FiDi Condo Developers Unearth Remnants Of Gold Rush-Era Ship

There are lots of legends about the Financial District's Old Ship Saloon (298 Pacific Ave.) But it turns out that the most commonly told one—that the Gold Rush-era ship Arkansas is buried under the building that houses the bar—is true, thanks to some new evidence unearthed by archaeologists after the neighboring lot was dug up to construct condos. 

How did a ship become buried under a Financial District bar? And how did modern archaeologists determine that it was indeed the Arkansas? Here's a little history. 

The "Sea of Ships," as photographed in 1851. | Photo: Found SF

In the 1840s, questers from around the world came to California to seek gold. But many of the ships they brought to the San Francisco Bay often had nowhere to return, and quite a few were abandoned on the shore for more urgent conquests, creating what was described at the time as a "sea of ships."

At the same time, much of what now constitutes the Financial District was open water, with Pacific Avenue as one of the entryways into the infamous—and often dangerous—Barbary Coast. 

When the Arkansas arrived in San Francisco in 1849, it was guided by Methodists sailing from New York, on a mission to spread "the Good News." But the voyage was perilous, with too little food and an outbreak of disease that killed three passengers. The journey concluded with the ship running aground on Alcatraz.

Too damaged to be seaworthy, the Arkansas' remnants were parked in the bay and quickly enveloped by landfill, much of it from the more than 500 rotting ships already abandoned there. The ship became something of a permanent structure: its three masts were eventually removed, and it was used as a storeship.  

By 1852, the Arkansas' purpose had changed again, and it was transformed into a saloon. A gangplank was installed on the side of the ship, with a sign that read, “Gud, bad and indif’rent spirits sold here! At 25 cents each." It was the first of many transformations for the ship, including stints as a boarding house and eventually, a hotel.

Though the Chronicle reported this week that the Arkansas also served as a bordello, there's no evidence for that, says archaeologist Jim Allan, who worked on the current dig. "As far as we know, the Arkansas was never used as a bordello—just as a storeship, saloon, boardinghouse and hotel."

The Arkansas is believed to have met its end in the earthquake and fire of 1906, when much of what stood in the area burned down. A year or so later, a brick building was erected in the former ship's place, where the Old Ship Saloon still slings drinks today. 

But did remnants of the Arkansas' seafaring past remain underground? That's the question Grosvenor Americas had when it began work on a new condominium development next door to the saloon.

The company hired archaeological firm William Self to oversee the dig—and sure enough, remnants of the long-lost ship turned up. 

The false keel of the Arkansas. | Photo: William Self Associates

While the Chronicle reported that archaeologists found part of the ship's hull and keel, that's incorrect, said Allan.

"We didn't find parts of the ship's hull, nor the ship's keel," he said. "The part that we recovered was called a false keel, which was a timber fastened to the bottom of the actual keel, to protect the former from damage ... It was kind of like a skid plate."

Old leather shoes and bottles were also found near the false keel, but "they were not part of the ship's cargo," Allan told us. "Rather, if they have any association with the Arkansas at all, they are probably related to her use as a storeship."  

Initially, Grosvenor Americas hoped to excavate and preserve the false keel, incorporating it into the new building somehow. But after examining the piece, they decided to re-bury it and abandon the idea.  

"The decision to re-bury the false keel was not made because it was too difficult to excavate and preserve it—it had already been excavated," Allan said. "[Grosvenor decided] that the time it would take to conserve the piece for incorporation in the new building was too long. By the time it was ready, the building would be long finished."

The Arkansas is not the only ship whose remnants lie beneath the streets of downtown San Francisco—there are reportedly 42 others. This online interactive map will allow you to explore where each vessel has been laid to rest under the daily hustle and bustle of the FiDi. 

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