Workers building a condo development have uncovered the remains of an old ship right next to the Old Ship Saloon on Pacific Avenue at the edge of San Francisco’s Financial District.
The discovery is almost certainly what remains of the Gold Rush ship Arkansas, which arrived in San Francisco in December 1849, was run up on the shore, and later became a saloon, a store, a boardinghouse, a bordello, a hotel and a saloon again before it was dismantled and buried for good nearly 160 years ago.
The area where the ship was found was part of the fabled Barbary Coast, once one of the toughest and most dangerous districts in the world. Sailors were shanghaied from the Barbary Coast, and some say ghostly figures still haunt the area.
The remains of the old ship were discovered in 1890 and rediscovered this fall. Work crews found them while doing foundation work for a seven-story condo building. They found pieces of the ship’s hull and what might be parts of its cargo, including leather shoes and bottles. The biggest piece was a 15-foot wood fragment that appears to be the ship’s keel, buried in mud about 25 feet below the surface.
“It’s an interesting story,” said James Allan, an archaeologist who led a team examining the artifacts. He believes the remains are what’s left of the Arkansas. “It’s in the right place,” he said.
Grosvenor Americas, which is developing the site, made no public announcement of the discovery, though the company did report it to city officials as required by law.
Photo: Thomas Webb, The Chronicle
The Financial District’s Old Ship Saloon is on the site where a predecessor was actually in an old ship.
The Financial District’s Old Ship Saloon is on the site where a…
Allan and a team of archaeologists and historians examined the bits and pieces of the ship, decided that they would be too difficult to excavate and preserve, and buried them again. The site is surrounded by a chain-link fence, and it is not possible to see the ship’s grave.
Allan thinks Grosvenor Americas did the right thing by the old ship by treating it appropriately. “They did a great job,” he said.
“I love the drinking history and social history of the city,” he said.
Photo: Eric Luse, The Chronicle
Emporer Norton (Rick Saber) in black and fellow members of the San Francisco Chapter of E Clampus Vitus outside the Old Ship Saloon in San Francisco. They’ve placed plaques around the city which commemorates the history photographed on Monday, February 16, 2009.
Emporer Norton (Rick Saber) in black and fellow members of the San…
The corner of Pacific Avenue and Battery Street has both. Jarvis said the site is historic because drinks have been served there continuously since 1851. Bill Duffy, who owns the Old Ship, said his place is the oldest bar in the city, though others maintain that the Saloon on Grant Avenue in North Beach is older. But the Old Ship certainly comes with a story.
It begins 183 years ago, when the three-masted sailing ship Arkansas was launched in New York. The ship had an uneventful life for 16 years, until it was caught up in the Gold Rush of 1849.
Though the Arkansas was an old vessel by the standards of the day, it was chartered by a Methodist society to sail for California. There were 112 passengers aboard, 76 of them Methodists, bound for the gold fields to spread the word of God. The others were gamblers and men with all manner of vices, according to a diary of the voyage kept by Robert N. Ferrell, one of the passengers.
The ship sailed from New York on June 26, 1849, “bound for San Francisco and never to return,” Ferrell wrote. It was a nightmare voyage. The ship ran short of food, got into huge storms. Sickness broke out and three passengers died.
When they got to San Francisco after a six-month voyage, the ship ran aground on Alcatraz, was badly damaged, and was run ashore at the Pacific Street wharf.
The harbor was full of stranded ships, and the Arkansas was converted to a store ship, with its masts cut off. A hole was cut in its side, and it became a saloon, reached by a plank. Here a poorly spelled sign told customers: “Gude bad and indiferent spirits sold here at 25 cents each.”
Later, the Arkansas became a hotel, a bordello and a boardinghouse. In 1857 or so, what remained of the Arkansas was dismantled. When its remains were discovered in 1890, The Chronicle reported that under “several feet of accumulated dirt and rubbish lay an interesting discovery — the skeleton of a ship.”
In the fires that followed the 1906 earthquake, everything above ground in the area was burned. In 1907, a brick building was erected on the site and named the Old Ship Saloon, which stands today.
These days it serves food and drink. A good lunch crowd, said Bill Duffy, who has owned the Old Ship Saloon since 2002. “A neighborhood bar,” said Mark Schachern, who was having a drink there this week. “It has a nice feel to it.”
But there is something else in the air, Duffy said. There are two upper floors, rented out as single-occupancy rooms. And sometimes, he said, tenants have told him about what he calls “some kind of ghostly presence, something like that,” in the rooms.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said, “but this is the only saloon in town with roots that go back to the Gold Rush and the Barbary Coast.”