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Whaler from 1818 Dug Up Beneath San Francisco

A construction crew excavating land for a new high rise in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood recently dug-up a well-preserved chunk of the city's maritime past: A 19th-century whaling ship that archeologists believe was buried and forgotten as landfill after being abandoned by fortune-seeking sailors during the Gold Rush.

It's the first such ship to be preserved nearly intact, and its remains are telling researchers about the history and economy of Gold Rush San Francisco.

Several other ships are buried underneath buildings in the financial district, says James Allan, the maritime archaeologist who supervised the excavation. "But this is the first time the developer agreed to allow the ship's remains to be excavated," he said.

Allan said he wasn't surprised: Historical records show that the construction site sits on an old salvage yard run by a pioneer businessman named Charles Hare. He says Hare was a ship breaker who arrived in San Francisco in the early 1850s and started a business dismantling the ships abandoned during the Gold Rush. "What we found here was the remains of the very last one he was working on," Allan said. "It was deeply buried. It was 15 to 20 feet below present street grade."

After Allan and his crew dug the ship out by hand and shovel, it was transported to a waterfront warehouse, where volunteers have conducted preservation work.

Through painstaking detective work, Allan has concluded that his crew found the Candace, a three-masted bark about a 100 feet long that was built in Boston in 1818. In its heyday, the whaler sailed the globe, and it was likely among the first merchant ships to carry the American flag into the Pacific. The Candace was badly damaged by ice on a whaling voyage to the Arctic when its captain, Norman Starr, tried to return home to New England. Leaking badly and manned by a tired and cranky crew, the Candace literally limped into San Francisco Bay on July 4, 1855, said James Dodson, president of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.

"The ship was no longer fit," Dodson said. "The ship was being sued by its crew for payment of back wages, which they never received. There was, in fact, a lawsuit -- which the crew won." He says the owners sold the ship for scrap.

A newspaper account from that time noted that five ships were being scrapped in Charles Hare's salvage yard. After examining its size, configuration, framing patterns and fitting, Allan is convinced that the newly discovered ship is the Candace.

"It's a little bit circumstantial," Allan said. "We haven't got a name board that says 'Candace,' but we have enough of these multiple lines of evidence to be 99 percent certain that this is the Candace."

Historians believe more than 60,000 fortune seekers came to San Francisco in the first year of the Gold Rush, and that hundreds of ships were abandoned. Dodson says the remains of dozens of old ships are still buried underneath the streets that tourists walk, on what used to be the docks of the bay.

"Right now, we call it the Financial District," Dobson said. "It's streets with names like Battery, like Davis, like Market Street, but most importantly the Embarcadero. Underneath that area used to be water." He believes there are many ships still buried in the area. "The ships were abandoned and buried again to get your prime waterfront real estate on new land, so to speak."

Beneath this new land -- arguably some of the most expensive in the country -- rest the remnants of history, said archaeologist Allan. San Francisco, he says, "was filled so rapidly, and they needed so much material, that what they threw in the fill was all the stuff they didn't consider important at the time. When we find it, it's just amazing things that they threw away."

The discovery of the Candace intrigues Allan for another reason: It tells researchers about Charles Hare's old salvage yard, where he employed only Chinese workers.

"The Chinese were the most marginal labor force," Allan said. "They were banned from the gold fields and had to resort to fishing as a way of life. Hare recognized that labor pool and hired them to take these ships apart. It was very time consuming, boring, laborious, hard work. And that's one of the stories that this ship tells."

Restoration and study of the Candace continues. Current plans are to make it the centerpiece of the new San Francisco History Museum scheduled to open in 2008.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.