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San Francisco Maritime History: From the Barbary Coast to today’s Embarcadero

Learn more about the history of San Francisco’s waterfront.


From rousing sea chanteys to historical walking tours, the tale of San Francisco’s coming-of-age is most eloquently told in the history of its waterfront. Ever since majestic clipper ships transported hordes of 49ers to her shores, San Francisco has been a legendary port-of-call. Today, visitors have more opportunities than ever before to explore and enjoy the colorful, nautical past of The City by the Bay.

With the 1991 demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway, which had blocked sweeping views of the Bay, light and possibilities have brightened the City’s historic waterfront. Once the haunt of swarthy sailors, the waterfront now attracts a lively mixture of yachtsmen and strollers lured by the invigorating scent of fresh sea air and a showcase of fascinating maritime lore.

The Gold Rush When gold fever swept the nation in 1849, the little trading post of Yerba Buena (now known as San Francisco) immediately became the port-of-entry for more than 700 ships carrying thousands of fortune-seekers from around the world. Its population soared from 400 to 25,000 residents in just one year. And that was not all that grew.

The land mass itself crept into the bay, the result of landfill dumped on the carcasses of hundreds of deserted ships whose crews abandoned them to search for gold. San Francisco’s border eventually extended a full six blocks east from the natural shoreline and four blocks north to today’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Resourceful entrepreneurs also put old ships to use, converting some into saloons, warehouses, lodgings, a jail and even a church. Meanwhile, the sailor-saturated area around the port became the notorious Barbary Coast.

The Barbary Coast "During the day," writes author Daniel Bacon, "the old Barbary Coast was quiet, save for a few clothing shops, maritime businesses and auction houses. But by evening it transformed into a seductive siren, luring sailors and slummers into a dangerous milieu of opium dens, crimping joints, saloons, brothels and gambling houses." Often, unsuspecting sailors cavorting in the area after having completed a long journey were slipped Mickey Finns — whiskey laced with a dollop of opium — and shanghaied on two-year long voyages. Skippers paid crimps up to $75 a head to supply able-bodied hands to crew their vessels.

Today adventure-seekers can explore the remnants of the old Barbary Coast and many other historical sites with the help of Bacon’s book, "Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail." Inspired by the Freedom Trail in Boston, the Barbary Coast Trail leads the curious walker (or armchair explorer) on a scenic 3.8-mile route that winds its way through San Francisco’s history, including a cluster of restored Gold Rush-era buildings. The trail has been designated the official historical tour of San Francisco and is slated to be marked with bronze plaques and a painted line.

The Port In the 1850s, clipper ships — the sleek signature vessels of the Gold Rush — brought silks from China, whale oil from Alaska, coal from England and immigrants from around the world. Steam ships brought silks, tea, rice and opium from Hong Kong. From the 1870s until 1900, steel-hulled sailing vessels dubbed the "grain fleet" carried immense quantities of California wheat to Europe. At the close of the 19th century, San Francisco moved more cargo than all the other West Coast ports combined. Ships under a veritable United Nations of colorful flags lay berthed on the City’s piers.

At the turn-of-the-century the Alaska Packer fleet made yearly sojourns to the Bering Sea, leaving San Francisco in June and returning in August, their holds brimming with succulent king salmon. The square-rigger Star of Alaska was the fastest windjammer in the fleet. Originally christened Balclutha in 1886 in Scotland (she was named Star of Alaska while in the Alaska Packer fleet), she survived 17 trips around Cape Horn and a ship wreck off Alaska’s coast. Today visitors explore the decks and nautical lore of the 301-foot Balclutha at Hyde St. Pier on Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Embarcadero San Francisco’s original serrated shoreline of sandy coves and rocky promontories hindered the construction of deep-water piers. To accommodate the ever-increasing flow of shipping, engineers planned a great seawall that would neatly round out the city’s northeast waterfront. Construction took 46 years, from 1878 to 1924, and required massive amounts of fill material. Folklore has it that the city used anything available — including rubbish, horse manure, and even dead cats! The result was the Embarcadero, a 12,000-foot long bulkhead that added 800 acres to the city and eighteen miles of usable docking space.

At the center of the Embarcadero, the Ferry Building, with its conspicuous high clock tower modeled after the Seville Tower in Spain, became the landmark that was the symbol of San Francisco. "Constructed in 1898, this harbor gateway was the hub of the Bay Area’s transportation system and ushered in as many as 50 million passengers a year — more than any other transit terminal in the nation," writes Bacon.

Surrounded on three sides by water (21 miles of shoreline), San Francisco residents relied on ferries to connect them to points north or east (the bridges weren’t built until the 1930s). Independent ferry companies crisscrossed the Bay from the earliest pioneer days. During the last half of the 19th century, as many as 50 ferries at a time shuttled citizens into and out of the city in constant stream. When the automobile was introduced, ferries carried those as well. The 1890-built Eureka, the largest auto and passenger ferry in the world in her day, carried 3,000 people per trip across San Francisco Bay during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Before the bridges were built, the Eureka also served as the final leg of the railroad journey to San Francisco. It was nicknamed the "tracks across the Bay" and afforded many riders their first glimpse of San Francisco. The Eureka is also now open for the public to explore at Hyde Street Pier on Fisherman’s Wharf.

After World War II, shipping traffic at the San Francisco port gradually shifted across the Bay to Oakland, whose port offered better access to inland cities. In the 1960s this trend accelerated when the Port of Oakland built container shipping facilities. San Francisco shifted what shipping remained to Hunter’s Point where container accommodations were constructed. The once great Embarcadero piers, partially overshadowed by a double-decker freeway, were relegated to storage or abandoned to rot in the bay.

