dr used to be directly on the water's edge. They used to unload fishing boats directly into the back of the St lawrence Market (map, upper center). It's now about a kilometer from the water's edge.

I believe they found a boat when they excavated for the skydome or some other waterfront construction project. Luckily Toronto isn't likely to get an earthquake anytime soon.
posted by GuyZero at 10:37 AM on May 18, 2009


The Portland, Maine waterfront is that same way as well -- everything below roughly Fore St. is built on fill (most of which came from leveling Munjoy Hill). I'm, in fact, sitting right now in a building that started life as a waterfront warehouse, which unloaded goods by crane from ships tied up to it. There's now a city block and a floating restaurant between me and the bay.
posted by rusty at 10:51 AM on May 18, 2009


The Toronto waterfront is the same way. and The Portland, Maine waterfront is that same way as well

Many harbors have been filled in and built on over the years, but what's special about San Francisco (at least according to the link here) is the high number of ships abandoned and eventually sunk and buried and still down there. The crews sailed them into town loaded with forty-niners, jumped off to get rich in the gold fields with everyone else, and left their ships to rot without crews to sail them away again. It sounds a little too simple, but it also sounds somewhat plausible (why be a common sailor when you can jump ship and get rich?) and makes a good tale.
posted by pracowity at 11:05 AM on May 18, 2009


Interesting post. Thanks.
posted by caddis at 11:08 AM on May 18, 2009


If you go farther east form Portland, you'll find that Rome was built on earlier layers of the city itself.

Of course it took more than a day to complete.

Hey rusty, do you see me waving?
posted by SteveInMaine at 11:12 AM on May 18, 2009


Hi Steve! Hi!

I can see you lookin at me yo I'm right over here.
posted by rusty at 11:48 AM on May 18, 2009


The free SF City Guides used to do a walking tour of the downtown that traced out the locations of the old wharves and waterline.
posted by benzenedream at 12:01 PM on May 18, 2009


I used to work on the 17th floor of this building in downtown SF. In an earthquake the windows are designed to fall off so the building can flex without breaking in half, which would suck pretty hard for the pedestrians down below. As a special bonus, our desks were right up against the windows so we could enjoy the views. I had Wile E. Coyote-style visions of plummeting to earth and trying to use my desk as a parachute.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:02 PM on May 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow. What an amazing post. Thanks!
posted by paperpete at 12:28 PM on May 18, 2009


Now envisions urban fantasy which involves raising the boats to sail spectral 49'ers into the sky....
posted by yeloson at 12:36 PM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, that explains the uncountable hordes of zombie Gold Rush era '49ers and pirates always wandering around downtown.

Suddenly that grizzled urban outdoorsman rambling on and on at no one in particular about his lost ship and pile of gold loot make a hell of a lot more sense.
posted by loquacious at 12:49 PM on May 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


Great post. Thanks.
posted by makabampow at 1:44 PM on May 18, 2009


Neat. Reminds me of the previously-discussed Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay (and a comment there mentions the sunken ships of San Francisco).
posted by exogenous at 2:09 PM on May 18, 2009


Boston's Back Bay neighborhood used to be an actual bay until they filled it all in with wooden pilings and such in the late 1800s. Indeed, quite a bit of Boston was created in this way.
posted by briank at 2:32 PM on May 18, 2009


The crews sailed them into town loaded with forty-niners, jumped off to get rich in the gold fields with everyone else, and left their ships to rot without crews to sail them away again.

You can see an inverse form of this today in Dubai where the airports are filled with parking lot after parking lot of cars abandoned with keys still in them as their owners couldn't afford their leases and fled the country to avoid debtors' jail.

On an unrelated note, I sure like the 1852 map but find it really disorienting with north pointing off to a 4 o'clock angle.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:30 PM on May 18, 2009


Niantic represent. Word.
posted by Kinbote at 4:39 PM on May 18, 2009


Boston's Back Bay neighborhood used to be an actual bay until they filled it all in with wooden pilings and such in the late 1800s.

Boston Proper has more fill than natural land. The South End was filled (in the 1850s) with the top of Beacon Hill, and the entirety of Mount Vernon and Pemberton hills. Back Bay's fill came from Needham, which seems like a decent feat of engineering for the 1890's.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:23 PM on May 18, 2009


As a matter of perspective, the Transamerica Pyramid is where the old shoreline was... everything to the east is landfill.

This leads to interesting excavations. Here are some notes from Jamie Zawinski, the clubowner of the DNA Lounge, about his diggings.
posted by markkraft at 6:30 PM on May 18, 2009


According to that buried-ship map, my desk hovers directly over a ship bigger than our entire office building.
posted by memewit at 7:07 PM on May 18, 2009


Cool post. Most of the East Bay cities, e.g., Berkeley, have marinas built on landfills of municipal trash and construction debris. I heard it was from the earthquakes, but couldn't quickly verify that.
posted by salvia at 9:38 PM on May 18, 2009


Streeterville in Chicago is built on fill. So is Grant Park and a good deal of the city's new shoreline is built out into the lake to some degree or another.

It's still going on -- Battery Park City has shifted the Hudson River's main channel to the west.
posted by dhartung at 9:54 PM on May 18, 2009


Cool post.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:15 AM on May 19, 2009


Hi! I actually worked on the excavation of the General Harrison (#21) in 2001. The location on their map is a little off, the ship is actually located on the south end of that block, closer to Battery. You can see some of the photos from the excavation here.
posted by Hackworth at 11:02 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I should add that I meant the #21 to reference this photo.
posted by Hackworth at 11:16 AM on May 19, 2009


« Older "The BNP represents Britain's workers? They don't ...  |  Rev. George Whitefield, an 18t... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments