Christian Gibbons

Gold Rush Shipwrecks in the Golden City

Christian Gibbons

One of the more exciting prospects about moving to Boston was the chance to live in a seaside city. Boston has been a port city since the colonial period, when it was a hub of shipyards and bustling maritime trade. Although Boston has an extensive seaside past, San Francisco has perhaps an even greater presence of marine history. As a matter of fact, San Francisco may be the only place in the states where you’ll actually find said history right underneath your feet.

In 1850, hundreds of different ships from both sides of the world arrived in the harbor of San Francisco, attracted by the glittering promise of the California Gold Rush. These ships were left behind as the thousands of forty-niners who had sailed on them moved further inland. As one might imagine, this took up a lot of space. So those ships that couldn’t be used were either bought and sold for parts or were sunk deliberately, then buried when the area was filled in to make more land. Even more were buried over time as the sediments in the bay steadily built up.

As a consequence of this, the San Francisco area is replete with entombed shipwrecks. In fact, archaeologists think that there may be as many as 35 or 40 ships in the Golden City’s financial district alone!

In 2001, for instance, construction workers unearthing the remains of a downtown building found the remains of something else entirely: the wreck of the General Harrison. During another excavation undergone for the Infinity Towers project in 2005, a whaling ship, the Candace, was also found. In addition to that, archaeologists found the remains of the shipyard the Candace occupied, as well as the house of its owner, a shipwrecking site and a great deal of salvaged parts.

“Ultimately, we were able to put together a very detailed portrait of the shipyard and the Candace, and of maritime activity in San Francisco during the Gold Rush,” stated Dr. James Allan, a leading maritime archaeologist who supervised the survey. Dr. Allan and his team were very pleased with the find and are determined to find more like it.

But perhaps the greatest discovery has been the most recent. In late 2014, the wreck of the City of Rio de Janeiro was discovered only half a mile away from the city. The ship was infamous for being the deadliest shipwreck in the region—an accolade that earned it the nickname “the Bay Area’s Titanic”—and its previously unknown location was one of the city’s greatest mysteries for over a hundred years.

Who knows what might be found next?

Did You Know?

Margaret Brown wasn’t the only “unsinkable” woman on the Titanic. Stewardess and nurse Violet Jessop survived the sinking of both the Titanic and its sister ship the Britannic. Violet also was present on board the first sister of the White Star Line’s trio, the Olympic, when it collided with a British warship in 1911.

Photo Credit: Tony Webster

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