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A Photo Salute to the Ghosts of San Francisco's Industrial Past

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In honor of Labor Day, we're taking a look back at the Bay Area's bustling industries of yore, from ship building and iron smelting to the brewing of beer and the whaling of whales. Though some trades and a few longstanding businesses continue to operate in town, many have fizzled out over the years as changing times and the rapid pace of innovation made them obsolete. Today's roundup is just the tip of the smokestack, as it were, and it's by no means comprehensive (we don't even touch on railroads or labor strikes, which are quite worthy of their own posts). Did we skip something you'd like to read about? Leave a note in the comments or write to the Curbed tipline.

1. The Port

San Francisco has been a port city since its earliest days. During the gold rush, 62,000 people arrived by ship in one year. And things only got crazier from there.

Maritime trade with the eastern United States and Europe has been under way since California first became a state. Ships would bring goodies from around the world and in turn ship out California products. In the early part of the 20th century, at least 100,000 people were working in the maritime trade in San Francisco. Later, the Maritime Strike of 1934 led to the rise of industrial unionism in the 1930s.

Commercial whaling was banned in the US in 1986, excepting indigenous Alaskan communities. But back in the day San Francisco was the chief West Coast whaling center, with the advent of steamboats enabling trips up the Alaskan coast. The Arctic Oil Works opened at Illinois and 16th in 1884. The company established a system for moving whale oil products from ship to storage tank to train in one seamless operation. When whale blubber was no longer used for lamp oil and machine lubricant, the industry began to decline.

During World War II San Francisco became ground zero for the war effort in the Pacific. Millions of soldiers and (literally!) boatloads of cargo came through the ports, with most soldiers starting their overseas deployment from the military posts around the bay.


2. Ship Building

There was no bigger industrial employer than the Union Iron Works/Bethlehem Steel Yard at Pier 70. In 1849 Irish immigrant Peter Donahue and his brothers established the Union Iron Works, producing architectural ironwork used in many local buildings and in mining machinery. By 1883, the plant moved to the shoreline of San Francisco around Potrero Point to aid shipbuilding. It was sold to Bethlehem Steel in 1906 and was put to work during World War I for destroyer construction. The yard remained in continuous operation throughout the interwar years and was the only major shipbuilder on the West Coast before World War II. Bethlehem Steel sold the yard to the city in 1982 for a dollar. Today Pier 70 is the oldest working civilian shipyard in the United States.


3. Ironworks

Union/Bethlehem may have been the biggest iron player in town, but they weren't the only ones. Pacific Iron Foundry and Vulcan Foundry down near Yerba Buena were some of the first.

The Pacific Rolling Mill Company was the first iron-producing plant in the West, constructed in 1868 in Potrero Hill (later to become the site of the Bethlehem Steel Company). Early on the mill produced iron bars used in mines, then iron rails for railroads and the cable cars. Later it manufactured structural steel for the landmarks of today, including the approaches to the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as the Asian Art Museum, the Ferry Building, and Grace Cathedral. Eventually the mill merged with Judson Manufacturing to become Judson-Pacific Company.


4. Produce Market

Before many of the Financial District's high-rises were even figments of developers' imaginations, much of the downtown section of Washington Street was known as Commission Market. This was the city's largest wholesale produce market until the 1960s, when the site was redeveloped as the mixed-use Golden Gateway. Since railroad tracks were several blocks away and the market didn't have truck-loading platforms, the produce was carried in by hand trucks and stacked on the street.


5. Fisherman's Wharf

Now a soul-sucking tourist trap, Fisherman's Wharf in the late 1800s sold more fish than all the other West Coast ports combined. The fishing industry was spearheaded (get it?) by Italian immigrants who sold wholesale to the public. Third- and fourth-generation fishermen do still operate out of the area, but overfishing and pollution decreased productivity, and the wharf embraced tourism. But in between sweatshirt shops and Applebee's, some of the market stalls still bear their original family names and stall numbers.


6. Sugar Refinery

The San Francisco Sugar Refinery at Harrison and Eighth streets opened in 1856 as the first sugar refinery in California, kickstarting an industry that ultimately would emerge as one of the most economically important in the city.

The massive California Sugar Refinery, built by Claus Spreckels on the water near Potrero Hill, was the tallest building in San Francisco in the late 1890s. Ships filled with sugarcane from Hawaii would pull right up to the company dock.

The company was bought out and renamed the Western Sugar Refinery, employing 1,000 men in the Dogpatch. California & Hawaiian Sugar Refining bought the refinery in 1949, but demolished it two years later because it was deemed too old to work with modern equipment.


7. Breweries

Many of the city's industries got their start thanks to demand from the Gold Rush, and—no surprise—beer was one of the first things to get produced. No, really: The first brewery was established in 1850 (that honor goes to Adam Schuppert Brewery at Stockton and Jackson streets) as soon as everyone realized the beer shipped from the East Coast spoiled in transit. By 1881 San Francisco had 38 breweries, so they didn't waste any time.


8. Butchertown

Eighty-one acres in southeastern San Francisco became the "butchers' reservation," or Butchertown, in 1868, when butchers were forced by ordinance out of the city center. Within 10 years all of the city's slaughterhouses had been relocated to the Bayview along the tidelands of Islais Creek (today Third and Evans). Butchertown grew to include all the other associated industries, like tanneries, wool pulleries, and fertilizer plants. The fringes of the neighborhood to the south and east had hills for cattle and horses to graze. Much of the area was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, though some slaughterhouses remained, until 1971, when the last one closed.

· Art and Industry of Potrero Hill [Potrero Archives]
· Port of Embarkation in WWII [NPS]
· History of Potrero Point Shipyards and Industry [Pier 70]
· The Buildings [Save the Hill]
· Then & Now: Washington Street Produce Market [Curbed SF]
· The Wharf's Fishing Fleet [Fisherman's Wharf]
· A Golden State [UC Press]
· Dogpatch Historical Context [Pier 70]
· Previous Coverage of Historic Breweries [Curbed SF]
· Butchertown's Beginnings [Found SF]