Buried Ships of San Francisco

By Jeannie Watt

Jeannie Watt 2Hi everyone and Happy Wednesday! I was fortunate to be able to spend the past weekend in my favorite
city, San Francisco, with my family. I love the history of this city, so thought I’d share a bit about the lost ships for those that are unfamiliar with this rather unique facet of the area.

Before the California Gold Rush, San Francisco was a quiet port, with a population of several hundred
people. After the rush, the population swelled to more than 42,000–25,000 of which arrived by water.  Ships poured into the harbor, dropping off would-be prospectors, miners and speculators as well as people starting businesses to support the gold miners.

Many of the ships that anchored in the harbor never set sail again. At one point there were more than 500 ships in the harbor, many of which were totally abandoned. Eventually some of the ships were refurbished and put back into service, while others rotted away at their moorings.

A ship-breaking yard, known as Rotten Row, began operation. Crews of mostly Chinese workers would break down ships and sell the wood and metal, or re-purpose the ships into bars, businesses, hotels and storage units. There is even record of a jail and church being build out of refurbished ships.

As business boomed in San Francisco, the locals wanted to fill the shallow part of the harbor in order to allow larger ships to unload cargo in the deeper parts. The easiest way to do this was to sell water lots, which the owners were required to fill with material to bring it above sea level. In order to have title, the owner needed to have real property on the lot and an easy way to do that was to sink a ship on it, prior to filling. Another ways to get a water lot was to sink a ship on it first, and then lay claim to the land around the ship as part of the salvage. Many ships sank in the dead of night.

Map showing the original shoreline (dotted line) and the resting place of several ships.

The original coastline of San Francisco began where the hills hit the water.The flat areas that now make up the Embarcadero and Financial District were once underwater. Eventually a seawall was built in 1871, creating the current shoreline. Between the seawall and the original coasts are the remains of as many as 75 buried ships.

The Old Ship Saloon, still in operation, opened in 1851 in the hull of the Arkansas. Original patrons had to walk up a plank to enter the saloon.

Oil painting of the Niantic

Oil painting of the Niantic

The most inland known ship, the Niantic, was beached on the corner of Clay and Sansome Streets in the Financial District in 1849 and served as a storehouse until the fire of 1851 leveled her to the ground and she was buried.

The ship Euphemia became the local prison in 1850. During the day the prisoners would work on a chain gang and in the evening return to the ship to be locked in the hold. The conditions on the Euphemia worsened throughout the year and eventually a new prison was built in 1851. The fate of the Euphemia was unknown until her remains were dug up in 1921 at the corner of Battery and Sacramento streets. [Note: There is still some controversy as to whether that particular ship is the Euphemia.] In 1925 the store ship Apollo was discovered nearby.

More recent discoveries have been made and most have been reburied, with buildings going in over the top of them.

The ship Rome was discovered while building a Muni tunnel at the foot of Market Street. The ship was too large to excavate, so the tunnel was built through the hull of the ship.

If you’re ever in San Francisco, strolling along the Embarcadero, remember than you may well be literally walking over the top of the ships that helped build the city.



Jeannie Watt
Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.


  1. This is a very interesting post. I have never been to San Francisco, but if I ever make it (and I hope I do one day), I will be thinking of the ships.

    1. SF is one of my favorite places. I hope you get a chance to visit, Janine. The food is marvelous!

  2. Very interesting. I enjoyed this post a lot. Thanks

    1. Glad you liked it, Debra. I found the subject fascinating.

  3. What an interesting post!

  4. Fascinating. I have lived in the Bay Area for about 35 years now and there are still so many bits of history I don’t know. Thanks!

    1. Yes–the history is varied and amazing. And lucky you being in the area!

  5. Cool info. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You’re very welcome, Kim.

  6. Wow, I had no clue about this! So cool.

    1. Isn’t it? I just found out about the ships a couple months ago.

  7. I had no idea about any of this history. Thank you so much for such an interesting and informative post.

    1. Thank you, Eliza. It was fun to research.

  8. That was very interesting. Who would have thought?

  9. Jeannie, Sorry I din’t get to your post sooner. It seems I missed almost a week of them. Thank you for a most interesting post. I spent one summer in San Francisco and we visited often when we lived in Sacramento. I had no idea about the history of the boats and the city. I knew the area along the bay had been filled in, but no mention was ever made about the boats and the reason for doing what was done. Is there a museum or some display in San Francisco that tells this story?

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