“Be careful. If you lean over any more you’re going to end up down there with them!” I said pointing at the workers in the bottom of the deep hole. They had stopped the machines from excavating the foundation for seventeen new condos on Pacific Avenue and now stood by as an archeologist and historian from the city examined what they had found. “It looks like parts of an old ship.” Bill pointed into the muck at what appeared to be a piece of frame from a hull.
“My money says it’s the Arkansas you’re looking at. This city is built on top of hundreds of old ships. And that….” Said the slightly soiled, bearded gentleman dressed as Emperor Norton in an old uniform coat and tattered black silk top hat, “brings us to where you are standing at this moment. He was peering down into muck too. We were at 298 Pacific Avenue on the corner with Battery in front of a real piece of San Francisco history, The Old Ship Saloon. We looked at each other and thought there’s one clever guy, wondering how he decided to connect himself to this colorful eccentric out of the city’s past. It reminded us of something that seemed lost in the city - that San Francisco isn’t just a place; it’s a state-of-mind. It lives in every inhabitant who embraces it, and clearly this man still got that message. He was no ordinary street person. Yes he was unkempt and probably barely getting by in a city where a one bedroom apartment could cost over $4,000 a month, but he was also a history buff who knew his San Francisco legends. He was the kind of ambassador the city needs more of. “Allow me to introduce myself.” He extended his hand.
“Oh, we know who you are Emperor Norton. We’re even supporters of the movement to get the Bay Bridge renamed after you.” It was fitting that Joshua Norton should be here waiting for us today. We’d been to his grave in Woodlawn Cemetery to pay him homage in the past, and to think he might have been standing on this spot in 1849, on the very day he arrived in San Francisco with forty-thousand dollars in his pockets, a bequest from his father’s estate in England. It would have been before he got involved in several successful San Francisco real estate ventures or lost his fortune when he bought into Peruvian rice at exactly the wrong moment. It was before he disappeared, distraught, and reappeared months later severely mentally unbalanced, anointing himself as the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
If these were really the bones of the Arkansas we were looking at in that hole, might he even had been there to witness the good ship floundering, aground on the rocks on Alcatraz Island on that day in 1864? It was too much of a coincidence.
“What brings you men to the city?” He pulled on his fingerless glove trying to warm his hand in the morning mist.
“We’re on our way over to Jack London Square to a boat show. Thought we’d stop by and have a beer in The Old Ship. We spent five years on a sailboat once, started here in Sausalito and eventually ended up in Florida. I guess once a boater, always a boater, just can’t seem to get the salt out of our blood.”
The machines came to life and we turned our attention to the hole as the archeologist and historian from the city climbed out and gave the foreman the OK to go ahead. They had enough information. Because the pieces were so decomposed, it wasn’t practical to remove them. Instead they decided the likely bones of the barque Arkansas should be covered once again and remain where they lay.
When the San Francisco Municipal Railway dug a tunnel under Justin Herman Plaza on the Embarcadero in the 1990’s, they ran into another old ship, the Rome. So huge was she that engineers decided it wasn’t practical to remove, so they tunneled right through her. Today, riders passing inside the Rome’s abandoned hull become a part of more than four centuries of San Francisco history.
* * *
On a late spring afternoon in 1579 it must have been a fine sight for N. de Morena, to gaze down onto beautiful San Francisco Bay. After all, he was the first European to discover it. Having been left behind at New Albion in what is now known as Drake’s Bay – presently Marin County - by Sir Francis Drake himself, who apparently had better things to do. Morena, history records him as a ship’s pilot, shortly thereafter decided for unrecorded reasons to walk to Mexico.
It’s pretty certain the Ohlone people who had lived in the area from San Francisco Bay to Monterey Bay for, by some accounts, over twenty-thousand years, having crossed over the Bering Strait land bridge from Asia, were also surprised to be notified that they had been discovered. But if they thought they had problems with their hunting and gathering lifestyles before, their pain and suffering was only about to start as word began to spread about their beautiful homeland. By the late 1700’s the Spanish missions had come to California, and with the priests who built them also came disease. The Ohlone population quickly declined. Fast forward a couple more centuries to another late spring afternoon in Santa Cruz as a construction contractor’s D8 Caterpillar bulldozed into a 6,000 year old grave site on Ohlone ancestral land documenting who was really here first.
On August 5th, 1775, Spanish explorer Juan de Ayala ended his journey from San Carlos by sailing his ship through the choppy waters outside the Golden Gate and into San Francisco Bay, giving him rank as the first European to do so. He anchored in a tiny bay in the straits between Angel Island and the Tiburon peninsula in what is now known as Ayala Cove. Today, dozens of rubber mooring buoys are crowded to capacity by plastic sailboats on most weekends at Juan Ayala’s cove. It was here that Juan and his cartographer, Jose de Canizares would explore the area and eventually produce the first map of the San Francisco Bay. Of course, they were doing all of this while Mexico, still struggling and fighting over who was going to own all the land down there, the native Aztecs or the invading Spaniards, still owned California. It wasn’t until the young, greedy United States seized the region by invading Mexico in the Mexican-American War in 1846-1848 (about the time the Gold Rush was happening – but we’ll get back to that in a minute or two).
