Maritime park recalls city’s waterfront past

SAN FRANCISCO — The setting is perfect. Boats line the shore, the wind blows in from the Pacific Ocean and seagulls fill the sky. Even when you get to the ships on exhibit that are docked nearby, visitors feel as if they are on the ocean because of strong sea breeze and the smell of saltwater in the air.

This is the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. It is located at Fisherman’s Wharf near downtown and the unheralded site offers an opportunity to go back in time and live the ocean-going history of San Francisco through the ships that made it happen.

The Hyde St. Pier where the six landmark boats of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park are located (Photo by Rosa De Armas).

“People should stop here because is important to know about your culture and history,” said Lynn Cullivan, management analyst for the park. “In this park, people learn about the way life was and how ships played an important role in it.”

The Balclutha is the oldest ship on exhibit and it served three roles. It was built in England in 1886 and taken to San Francisco to haul grain from San Francisco to England. In that time, England was having a grain crisis and California had an abundance of it. This trade was done 17 times around Cape Horn and brought about $2 million to the city of San Francisco in the late 1800s.

When she got to England, she brought back cement, Belgian glass and fancy goods to help build the city. Because the road and rail systems had not been fully developed, it was cheaper to bring goods around the Cape Horn than bringing them overland from the East Coast of the United States.

Later in its life, the Balclutha went into the lumber industry, transporting wood for housing and other purposes from Washington to Australia and Hawaii. After that, she was purchased by Alaska Packing Association to carry canned salmon. She would head to Alaska in March and not come back until October.

The Balclutha used in the lumber industry and salmon and cod fishing. A later owner painted it like a pirate boat and created a pirate story for it (Photo by Rosa De Armas).

There were two groups of men working: the fishermen and the Chinese gang. The fishermen were mostly Norwegian and Scandinavian who worked for eight to 10 hours and had three meals a day. The China gang, however was composed by poor white men, poor black men, Filipinos, Latin Americans and Chinese.

They were known as the China men because they were exploited like the Chinese railroad workers had been a generation before. These men worked 18 to 20 hours a day, were given two meals a day and basically worked for free because they had to buy their supplies from their quartermaster, Alaska Package Association.

In her later years the ship was bought by a private individual who created a pirate history, turned her into a pirate vessel and towed her around San Francisco Bay saying she was a pirate vessel. For this reason today, the vessel looks like a pirate ship.

Another ship at the park, the C.A Thayer, is a three-masted schooner built in 1895 for carrying lumber. She carried lumber from Oregon, Washington and the California Red Coast and took it to Mexico, Hawaii and Fiji. She took lumber from Washington State to San Francisco to help build the city before and after the devastating Earthquake in 1906.

Later, she started carrying salmon and then codfish. In the 1940s, the U.S. Army purchased it, removed its masts and used it as an ammunition barge in British Columbia. When the war ended, she continued cod fishing. In 1950, she made her last trip and become the last commercial vessel of its type working along the West Coast.

Today, she is been restored to its original condition and will be fully functional in 2009.

Antique cars are displayed inside the Hercules to illustrate the era during which it worked as a ferry (Photo by Rosa De Armas).

The Eureka is a side-wheel paddle steamboat built in 1890 that is also on display at the park. She was owned by a railroad and used to move the cargo across the bay. After the railroad went around the bay, she became a passenger ferry. She started hauling around 120 cars and 2,300 passengers between San Francisco and Sausalito. She continued working until 1957, when both bridges in San Francisco had been completed.

The Alma is a scow schooner built in 1891. Before the bridges were built she carried goods to the Bay area and the Delta. Today she takes passenger around the bay and tells the history of San Francisco including famous events like the Gold Rush and the earthquakes.

The Hercules is steamed tug built for Open Ocean towing. She towed disabled vessels and barges. In 1907, she went down the Cape Horn towing her sister ship from New Jersey to San Francisco. Also, she helped build the lock of Panama Canal.

Eppleton Hall is an English steam-powered side-wheeler that tells the story of the river tugs that went into the bay to pick up barges and take them into the river areas where the bigger ships could not go.

The Hercules worked as a towboat in the open ocean. Once it traveled around the Cape Horn (Photo by Rosa De Armas).

The park museum is a building resembling an ocean liner. The structure is an impressive as the collection it holds. The walls in the interior are decorated with murals created by the artist Hilaire Hiler. The artist created a gleaming work of art with her vision of the ocean. The museum is undergoing a restoration and will be opened in 2009.

The Visitor Center has collection photos, videos and instruments that tell the maritime story of San Francisco.


If You Go

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
Lower Fort Mason, San Francisco, Calif. 94123

  • Visitor Center: 415-447-5000
  • Hours: The Hyde Street Pier opens from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. from September to May 24. In summer, it closes at 5:30 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The park Visitor Center opens from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. from September to May 24. In summer it closes at 7 p.m.
  • Admission to the Hyde Street ships: adults $5, youth (12 to 17) and seniors $2, children under 12 free entrance. There is no admission fee to Hyde Street Pier and the Maritime Museum Library.

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