Buried Ships and Hidden Treasures

Most of what is now downtown San Francisco was once underwater. Up until the 1850s, a shallow inlet, called Yerba Buena Cove lapped the shore at Montgomery Street, where the Pyramid now stands.Buried underneath many of the modern office buildings in the Financial District lie the remnants of at least 40 Gold Rush era ships.

Today, every construction project in the Financial District must have an archeologist on call to document whatever historical remnants may be uncovered. On this tour, you’ll learn what they've discovered, find gold and understand the history lies beneath the pavement.

View Buried Ships and Hidden Treasures in a larger map

1. Site of Gold Rush Ship Niantic

Clay Street at Sansome
Look for bronze plaque on side of building

The Niantic was a three-masted whaling ship that was abandoned here in 1849 when her crew ran off to search for gold. The hull was used for a warehouse and store, and the shallow water around the ship was quickly filled in with sand dug up from the surrounding streets. A fire in 1851 gutted the ship and the Niantic hotel was built over the charred hull. Since then remains of the Niantic have been uncovered three times. The first time was in 1872, during construction of a brick building on the site, when a dozen bottles of champagne were found. The second time was during rebuilding after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Then in 1978, the remains of the hull were uncovered again, while the current building was being built.

Artifacts from the Niantic, including the captain’s log, are in the San Francisco Maritime Museum.

Walk on to Samsone Street and turn right (south).

2. Long Wharf

Commercial Street at Sansome 

Commercial Street lies along the footprint of Long Wharf , the earliest and longs wharf in Gold Rush-era San Francisco. Long Wharf stretched from the shoreline on Montgomery Street out into Yerba Buena Cove to where the Ferry Building is today and was the center of the business district. Abandoned ships were permanently tied to the Wharf and used as warehouses, stores, hotels and brothels. Today Commercial Street is lined with restaurants, making it a popular lunchtime stop.

Notice that Commercial St. ends here at Sansome and continues as a pedestrian walkway. Follow the path between the line of trees to a stairway that leads into the Embarcadero Shopping Center and, eventually, to the Ferry Building. Avoid the stagnant pond underneath the stairs.

The historic Federal Reserve Building dates from 1924 and was designed by architect George Kelham, who also did the art deco Shell Building further down Sansome at Bush. The banking hall now houses law offices and event space rented out for weddings, proms and other parties.

Continue south on Sansome to next block

3. Gold Rush Junk / Rooftop Garden

343 Sansome
Built 1908, expanded and remodeled 1930 by Hyman and Appleton
Extended to Sacramento Street, 1990 by Burgee and Johnson 

Enter from Sansome Street and take a sharp right into a dimly lit exhibit of broken bottles, torn pictures, tools and other Gold Rush junk. It's displayed in the original elevator lobby, remodeled in 1930 Art-Deco style with a gilded ceiling. When you’re done squinting at the exhibit, take a right at the security desk to the working elevators in the 1990 wing. On the 15th floor is a public garden offering seating, tables and a view. The park is open to the public only on weekdays during business hours.

Turn left out of the Sansome St. exit and walk south to California Street.

4. Bank of California / Gold Rush Museum

400 California St. at Sansome
1907, Bliss and Faville

Affectionately called the Old Gray Lady of California Street, this granite banking temple was under construction during the 1906 earthquake and finished the following year. Inside is a massive banking hall under a lofty coffered ceiling. Go down the stairs to a small museum that tells the story of the Bank and its founder, William Ralston, and includes gold nuggets, early gold coins, and a check signed by John Muir. Open weekdays during banking hours only.

Cross California Street to the south side and walk west (uphill, toward Chinatown). Across California at Leidesdorff St is…

5. Hitching post 

California St. at Leidesdorff, north side in front of Wells Fargo 

Hundreds of hitching posts like this one once lined the street of downtown San Francisco. This is the last one remaining. It once provided a convenient place to tie up your horse while you did your business. A door on one side, now kept locked, once held feedbags for horses to munch on while waiting.

Continue west on California.

6. Merchants Exchange / Murals 

465 California St.
1904, Willis Polk for Daniel Burhnam & Co, Architect 

This building survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire so well that it is reported to have provided water and power to surrounding buildings. Julia Morgan had her office in this building and reportedly helped re-design the lobby.

In the back lobby, the original trading floor is now a bank. The murals are the work of famed seascape artist William Coulter. Painted between 1909 and 1920, and rediscovered during a 1907s renovation, the scenes are of Port Costa, Honolulu Harbor and the Golden Gate, before the bridge.

The Voyage of the Gjoa

On the far left wall is a mural by Norwegian artist Nils Hagerup of the Gjoa, the first ship to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage. Piloted by famed explorer Roald Admunsen, the Gjoa took three years to make its famous journey. The exhausted crew arrived in San Francisco in October 1906 to find the city in ashes. They returned to Norway on a commercial steamer, leaving their crippled ship behind. The Gjoa was displayed in Golden Gate Park, where it deteriorated further. In the 1970s the ship was returned to Norway, where it rests in the Maritime Museum in Oslo.

Turn right out of the Merchant's Exchange, cross California Street and continue north on Montgomery.

7. Wells Fargo / Museum

420 Montgomery Street

In the summer of 1852, Samuel Carter, an experienced express agent and Rueben Washburn, a Syracuse banker, arrived in San Francisco. They opened the first Wells Fargo office on Montgomery Street, on the same site the museum occupies today. Henry Wells and William Fargo stayed home in New York. Many years later, they each made one brief visit to San Francisco.

Inside are lots of interactive exhibits on the history of California and the west, plus the chance to feel what it was like to take a ride in a real stagecoach. It’s popular with school groups, so the best time to visit is often late in the day.

Exit Montgomery Street and turn left to head north.

Wells, Fargo and Butterfield

As young men, Henry Wells and William Fargo were express messengers in upstate New York. John Butterfield was a stagecoach driver. In 1850, Wells, Fargo and Butterfield became partners in a delivery company called American Express.

Wells, a noted dealmaker, was appointed president of American Exrpess. Fargo, the youngest of the partners was the secretary. and Fargo , was secretary of American Express. Butterfield controlled the Board. Fargo was much younger than his partners and aggressively competitive. He and the older, more conservative Butterfield frequently clashed.

In early 1852, Fargo developed a plan to deliver mail and small packages throughout the the west. Predictably, Butterfield opposed Fargo’s plan, and got the board to vote it down. Fargo enlisted Henry Wells to raise money to back a new company. On March 18, 1852, Wells and Fargo met with a group of investors in an elegant New York hotel to form Wells, Fargo and Co.

Both Wells and Fargo remained kept their positions in American Express while hiring others to develop their western venture. Each man visited San Francisco only once. Wells crossed the Isthmus of Panama by mule to reach San Francisco in 1853, but only stayed three weeks before returning home. Fargo served as mayor of Buffalo, New York.

8. Bank of Italy Building

550 Montgomery Street, at Clay
This building, which dates from 1908, was the first headquarters of A.P. Giannini’s Bank of Italy, which became Bank of America. Inside the original tellers cages still carry insignia with the initials of the Bank of Italy. The small vault opposite the entrance is a reminder of Giannini’s post-earthquake promise to always have money readily available to depositors. The carvings above this vault and the entryway were probably added in a 1921 remodel by John Powers. There is also a large vault with two doors downstairs in the basement.

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