Arriving on the Caribbean side of Mexico near the port city of Veracruz, the American troops, with the encouragement of their President, James K. Polk, slaughtered Mexicans on their home turf and marched directly into Mexico City, where they routed the Mexican government officials, but not before young, patriotic soldiers wrapped in the Mexican flag threw themselves off the ramparts to die as heroes for their country. The Americans left a check for $500 million on the table for the one-third of Mexico they decided they would like to have before leaving. This included almost all of present day California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. Needless to say, these lands were not for sale and our Mexican neighbors were not pleased with the American President or his so-called “manifest destiny” decision to enlarge his own country at the expense of their lives and lands.
Now that history’s timeline has shown us what has happened and put us about where we need to be, let’s get back to around 1835 when William Heath Davis came to visit and anchored in a small cove known as Yerba Buena after completing a trip around Cape Horn on the trading bark Louisa out of Boston. They joined five or six other vessels traveling the coastal waters trading for otter and beaver pelts. Around that time, the population of what would become San Francisco consisted of about two-thousand Indians who had been taught trades by the good Priests at Mission Dolores which was about a mile from the town. The church at that time also owned tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and horses. Obviously, those priests had done quite an excellent job of learning the hunting and gathering skills of the Ohlone people as they saved their souls and quickly sent them to meet their newly found Maker. That same year, a Captain Richardson was appointed the first harbor master at Yerba Buena and started the building craze with only four redwood posts and an old ship's sail that has since turned into skyscrapers - one of which recently tends toward leaning and sinking in the soft landfill of the old Yerba Buena.
By 1844 Yerba Buena consisted of a few small structures and fifty or so residents. For unknown reasons the town was a popular destination for sailors jumping ship, other undesirables and ne’er-do-wells, and by the end of 1846 there were close to a hundred structures and two hundred inhabitants. It was about this time the name San Francisco was officially adopted for the new city. By 1847 the population had risen to 459, but within a year all of that was about to change drastically.
The first discovery of gold actually happened in 1843 near Mission San Fernando in Southern California but was kept quiet because things were still under Mexican rule. Communications to the outside world were difficult and slow so it was possible to remove more than $100,000 worth of bullion in two years, shipping most of it to be smelted into coins in Philadelphia.
For the San Francisco area, it was James Marshall at the South Fork of the American River who found the ore on January 24, 1848. Marshall, accompanied by Captain John Sutter worked quietly to build their mill and make their fortunes until news reached the city and world-wide pandemonium reigned. Within a seven month period more than four-thousand men were panning along the American River and pulling out more than $50,000 a day in gold.
So crazy was gold fever that on May 29th, a local newspaper, “The Californian” announced it could no longer produce an issue because all of its employees had quit and gone to prospect. By September the price of gold was set at $16 an ounce and had become the currency of choice throughout the region. In the last part of 1849 immigrants were arriving by sea at the rate of one thousand per week. During the year, 40,000 arrived in San Francisco not counting those crews who jumped ship and two thirds of them fled to the fields. By the end of the year the population of California was more than 100,000 (excluding natives), compared to the 1848 figure of less than a thousand and a total of two-billion dollars of precious metals had been taken from the area. (San Francisco News Letter of September 1925).
On December 3rd, in 1849, California requested to join the United States and was accepted as the 31st State of the union on September 9, 1850.
This leads us to the fascinating and funky consequences of San Francisco’s birth into its rich maritime heritage. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the movies. Jeanette MacDonald singing her heart out for Whitey in his Barbary Coast saloon, bawdy drunks and women of IL repute, mansions on Nob Hill, earthquakes and fires and in the closing shots, the skyline of a reborn San Francisco, complete with early skyscrapers.
Today, the land that the city of San Francisco sits on is quite a bit larger than the original town. The embarcadero, Financial and Marina Districts are some of San Francisco’s flattest neighborhoods – reminders that they were once a part of the bay waters. In fact, if you want to find the shoreline of the original city you just need to walk. When you feel yourself going uphill, odds are you are on the old water's edge. The old Barbary Coast and the corner of Pacific Avenue and Battery Streets are a fair distance from today’s waterfront, but once they were the heart of a thriving wharf and one of the most dangerous places in the world. If you were a sailor, you imbibed to excess at your own risk in the saloons here, always cautious of what you were drinking and who was serving it to you or you could wake up clapped in irons and miles at sea, shanghaied and bound for ports in Asia. The closest thing the city has like that today is the Tenderloin, but the odds of getting shanghaied there are low. You might, however, get solicited by a drag queen working the streets for her rent money. Locals who still hang out and drink around the old Barbary Coast believe many ghostly figures still haunt the streets on foggy nights.
