Walk the Plank
It was through this thirst for eccentric history that I first stumbled upon the buried ships map amongst the records of SFgenealogy. Along with old surveys of Yerba Buena and lists of bodies found floating in the cove in 1867, I came upon an unassuming document put together by Ron Filion, SFgenealogy's cofounder and a fellow keeper of all that is gothy. The map details the current whereabouts of the remains of nearly 600 barks, brigs, and whalers whose last voyage was to sail up the San Francisco wharves in 1849 and dislodge their gold-crazy passengers.
Abandoned for visions of gold nuggets the size of fists, these ships became a floating graveyard nicknamed “rotten row” until enterprising San Franciscans turned them into store ships, saloons, hotels, bordellos, and shanghai dens. People filled in the bay around these ships until they were landlocked, or hired “hulk undertakers” to purposefully sink them in order to lay claim to real estate still underwater.
I was floored. I’ve lived in San Francisco since 1994 and had never heard of these buried vessels.
After months of bugging friends and strangers to look at the map, an idea seized me – I’d investigate the bars now sitting on top of these ships. I wanted to see if the owners knew about the legends beneath their businesses, and if they’d find this underground history of our city as magical as I do.
Bill Duffy, owner of the Old Ship Saloon at the corner of Battery and Pacific, is a tough man to track down. After a long game of phone tag, I finally just walk my carcass down to the bar, take a seat, and start peppering bartender Paulie with questions.
Three guys playing dice eavesdrop while Paulie points out historic photos of the building being rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. He assures me that Bill works the bar on Mondays. I’m halfway out the door when one of the dice players shouts, “Hey Paulie, aren’t you going to give her a tour of your old shipwreck in the basement!?” It takes me a couple of beats to get the joke. Paulie holds up his arms in a what-can-I-do-with-these-guys gesture as I make my escape.
I am back like a toothache on Monday afternoon armed with as much knowledge as I could scuttle up. The Old Ship Saloon was indeed the final resting spot for the Arkansas, which wrecked on Alcatraz, was bought for a song, and got towed to what would later become the corner of Battery and Pacific Streets. As the story goes, an Englishman named Joe Anthony cut a hole in her side, threw a plank down to the wharf, and hung a sign outside which read “Gud, Bad and Indif’rent Spirits sold here! At 25 cents each.” The Old Ship Ale House, as it was then called, did a brisk business, evolving through incarnations as a sailor’s boarding house and a bordello, but always as a saloon (minus the unlucky 13 years of Prohibition).
Bill, the bar’s owner since 1992, had been tipped off about me. When I pull up a bar stool, he seems to already know who I am, or maybe I gave myself away by ordering a…well, a Diet Coke. (It is 3 p.m. on a Monday.) Bill says he knew nothing about the saloon’s nautical history during the years he worked at the bar before he bought it. “Then a friend of mine found one of those old five cent tokens at an auction that had the name of the Old Ship Saloon on it, and traced it back to here,” Bill explains. “That’s when I started researching the history and decided to get its old name back.”
I ask Bill if the rumors about the place are true: that it was a brothel and an infamous shanghai den where sailors were “coaxed” into manning ships via a mickey in the form of a bottle to the skull. Bill smiles, breaking off to make his afternoon patrons a couple of Black and Tans and an Arnold Palmer.
“From what I’ve read, most of this place’s history is on the up-and-up,” he says, “but the shanghai stuff – that really happened.”
I’m early for pub quiz night at Elephant & Castle, so I pace the edge of the General Harrison deck, picturing the 1851 fire that burned it to ground level. A thick outline of the vessel is inlaid in the sidewalk from Battery Street west along Clay to about halfway down the block, where it suddenly angles underneath the building. It’s a tracing of the ship’s hull that was once echoed by an outline on the carpet in the Elephant & Castle’s basement.
I learn this background info from Tara, my sprightly, pink-haired barkeep who sportingly agrees to be the only other member of my pub quiz team. I show her the map of buried ships and she studies it between tapping Sierras and Guinnesses. Manager Sean Doherty, recognizing fellow nerdiness when he sees it, adds that when the building’s foundation was dug in 2001 and the wreck was uncovered, cases of intact, 150-year-old Madeira, Chardonnay, and Scotch Ale were discovered.
“Did anyone drink it?” I ask.
“I hope not, for their sakes,” Sean says.
Even with Tara supplying most of the answers, our pub quiz team, “The Shipwrecks,” comes in last. I wander off into the fog, singing sea shanties.
I walk into the Royal Exchange bar at Sacramento and Front with a big secret. By now, my buried ships map is covered with notes, scrawls, check marks, and circles. It’s been folded and unfolded so many times it looks like a long-cherished love letter, which in a way, it is. I’m about to pass this mash note on to a total stranger.
I belly up to the bar and ask a bartender with sandy-reddish hair and freckles if I can speak with the manager. “That’s me,” he says, “I’m Dane.”
“I have a story for you,” I say, and pull out the map. “Are you aware that your bar is sitting on the remains of a gold rush ship?”
Dane looks at me. “What do you mean...ship?” he asks.
“I mean a full-sized, three-masted, flea-infested sailing ship: the Thomas Bennett sailed here in 1850 from Charleston, around Cape Horn.”
I leave Dane with a sheaf of papers, promising to return when he’s had a chance to read them.
A week later I’m back at the Royal Exchange, but Dane isn’t around. When I introduce myself to Brian, the manager on duty, his face lights up. “No way!” he says. “I saw those papers you brought in! You have no idea how fired up I am about this!”
“I have this whole idea,” Brian tells me, “let me lay it on you.” His plan is to replace some of the generic decor with the history of the Thomas Bennett . “I was thinking we could hang up pictures of the ship, maybe of the captain, what’s his name...Halverston, Halberston, Haversham...whatever.”
I tell him I haven’t come across any pictures of the captain so far, but Brian has a far-off glint in his eye.
“Even better,” he grins. “I was thinking I could commission an artist to paint a portrait of me as the captain. I’ll wear a cap and a fisherman’s sweater and have a pipe in my mouth!” We both crack up. As we’re talking, Dane arrives.
I tell Dane I don’t want to be a pest, but that I’ve found some more history on the Thomas Bennett . “Are you kidding?” he says. “We can’t stop talking about the ship underneath the building.”
“Yeah,” Brian chimes in, “and do you know anybody who wants to paint a portrait of a sea captain?”
Leaving the Royal Exchange, I stare down Clay Street, imagining the portrait of Brian as Captain Halverston hanging on the wall of the bar 50 years from now, and all the stories that painting could inspire. Meanwhile, the bones of the
, and the
remain sleeping in the mud, where 100 years from now, when these buildings come down and new ones go up, someone might stumble into the stories of these buried treasures once again.
Walk the map, painstakingly assembled from old-timer accounts by Ron Filion of SFgenealogy, and check out the organization's page on Buried Ships . Ask for Bill Duffy at the Old Ship Saloon, check out artifacts downstairs at the Elephant & Castle, and stop for a beer and a chat with Brian or Dane at The Royal Exchange. Also look for the Spring 2011 launch of The Armada of Golden Dreams , a surreal audio tour of San Francisco’s buried ships from Invisible City Audio Tours, with stories by Bay Area writers curated by yours truly.