Just thirty years ago, almost to the day, I was standing on the deck of the Gold Rush ship William Gray as we peeled back the mud to reveal its deck, the bulwarks that surrounded the deck, and the chain plates that once supported the masts – all preserved after more than a century of burial in what it now Levi’s Plaza,in the shadow of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill. William Gray’s partial excavation came several months after the Gold Rush ship Niantic was unearthed by construction at 505 Sansome, in downtown San Francisco, and the modern age of historical archaeology began in the city. I also was there for that!
Several amazing discoveries have been made since then, and I was lucky enough to be involved in most of them. To actually walk the decks of a long buried ship, to smell the bitter ashes of the fire that razed the town to the ground on May 4, 1851, to watch the tide wash around the pilings of dock burned to the waterline and buried two stories beneath the sidewalks, and to open casks of biscuits, crates of wine, and sacks of coffee sealed in the mud for nearly a century and half – that has been magic, and it inspired me to study these lost ships and docks that lie beneath modern San Francisco and tell their story.
This is a recent interview I did for Archaeology Magazine that tells more:
Here’s also two photos of the finds – one is of the ship General
Harrison, which burned to the waterline in the May 4, 1851 fire and
excavated in 2001 by a team from Oakland’s Archeo-Tec, headed by Allen
Pastron. I led the maritime archaeology on the dig, working with my
good friends Allen, Rhonda Robichaud and the rest of the Archeo-Tec
crew. The second picture is of a crate of white wine, probably from
Burgundy, France (analysis showed it was a high quality white wine, and
if from Burgundy it was a Chardonnay, so wine lovers, it had to have
been very good….) that we excavated from the mud alongside General
Harrison. The wine was part of the ship’s cargo.