Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Niantic Hotel

The ship Niantic is buried beneath 505 Sansome St. in the financial district of San Francisco. There is a commemorative plaque located on the outside of the building.

After Sam Brannan wowed the crowds of Portsmouth Square with the gold that he had mined in the Sierras, San Francisco exploded with prospective miners. The township of Yerba Buena had approximately 200 residents in 1846, but had over 36,000 by 1852. The massive influx of people to Bay Area completely overwhelmed the community and San Francisco became known as the "instant city" because of the rapid, and completely haphazard, way that the city sprung up.

The Niantic was a whaling vessel that came to San Francisco, like many others, drawn by the tales of the Gold Rush. Following a speedy conversion form a whaling ship to a passenger liner in Panama, the Niantic carried 246 passengers to San Francisco, arriving on July 5th, 1849, becoming one of the first ships to bring gold seekers to San Francisco. The ship was docked in San Francisco and almost immediately abandoned by her crew as they all ran off to the gold fields of the Sierras. Lacking a crew, the captain was instructed to sell the vessel. As a result she was floated on a high tide into shallow water and was run hard aground near the intersection of Montgomery and Clay Streets.

A Note About the San Francisco Shore
The shoreline in San Francisco used to run along Montgomery Street. Everything to the east of Montgomery has been reclaimed from the Bay. In the early days of the Gold Rush there was a surplus of ships arriving in the bay, and a lack of buildings or materials to continue developing the city. As such, people tended to moor their ships and then live out of them. Couple this with the fact that ship's crews regularly abandoned their vessels and ran off for the gold fields, as did the crew of the Niantic, and you have a fairly active waterfront with lots of deserted vessels. Many of the deserted vessels were run aground and converted to other uses, such as stores or hotels. The wharves were simply extended past the abandoned ships so that the shore could remain active. One of the wharves, known as the Long Wharf, extended over 2,000 feet into the Bay and was used as the mooring point for U.S Postal Service vessels and international shipping lines. Over time, as these abandoned vessels were blocked in by other ships that arrived after them, and as the bay was slowly filled in with materials removed from inland, these ships became landlocked.

This, in a nutshell, is what happened to the Niantic. After being run aground she had a door cut in her side and made the transition to a warehouse, store, and hotel. Access to the ship was initially by way of a pier over the tidal shallows, but as the bay was filled in and the Niantic became landlocked, she became just like any other building fronting on Montgomery Street. The ship was partially burned several times in the fires that plagued San Francisco during the Gold Rush years, and she was continually rebuilt, though she looked less like a ship each time.

The ruins of the original ship have been rediscovered several times during development of the site. In 1872, when the old Niantic Hotel was demolished, construction crews found the hull of the original ship. In 1907 the ship was discovered again during reconstruction following the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The ship was rediscovered again in 1978 during an excavation for the Mark Twain Plaza Complex next to the Transamerica Building. The remains of the ship are still located beneath the building and currently sit about six blocks away from the waterfront.

I couldn't tell you exactly why, but this is one of my favorite bits of local San Francisco history. There are actually a large number of ships buried beneath the financial district and there is a really great map that details their locations. There are oodles of other sites and historical plaques within shouting distance of this building, and it's worth a walk around to check some of them out. The original building of the San Francisco Mint, Portsmouth Square, the sites related to the Montgomery Landing, and all kinds of early San Francisco business history are nearby.

Getting There By Bike...
The plaque is at 505 Sansome, in the financial district off San Francisco. Be careful of traffic and general downtown craziness. If you can't find the plaque, the guys at the security desk were very helpful and pointed me right to it.

1 comment:

  1. I was waiting for the hopeful promise that "she will sail again." Alas! Wonderful story.