Now San Francisco’s northeast waterfront has been reborn as a palm tree-lined promenade complete with light rail transport and a user-friendly series of historical markers. The wide sidewalk, christened Herb Caen Way on June 17, 1996, offers plenty of room for walkers, runners, bicyclists, and rollerbladers to share. A series of 14-foot high metal pylons erected along the boulevard display photographs, stories and quotes, commemorating sailors’ heroics, Barbary Coast shenanigans, as well as some of the engineering feats that enabled the city to become such an important trade center that it was dubbed the "Emporium of the West."

Fishermen and Entrepreneurs San Francisco’s historic emporium included more than its busy port; the bay’s rich resources of fish and shellfish spurred another record-breaking industry. In the 1800s, Genoese fishermen from Northern Italy sailed feluccas, 16-foot boats pointed at both the bow and stern. The Genoese feluccas sailed out "looking like a flock of butterflies as they tacked together across the bay," according to Bacon. The Genoese fishermen’s primary competition were Chinese fishermen, whom they passed laws against to push out to other parts of the Bay (where the Chinese managed nonetheless to sustain a thriving business). In the 1890s, says Bacon, Sicilians muscled control of the industry away from the Genoese, who moved onto the more lucrative business of wholesaling and retailing.

Fisherman’s Wharf reached its peak in the late 1800s, selling more fish than all the other West Coast ports combined. But signs of over fishing surfaced as early as 1900, and the situation was made worse by pollution and river damming. The fishing business declined precipitously, and only now are concentrated efforts to clean up the Bay and boost the fish population beginning to show results. (Construction has been completed on an $18 million state-of-the-art fish processing plant at Pier 45, which opened August 25, 1995).

Another player in the "Emporium of the West" was Marco J. Fontana, who worked at the famous Colombo Produce Market on the Embarcadero and in 1899 created the world’s largest canning operation with methods he devised experimenting at home. In 1907 Fontana built the Cannery building near Fisherman’s Wharf at Jefferson and Leavenworth streets, where tons of California fruits and vegetables were canned for shipping across the country and around the world, under the world famous Del Monte label. Canning operations continued there until 1937. The Cannery was renovated in 1967, and today is a delightful maze of shops, galleries and restaurants, and home to the Museum of the City of San Francisco.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Today’s Fisherman’s Wharf still retains San Francisco’s old maritime spirit — and history itself is captured at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, which includes Hyde St. Pier and the Maritime Museum. At the western end of Fisherman’s Wharf, Hyde St. Pier boasts the largest collection of historic ships in the world, by tonnage. Many of the ships now docked at Hyde Street Pier played a role in San Francisco history, including the aforementioned Balclutha and Eureka, as well as the 1895 schooner C.A. Thayer, the tugboat Hercules, and the scow schooner Alma. The museum contains an impressive collection of large-scale model ships and the larger-than-life figureheads that once adorned the bows of Gold Rush-era clippers. Panoramic photographs of early San Francisco, juxtaposed with recent views, challenge contemporary visitors to recognize the once-sleepy little village of 1848 in the busy skyline of today.

Historic Military Contributions The museum also offers exhibits on San Francisco’s military maritime history. During the Civil War, Alcatraz served as a military prison and Fort Point was constructed to guard the Golden Gate. During World War I, the Union Iron Works Shipyard south of the Embarcadero built cruisers, early S-class submarines, and battleships — including Admiral Dewey’s flagship, the cruiser Olympia, now a museum ship in Philadelphia.

The Bay Area reached its peak of military service during World War II, when San Francisco was a center of military activity. Treasure Island was an intelligence post and naval installation; and Piers 35 and 45, and Fort Mason were disembarkation points for troops headed to the Pacific. The Bay Area also boasted two major Naval shipyards, one at Hunters Point in San Francisco and one at Mare Island in Vallejo — the only place on the West Coast where submarines were built. Two-thirds of the Liberty and Victory ships in WWII were built in the Bay Area. Ironically, the locally-berthed Liberty ship, Jeremiah O’Brien, lovingly restored and sailed by volunteers to the 50th Anniversary in Normandy, was not among them. Visitors can now tour the Jeremiah O’Brien at Pier 32.

As in much of the rest of the country, base closures along San Francisco Bay have prompted conversion of military installations into civilian uses. Fort Mason on the San Francisco side of the Bay and Fort Baker on the north side, which both trained gun turrets on the entrance to the Bay, are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a national park. Today Fort Mason is a thriving cultural center filled with theaters, museums, and shops, while Fort Baker hosts the nation’s only children’s museum in a national park: the Bay Area Discovery Museum. And Hunters Point, one of the shipyards that closed down after World War II, has been turned over to the City of San Francisco and is currently in the land use planning stage. The WWII submarine U.S.S. Pampanito at Pier 45 serves today as a lasting memorial to the U.S. Navy and reminder of San Francisco’s maritime military history. And once a year the city turns into a sailor’s town reminiscent of the rowdy Barbary Coast era, when hundreds of Navy shipmen disembark for a week of fun at the annual Fleet Week celebration in October.

Whether walking along the Barbary Coast Trail or looking through the periscope of a WWII submarine, today’s visitors can spend hours or even days delving into the romantic bygone era of the sea — a time not so long ago when crimps and clipper ships, bos’n’s and battleships, feluccas and ferries proudly claimed the waterfront of San Francisco, the Emporium of the West, as their homeport.