Tall Ships Made Land Here

The East Cut today is one of San Francisco’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, with a rush of new housing, offices, shops, parks, and transportation sprouting up nearly overnight. But close to two centuries ago, the area saw a rush of a different kind.

Between 1849 and 1850 alone, tens of thousands of Gold Rushers arrived along with hundreds of ships to San Francisco’s eastern shore in search of fortunes and a new life out West. For those traveling by boat, here was often where eager gold-seekers first made land.

A Neighborhood Afloat

At the time, much of the East Cut was underwater, part of a shallow body of water called Yerba Buena Cove. For those arriving on newly landed ships, the promise of riches was so strong that crews often deserted their vessels to rush off to the gold fields, leaving behind a forest of masts in the cove. But the ships didn’t remain empty for long, as some of these approximately 500 abandoned ships were used as storeships, saloons and hotels. San Francisco’s first big hotel was a ship, and so was its first jail.

‘Land’ Grab

An interesting quirk in local laws ended up turning fields of abandoned vessels into today’s modern land-based neighborhoods. At the time, local laws allowed ship-owners to sink their boat and claim the land underneath. The law even allowed owners to pay to have their ships towed into a desirable location and sunk for them while gaining rights to the land beneath. As the cove was filled in between 1850 and 1870, sunken-boat owners ended up with pieces of prime real estate.

As early as 1851, Yerba Buena Cove began its transformation into the neighborhoods we know today. The harbor was extended out into the bay by wharves, while buildings were erected on piles among the ships. By 1870, Yerba Buena Cove had been filled to create new land and the areas of the Financial District, the East Cut and South Beach.

The legacies of the East Cut’s maritime migrations are still apparent today. Look deep enough and you can find the remnants of buried ships, as archaeologists did when excavating the foundation for 201 Folsom Street (Lumina). As more tall buildings rise across the East Cut neighborhood, will more tall ships be found below?