During the gold rush, scores of ships raced to San Francisco full of cargo and people who wanted to search for gold. The town was small, and wharf space very limited, so most ships anchored out in the bay in water just deep enough to keep them afloat at low tide, leaving a long slog by foot, sometimes in knee deep smelly tidal mud necessary to reach dry land. Many ship owners on the east coast knowingly sent their oldest, decaying vessels to San Francisco fully aware that their crews and even the officers would jump ship with the passengers to seek their fortunes.
Eventually more than 1,000 abandoned sailing vessels clogged the waterfront. The city started efforts to have the worst removed and taken to “Rotten Row” in what is now the South of Market area. Here, Chinese workers dismantled and salvaged what could be sold for building materials and burned the rest. About 200 ships in better condition ended up being run ashore in the mud flats. Their masts and rigging cut away, they were used as offices, hotels, whorehouses bars and warehouses. The town expanded at such a pace that new streets were raised on top of the mucky tidal lands and the areas between the ships were filled in. Eventually, more substantial buildings were built on top of the old schooners using the old hulls as foundations.
Fire was no stranger to San Francisco, and in May of 1851 a huge blaze incinerated many blocks and more than a thousand structures including the ships, burning most of them to their waterlines. The 1906 earthquake spelled the death knell for the remaining wood structures at the waterfront.
* * *
“I’d be happy and most appreciative to step inside and share a beer with you.” Norton said opening the door of The Old Ship Saloon. For a dull, misty day the bar was anything but dark. Big windows looked out on the Financial District and the top of the Transamerica Pyramid towered over the office buildings. Everywhere you looked, people were eating what looked like gallons of food served in huge white bowls. Bill had put his time on the boards in several San Francisco restaurant kitchens during his career as a chef and was impressed not only by the quantity, but the variety and presentation. These were some of the best dishes he’d seen in a long time.
“Afternoon, Gentlemen. I see you’ve already met Norton.” Bill Duffy poured three draught beers for us.
We’re old friends in fact. We lived here in the city and around the bay area for a long time. We thought we’d come by for a beer before grabbing the ferry for Jack London Square. We’ve been fans of San Francisco nautical history for a long time.”
“Then you know the story of this place?”
“We know a little about the legend. Like everything else in San Francisco, there are different versions. Is there any chance of getting a couple burgers and a bowl of those fries?”
“Coming right up.”
We knew about the listing on:
Ship’s Passengers & Sea Captains
Merchant Ships in Port at San Francisco - 1849
“December 19, 1849
Mining Company barque (noted as “ship” in another source) Arkansas, 627 tons, built 1833, in New York, New York. Sailed from New York June 26, 1849 under command of Captain Shepeard (P.W. Shepheard in other source) with 126 passengers and 19 crew. Sailed via Cape Horn, Rio de Janeiro, and Talcahuano.
More beers showed up with the burgers and fries and were gone in a flash. “How do you guys eat that fast?” Duffy asked.
“It’s something I learned when I cooked for a living. You eat when you can and finish it before it has a chance to get cold.” Bill told him.
Lou was deep in thought. “I’ve been on a hunt for passenger accounts from that trip. So far I’ve found a few and they all more or less agree. We know Arkansas left New York harbor around noon that June and that her passengers included a group from a company of Methodist investors who paid $300 buck a piece to do some trading and mining in California, which I’m sure meant they wanted to run for the gold fields as soon as they could. Some accounts said they were missionaries, but I don’t see that. They were religious all right, but I think their hunger for wealth was heavier than their Bibles. I bet that Captain Shepeard had his hands full trying to keep the other half of his passengers away from the Bible thumpers. There must have been more than a few tense moments during that 6 month trip. According to a couple of the Methodists, they didn’t appreciate being confined on a vessel full of gamblers, con-artists and whoremongers. Reading between the lines, it sounds like some money might have changed hands along the way and the good Christians were on the losing end.”
“How about other parts of the trip, did you find anything about going around the Horn?”
“No, but I’m still searching. I’d love to know how long they waited, how many tries they made, how beat-up they got, but I can’t find anything…yet. There was something about one of the passengers who jumped overboard to take a dip and didn’t come up. Apparently even the Captain was surprised when the other passengers decided to auction off his things the very next day to the highest bidder - and at California prices to boot. You know those Methodists!”
“And about how the trip ended?” Norton asked. “What’s your take once they got to San Francisco?”
“Everything I’ve found so far agrees. It apparently was a dark night filled with strong gales in San Francisco Bay and somehow, either by dragging anchor or by bad navigation, they ended up on the rocks around Alcatraz. The part about being dismasted, or cutting their own rigging off isn’t clear, so I’m not sure if they had masts by morning or not. We do know everyone managed to get off and the cargo was saved. Everything I’ve read says that somehow they got her off the rocks and ran her in near the Pacific Avenue Wharf, grounding her for good. By that time the harbor was full of rotting old ships. Like you guys already know, her masts and rigging disappeared quickly, a hole was cut into her side and a plank shoved through it and she became a bar for the miners. The rest is living history.”
In 1906, the fires in the aftermath of the earthquake burned the Arkansas too. In 1907 the Old Ship Saloon was reborn in this brick building.
We paid our bill and bid Duffy and the Emperor adieu.