It’s one of San Francisco’s most enduring local legends: That the bones of dozens of Gold Rush-era ships still rest where they sank beneath what are now the streets of the Financial District.
It also happens to be true, as the team excavating next to the venerable Old Ship Saloon confirmed a few weeks ago when they discovered something interesting beneath their site: the original old ship.
When scores of ships arrived in the bay in 1849, crews swiftly abandoned many of them, eager to give up the seafaring life for new opportunities in gold country.
Local columnist Gary Kamiya writes in his book Cool, Gray City of Love that locals often raided derelict ships for timber to build housing.
But some remained, only to eventually sink from neglect and later be buried under landfill as the city expanded its shoreline.
The Old Ship Saloon on Pacific Avenue began as a New York schooner, the Arkansas, present Old Ship owner Bill Duffy tells Curbed SF. It brought Methodist missionaries from New York, along with fortune seekers picked up along the way from New Orleans and the ports of South America.
You couldn’t find a more quintessentially San Francisco story: the East Coast, the Mississippi, and the South American coast all rolling into the bay and touching down on the Barbary Coast, the dangerous and wile locale that “turned San Francisco into more than just a freaky frontier,” as Duffy puts it.
The San Francisco Chronicle writes that the original Old Ship (which the owner simply cut a hole in the side of, added a plank, and invited miners into for a drink back in its day) probably collapsed during the 1906 earthquake, replaced by the structure you see today.
But workers excavating the lot next door for (what else?) a new condo project discovered bits and pieces of a classic ship this month—almost certainly the Arkansas.
According to Hoodline, the most significant part of the wreckage pulled up was the ship’s false keel, a bit of timber strapped onto the real keel to protect it.
Which is ironic, since it now seems possible that in the end the false keel fared better than the actual one.
After some consideration of what to do with it, workers buried the Old Ship parts once again, perhaps to wait another 110 years for curious shovels to next come prying.