[Image: San Francisco, photographed in profile from Sausalito].
In preparation for an overnight business trip to San Francisco this weekend, I was flipping through the Lonely Planet Guide to San Francisco – when I read something that is surely old news for anyone living in that city, but that nonetheless completely blew me away.
It turns out that part of San Francisco is actually built on the wrecked and scuttled remains of old ships.
[Image: A shipwreck that has absolutely no connection to San Francisco].
The Lonely Planet guide writes that “most of this walk [through the streets near the Embarcadero] is over reclaimed land, some of it layered over the scores of sailing ships scuttled in the bay to provide landfill.”
Stunned – and absolutely fascinated by this sort of thing – I determined to learn more.
And it’s true: a good part of coastal San Francisco is not built on solid ground, but on the forgotten residue of buried ships.
In an image that makes me want to cry it’s so cool, the basements of some 19th-century San Francisco homes weren’t basements at all… they were the hulls of lost ships.
“As late as Jan 1857,” we read, “old hulks still obstructed the harbor while others had been overtaken by the bayward march of the city front and formed basements or cellars to tenements built on their decks. Even now  remains of the vessels are found under the filled foundations of houses.”
In other words, when you walked downstairs to grab a jar of preserved fruit – you stepped into the remains of an old ship.
It’s almost literally unbelievable.
[Image: Another shipwreck – unrelated, as far as I’m aware, to San Francisco].
Best of all, those ships are still down there – and they’re still being discovered.
In the late 1960s, as San Francisco was building its BART subway system, discoveries of ships and ship fragments occurred regularly. Over the following decades, ships and pieces of ships appeared during several major construction projects along the shore. As recently as 1994, construction workers digging a tunnel found a 200-foot-long (61-meter) ship 35 feet (11 meters) underground. Rather than attempt to remove the ship – which would have been both costly and dangerous – they simply tunneled right through it. When buried ships are found, they’re sometimes looted for bottles, coins, and other valuable antiques frequently found inside. Among the prizes found in the ships have been intact, sealed bottles of champagne and whiskey, nautical equipment, and a variety of personal effects from the passengers and crews.
I’m just waiting for some rare and world-destroying virus to be found, festering away in the subterranean hold of an abandoned schooner, forgotten by city historians…
Some random cable guy discovers it, digging down into someone’s backyard to fix a transmission problem. His shovel cracks through the outer wooden shell of a 19th-century frigate, releasing a cloud of invisible bacteria… he inhales it… his brain begins to bleed… Eli Roth directs the film version.
But this also reminds me of the now classic film Quatermass and the Pit – a movie which genuinely needs to be remade, and I would gladly serve as a screenplay consultant – in which London Tube excavations uncover a buried spaceship… out of which emerge weird aliens intent on vanquishing the Queen’s English. Or something like that.
But the question remains: do you really know what’s beneath your house or apartment…?
An entire armada of lost fishing ships, now rotting in the mud, nameless and undiscovered, shivering with every earthquake.
20 thoughts on “Ground Conditions”
If I lived anywhere near san francisco I would be loading my car with shovels and waking up my friends pretty much immediately. That is so unreasonably cool. It isn’t even close to fair.
They found another as recently as 2005.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool to walk around and know that it’s down there.
Sounds a lot like Chicago. Large sections of the lakefront (specifically Grant Park) were built on top the destroyed buildings from the Chicago Fire. They just moved it all to the lake and then put fill on top of it.
Why did they build like this? Just to save time? It seems like at that time it would be pretty easy to grab a nice piece of land.
gives Miéville’s The Scar a run for its money…
It’s one of the many reasons you don’t want to be east of Montgomery Street during an earthquake….
i believe this happened in new york as well, but the ships there were put there on purpose for reclamation rather than filled over as they lay.
I lived in the SF Bay Area for 18 years, but this is anything but “old news”. In fact it’s both new and fascinating news.
The same story is true for Boston.
It happened because of the gold rush. There were plenty of people arriving by boat, but no one leaving. What to do with the boats?
Many were used as shelter.
Actually, one just popped up last month, essentially rose up from the waves, as detailed here.
This begs to form the bassis for a kids book with cutaway illustrations.
Not all of the wrecked ships ended up below ground… at least one of them was turned into a .
Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood started the same way, but with a bit more colorful history.
Thanks for posting the reference to Quartermass and the Pit. I saw that when I was a kid on TV (scared the heck out of me), but never knew the title.
San Francisco, I can’t remember the name of the park and surrounding community but it was built upon the rubble of the 1906 earthquake. Simply amazing.
BTW, constructive criticism: I discovered your blog and I am very impressed but sometimes it’s hard to sort out the hyperbole from the satire, or your endorsement from the “art talk”
i.e. “Arguably, this would all begin a series of questions that could lead back to Heidegger; for instance: is architecture an appropriate response for those who dwell in a state of homelessness – Heidegger’s state of “harassed unrest”? Is dwelling always an architectural activity? What of “those buildings that are not dwelling places” – or those dwelling places that are not buildings?”
Then there was the classic: “Then we will invade Hawaii”
Yeah, it’s amazing what they’ll build cities on top of. Anything named Tel in the Mideast has probably got a mound of cities underneath it. A big thing in the western US is cities that raised their ground level, so you have everyone’s old ground floor becoming the basement, as in “Underground Seattle” and even in my own town of Port Angeles. I know they raised Chicago a good 70′ (20m) after the big fire in the 1870s. There are probably some pretty neat basements.
The plot of Quartermass and the Pit sounded familiar. That was 5,000,000 Years to Earth here in the US, and wow, it was spooky. It was one of those grade B movies that was much better than it seemed.
Or maybe instead of a killer bacteria, a singing frog?
Two singing frogs. Performing Rigoletto.
Are any of the ships Chinese. You know that the Chinese discovered America, right