Photos: Lands End Shipwreck at Low Tide

Jul 22 at 3pm

I think it’s safe to say that shipwrecks are universally intriguing. They’re old and just the right kind of dangerous, and no matter how much you know already, there’s always something mysterious about them. Maybe it’s people’s latent sense of adventure, but maybe – just maybe – it’s because we all secretly hope to find buried treasure nearby. It’s not unheard of; treasure hunters have been salvaging millions of dollars in gold bars and coins from the SS Central America wreck off the coast of South Carolina since April, even after it was plundered back in the ’80s. 

One of the largest pieces of accessible wreckage sits above water only a few days a year (top). Ornamental metal is scattered around deeper in the cove (bottom). 

Right here in San Francisco, the SS City of Rio de Janeiro is rumored to have sunk with a hefty cargo of gold and silver when it struck Mile Rock in 1901. Multiple salvage attempts have failed, and the only man who claimed to have found a trove of silver on the wreck in 1931 disappeared without a trace shortly thereafter. 

Machinery of the early 20th century is almost indistinguishable from the rocks (top). Pacific Harbor Seals, once common around Lands End, are now only seen out of the water in secluded areas (bottom). 

Not every shipwreck in the Golden Gate wound up at the bottom of the trench, though. Some met their fate on the rocks at Lands End and are now popular low-tide attractions. One in particular, though, has evaded the popularity of the SS Frank Buck, the SS Lyman Stewart, and the SS Ohioan. The SS Coos Bay came to rest in 1927 on a part of the coast that’s normally frequented only by seals and nesting sea birds, a place called Dead Man’s Point. The bulk of the hull was salvaged in 1931, but the aft end can still be seen in the surf at extreme low tides.

Coins rusted into the wreckage are almost all unidentifiable except this well worn buffalo nickel (bottom) which was only minted between 1913 and 1938.  

A few times a year, the tide is low enough that you can walk around the base of the cliffs all the way from Eagle Point to China Beach. In the secluded coves there, you’ll find bits and pieces of San Francisco’s history. Mixed in among refuse from the 1906 earthquake, there are treasures left over from the Coos Bay wreck. Huge chunks of twisted metal have rusted their way in between the rocks, cementing odds and ends in place.

A key remains while the lock is long gone (top). Artifacts from the Coos Bay are often difficult to distinguish from detritus dumped over the cliff after the 1906 earthquake (bottom). 

There are lots of wonderful things to see around there, but remember, it’s called Dead Man’s Point for a reason. Extreme low tides occur usually once in the summer and once in the winter around the solstices, but even detailed tide charts are just predictions. In addition to tides, the level of sand on the beach can change dramatically, by as much as five or six feet. This can mean the difference between walking and swimming, regardless of the level of the tide. Simply put, if you don’t time it right, you may find yourself stuck between a rock and a wet place.  

Mussels and Gooseneck Barnacles mark the average high tide line across the seldom exposed beach. 

And in case you’re wondering how much you might be able to get for a vintage shipwreck artifact on eBay, keep in mind that the remains of all shipwrecks in the Golden Gate are protected by various federal laws. Even though they’re not sitting in a museum, they’re still historically significant and shouldn’t be removed from the beach.

The aft end of the SS Coos Bay makes a rare appearance, largely ignored by passing boats. 

Hero photo courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP.

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