Politics & Media
May 19, 2009, 07:26AM

We Built This City...

On sunken ships!

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships.I Left My Ship in San Francisco
In 1847, the small settlement of Yerba Buena, which had just recently been claimed as United States territory, changed its name to San Francisco. At that time, the town consisted of just 79 buildings and a population of less than 800. But the following year, in 1848, gold was discovered nearby, and as the area’s major port, San Francisco rapidly ballooned in size. By the end of 1849, the population had skyrocketed to 100,000, making it the largest city in California. (A few years later, incidentally, the mining town of Bodie—a few hundred miles away in the Sierra Nevada mountains—would become the state’s second-largest city. It’s now the most famous ghost town in the United States.) San Francisco soon averaged 30 new houses built—and two murders committed—each day. And a plot of San Francisco real estate that cost $16 in 1847 sold for $45,000 just 18 months later.Meanwhile, many of the new arrivals in the port of San Francisco headed directly to the hills to search for gold. In fact, more than 200 ships were completely abandoned and left to rot in the Bay as their crews and passengers went off to seek their fortunes. This both caused and solved a problem. The empty ships were clogging up the harbor, while the rapidly growing downtown business area needed room to expand. So the townsfolk took matters into their own hands and decided to put the ships to good use. Some of the ships were salvaged for their wood, which came in handy as the city had to rebuild itself from no fewer than six major fires that nearly wiped it out between 1849 and 1851. Other ships were towed onto the beach and turned into buildings—a hotel, a jail, a store, or a warehouse. But quite a few of them were sunk intentionally in order to fill in the cove. In the late 1860s, what remained of the cove was enclosed by a seawall, running roughly along the path of what is now known as the Embarcadero.


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