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Your Guide to San Francisco's Maritime History

Your Guide to San Francisco's Maritime History

 

Even if you’re a landlubber, one of the best things to do in San Francisco is to explore its seagoing past. From its beginnings in the mid-19th century, the city has been home port (or port of call) for all manner of ships. Today, you can see that history afloat at the Hyde Street Pier, a National Historical Park that berths eight large and more than 100 small ships, from naval combat to fishing boats, and commercial ferries to timber schooners. Highlights include the Balclutha, a square-rigger built in 1886 with a main mast that rises 145 high, the C.A. Thayer, a schooner that carried lumber down the coast from the Pacific Northwest, and the Eureka, a steam ferryboat just a whisker short of 300 feet long. The waterfront area has many other attractions, so you can make your visit a full afternoon.

The Historic Ships at Hyde Street Pier

Hyde Street Pier. Foot of Hyde Street (2905 Hyde). (415) 447-5000. 

 

Balclutha. This ship began its life in 1886 shipping grain from California to Europe and bringing back, among other things, Scotch whisky (fair trade, that). After a brief career in the service of the Kingdom of Hawaii, in 1904 it became part of the Alaska trade, bringing men up to work and returning with canned salmon. In 1933 it became a movie star, appearing in the film The Mutiny on the Bounty, which introduced Errol Flynn (the Robert Downey Jr. of his time). After tiring of the high life, the Balclutha was bought by the Maritime Museum in 1954. The Balclutha is 301 feet long and features three masts and 25 sails.

 

SS Jeremiah O’Brien. Of the 2,710 cargo-carrying Liberty Ships built during World War II, only two remain fully functional. Built in 1943 in Maine, the Jeremiah O’Brien sailed around the world, including 11 trips across the English Channel in support of the D-Day landings. The Liberty Ships were designed to be cheap and quick to build, and they could carry over 10,000 tons. Though many of them now float in the mothball fleet near Benicia, the O’Brien remains in its original working condition.

 

C.A. Thayer. Built from old-growth Douglas fir in 1895 (a time that apparently pre-dated modern environmental regulations), this three-masted schooner carried lumber up and down the West Coast, including stops in Washington, Oregon, California, and Mexico. Its crewmen doubled as longshoremen who would load and unload the lumber. She later went into the commercial fish trade, catching salmon and cod. At its retirement in 1950, the ship was the last commercial sailing vessel on the West Coast.

 

Eureka. This steam-powered ferryboat carried passengers from San Francisco to Tiburon (in Marin County) in the early 20th century, before the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. Its capacity was more than 3,000 people. During the First World War, it was conscripted to carry rail cars and munitions, which caused such strain to its body that the entire ship had to be rebuilt. Don Johnson fans may remember this ship from the television show Nash Bridges, which used the Eureka in filming.

 

Alma. This flat-bottom scow schooner was designed to pilot the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and carried cargo across the Bay Area the way that a delivery truck might do today. Unlike a modern truck, though, the Alma has a 67-foot tall foremast and three sails. Toward the end its sailing days, the Alma exclusively carried oyster shells, which were dredged out of the bay, carried to Petaluma, and ground up into chicken feed.

 

Hercules. A steam-powered tugboat, the Hercules towed sailing ships that were having trouble with the winds or vessels in distress. In 1916, it towed the C.A. Thayer to Port Townsend, Wash. In an oral history, one of its crewmembers, Albert J. Hody, described its “long, lazy days” during which they would catch “beautiful king salmon.” 

 

Eppleton Hall. This paddlewheel tugboat worked in the coal trade in Newcastle, England from 1914 to 1967, towing ocean vessels to and from the docks there. Each paddlewheel can turn independently, making the ship exceptionally maneuverable. After sitting in mud for a time, the ship was refitted to steam through the Panama Canal all the way to San Francisco in 1970, where it was donated to the National Park Service in 1979.

Pier 45

U.S. S. Pampanito. Pier 45. (415) 775-1943.
A Word War II-era submarine, the Pampanito made six patrols of the Pacific, during which it sunk six Japanese ships. It is open to the public seven days a week. During its third trip at sea, the Pampanito was part of a coordinated attack that sunk several Japanese transport ships carrying American Prisoners of War. The submarine crew rescued 73-oil soaked Americans from the water. Today, the Pampanito has been refurbished to be almost exactly as it was in 1945.

Aquatic Park

Maritime Museum. Foot of Polk Street (900 Beach St.). (415) 561-7100.
The Aquatic Park Bathhouse, an Art Deco structure built in 1939 during the New Deal, recently underwent a major refurbishing and contains museum exhibits about San Francisco’s maritime history.

While You’re in the Neighborhood

Crissy Field. 1199 East Beach. (415) 561-4323.
A beautiful stretch of waterfront that once was used as a military airfield, but has now been transformed into a popular spot for hiking, bicycling, picnicking, and braving the wind and the fog. Enjoy the amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, but pack a sweatshirt along with your lunch.

 

Greens Restaurant. Fort Mason, Building A. (415) 771-6222.
One of the first fine-dining vegetarian restaurants in the United States, Greens opened in 1979 under the auspices of the San Francisco Zen Center. The locally sourced menu changes regularly, but the wood-accented dining space, in a former warehouse, always looks out over the bay. If you’ve got kids in tow, do take-out from Greens to Go and have a picnic. Reservations not required.

 

The Long Now Foundation. Fort Mason Center, Building A. (415) 561-6582.
Forget planning for your next summer. How about planning for the year 5000? Founded by Whole Earth Catalog guru Stewart Brand and computer scientist Danny Hills, the foundation hopes to provoke long-term thinking. They are building a monument-sized clock that ticks only once a year and chimes once a century and a library capable of surviving 10,000 years. In the meantime, the foundation hosts seminars, a museum, and various other projects.

 

—By Scott Lucas
Scott Lucas is a writer based in the Bay Area. He covers travel, dining, and politics for a variety of print and online publications.


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