10 March 2011

Ghost ships under San Francisco

Being around archaeology and archaeologists makes you convinced that every city is numinous with  subterranean mystery. It's given me an almost theological perspective on my everyday environments.
Archaeologists at work in the bowels of the city (SF Gate)
As if to prove my point, construction workers in my hometown, San Francisco, discovered the remains of two 19th century ships, buried under 14 feet (4 meters) of sand. They were building a new sewer line to serve Visitacion Valley when they found the two 45-foot (14-meter) scow schooners. These were flat-bottomed cargo boats with sails used to deliver materials up and down the city in the later 1800s, which became obsolete after the introduction of motor vehicles in the 1900s. The excavation was contracted to Past Forward, an archaeological consulting firm. From the San Francisco Chronicle:
When engineers working near Candlestick Park last March drilled deep into the ground for soil samples, they pulled up chunks of wood and figured it was an old pier.
They had no idea it was a century-old ship, let alone two.
But that became clear this week when the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission uncovered what maritime experts believe are a pair of scow schooners, 90-foot-long workhorse vessels that plied the bay shallows in the late 1800s to deliver hay, salt, bricks, pork, coal, lumber and other cargo. Buried under more than 14 feet of sand and fill dirt, the 45-foot-long hull sections came to light at the mouth of an enormous trench that will house a new overflow sewage pipe for the Visitacion Valley neighborhood.
"These were the flatbed trucks of San Francisco Bay from the late 19th and early 20th century," said Jim Delgado, director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C. "They're largely forgotten now, but these scow schooners moved the goods that built the city and the Bay Area economy."
The Alma: Last surviving scow schooner on the bay (SF Gate
The boats will be recorded but not preserved: waterlogged wood is absurdly expensive to move and curate. It's too bad, since the boats are a last remnant of the weird marginal shoreline communities of southeast San Francisco in the late 1800s:
Before it was piled with fill dirt and paved over for development, the site held a small lagoon and spit that appeared and receded with the bay tides. Archaeologists theorize the bayfront spot became a popular ship graveyard around the turn of the century. Hundreds of vessels were run ashore, stripped of rope, sails and valuable metals, broken apart, burned and left to sink.
I've researched the area before: the shore around Candlestick point was dotted with Chinese shrimp fishing camps, slaughterhouses, shipbreaking yards, and run-down shacks with people doing god-knows-what. It was a kind of stinky-but-romantic isolation from the bustle of the city.  For more, see Pastron and Delgado's article on the shipbreaking yards of Yerba Buena Cove.
And, I couldn't sign off without mentioning San Francisco's long history of underground ship discoveries, dating back to the 1870s. A whole Gold Rush fleet was abandoned on the waterfront, and absorbed into the growing land of the city to form an archipelago of buried ships. At least one of them was turned into a restaurant! They turn up every couple of years, most recently in 2005

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