Written by Capt. Jeff Werner
January 2018

A favorite destination in San Francisco, for locals and visitors alike, is the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market along the waterfront north of downtown. The fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and fish sourced from around the Bay Area are truly a gourmand’s delight.

The Ferry Building, built in 1898 as a terminal for ferries crossing San Francisco Bay, anchors the thrice-weekly market. is restored Beaux Arts structure with its Grand Nave and marble mosaics is the jewel of The Embarcadero. Stretching three miles, centered on the Ferry Building, The Embarcadero is a manmade seawall with piers extending out into the Bay built on acres and acres of land ll starting in 1878.

Originally this shoreline was dotted with sandy coves and rocky outcrops when the city of San Francisco was just a small trading post built around an anchorage where the Ferry Building now stands. However, events in 1848 quickly altered the future of this sleepy village forever:

March 15: Gold was reportedly discovered at a northern California sawmill along the American River. is news was not widely believed in San Francisco.

May 12: Gold fever was set o in San Francisco when a merchant waved a bottle of gold dust and shouted, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

May 29: The Californian newspaper reported, “ the whole country from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the sea shore to the base of the Sierra Nevadas, resounds with the sordid cry of GOLD, GOLD, GOLD! while the field is left half-planted, the house half-built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.” is newspaper also announced the suspension of publication because the staff was leaving for the gold fields.

November 28: The USS Lexington departed San Francisco with $500,000 in gold destined for the U.S. Mint on the East Coast.

December 5: In a message to Congress, President Polk confirmed the discovery of gold in California. He wrote, “The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief.”

Gold fever struck the nation and the Gold Rush of 1849 soon began. San Francisco was the destination of the “Forty-Niners,” the nickname for the miners headed to California to seek their fortune. Of the thousands of immigrants from Europe and the Americans who flooded west looking for gold, only a small percentage made the journey overland in covered wagons.

The Oregon Trail traversed Native American homelands complete with treacherous mountain passes, and it took as long as six months. Hundreds of travelers died each year as a result of accidents, exposure, starvation or Indian attacks. The alternative route was by sea. Clipper ships sailed down to the East Coast of South America, rounded Cape Horn and then sailed up the Pacific side to California. This sea route was faster and safer than a wagon train. Other shipping companies developed an even quicker transportation route: steamship to the Caribbean side of Panama, then overland across the Isthmus of Panama by horse or mule and finally embarking on another steamer up to San Francisco.

During the year of 1849, the population of San Francisco skyrocketed from less than a thousand to 25,000 people. The anchorage in the bay, which typically had one or two ships arriving each month prior to the Gold Rush, immediately became the port of entry for 700 vessels filled with Forty-Niners. And it soon became clear that all these ships would become a liability.

By June 4, 1849, there were already 200 deserted ships in the harbor. Their crews had abandoned them for the gold fields. Even the Navy’s ship of the line, USS Ohio, had 18 sailors jump ship to search for gold. Two years later, there were 465 ships lying in the port, and most were lacking the able-bodied crew needed to man them. is labor shortage brought the verb “to shanghai” into the American lexicon, as unscrupulous captains paid crimpers a commission called “blood money” to kidnap and render sailors unconscious. The shanghaied sailors would eventually wake up aboard a clipper at sea and find themselves on a two-year voyage to China.

Soon the sheer number of ships, both those actively engaged in trade and those abandoned, were clogging the harbor at anchor. Added to this problem was a critical shortage of wharves to unload shipments. It was time for the newly incorporated City of San Francisco to take action.

“The Harbor Master shall have all the power and authority vested in the corporation of this city, to regulate and control the position of the steamers, sailing vessels, or other craft lying and situated in the harbor. He shall, whenever it is deemed advisable, cause any steamer, sailing vessel, or other craft to change its position . . . It shall be the duty of the Harbor Master to keep an open and free passage to all wharves of the city.”

— John M. Geary, Mayor of San Francisco in 1850

Enterprising developers decided to use landfill to extend the shoreline of San Francisco to accommodate new piers that would jut out farther into San Francisco Bay. Much of this landfill consisted of the rotting carcasses of the abandoned ships at anchor. Other entrepreneurs even converted some of these old ships into saloons, warehouses, lodgings, a jail and even a church. San Francisco’s natural shore line was pushed a full six blocks out into the bay south of Market Street. To the north of Market Street, a similar landfill reached all the way to what today is known as Fisherman’s Wharf.

Excavations in downtown San Francisco for skyscrapers and other development in the late 20th century have uncovered many of the once abandoned vessels. In 1978, during excavation for the Mark Twain Plaza Complex next to the Transamerica Pyramid, the remains of the whaling vessel Niantic were discovered. Deserted by her crew, the Niantic was run aground and converted into a hotel.

By 1855, the California Gold Rush was over. San Francisco, however, continued to thrive as an international port of call. Clipper ships were bringing whale oil from Alaska and coal from England. Steam ships brought silks, tea, rice and opium from Hong Kong. During the last three decades of the 1800s the “grain fleet,” sailing ships built of steel, carried California wheat to Europe. By 1900, the port of San Francisco moved more cargo than all the other West Coast ports combined.

Where to Visit

  • San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (Aquatic Park and Hyde Street Pier, 415-561-7000)
  • Maritime Museum (900 Beach St., 415-561-7100)
  • Ferry Building Marketplace (One Ferry Building, 415-983-8030)
  • Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill Blvd., 415-249-0995)
  • Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture (2 Marina Blvd., 415-345-7500)
  • Barbary Coast Trail Guided Tours (San Francisco Museum & Historical Society, 415-454-2355)
  • Wells Fargo History Museum (420 Montgomery St., 415-396-2619)
  • The Gold Rush Trail An Outdoor Museum of San Francisco’s Heritage (57 Post St., 510-981-0549)

Where to Dock