clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The West Coast's Whaling Hub Once Loomed Over Mission Bay

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 biggest of these was the Arctic Oil Works at Illinois and 16th streets.

Started in 1884 by George Perkins, the company brought agents from the giant New Bedford whaling merchant William Lewis. Perkins was a ship captain, but made a boatload (get it?) acting as a whaleman and eventually formed the Pacific Steam Whaling Company and Arctic Oil Works. It was the first company to take up whaling and whale oil outside of New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was considered the hub of international whaling industry. The company established a system for moving whale oil products from ship to storage tank to train in one seamless operation.


At the time, whales were a real hot commodity. Oil boiled down from blubber was used for lamp fuel, lubricating oil, paints and soaps, and butter substitutes. The whalebones, or baleen, were used to add flexibility and strength to corsets, shoe horns, umbrellas and parasols, fishing rods, and buggy whips.


The business was a booming success. Perkins had commissioned English-born architect Ernest Ransome to build the Arctic Oil Works processing plant in 1884, which was later considered the first reinforced-concrete building of its kind in the country. The fireproof warehouse had a roof of concrete arches with iron bars embedded where the arches met. The jetty had docks where boats traveling from the Arctic would transport the whale oil to the oil refining plant. They had six iron tanks that could process two thousand barrels of oil a day.


But it wouldn't last. With petroleum oil on the rise and the advent of electricity, whale blubber was no longer used for lamp oil and machine lubricant. The industry began to decline and Arctic Oil Works was bought out by mega-monopoly Standard Oil Company (yes, that one) and they abandoned the plant in Potrero. Within a few years, the old processing plant was incorporated into the Union Oil Company. Sometime in the 1920s or '30s the Ransome building was torn down and replaced with modern equipment. Today old docks are gone and the site is home to the biotech company FibroGen's headquarters, built in 2008.


· Standard Oil Buys Out Rival [San Francisco Call via Chronicling America]
· Biennial Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics of California 1890 [Office of State Bureau of Labor Statistics via Google Books]
· Art and Industry [Potrero Archives]
· New Bedford Whaling [Whaling Museum]
· The Largest Whaling Port on the West Coast, 1880s [Found SF]
· A Photo Salute to the Ghosts of San Francisco's Industrial Past [Curbed SF]
· Hidden Histories Archive [Curbed SF]