History

The Gold Rush Days of San Francisco

By
Capt. Jeff
Werner

A favorite destination in San Francisco, for locals and visitors alike, is the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market along the waterfront north of downtown. The fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and fish sourced from around the Bay Area are truly a gourmand's delight.

The Ferry Building, built in 1898 as a terminal for ferries crossing San Francisco Bay, anchors the thrice-weekly market. is restored Beaux Arts structure with its Grand Nave and marble mosaics is the jewel of The Embarcadero. Stretching three miles, centered on the Ferry Building, The Embarcadero is a manmade seawall with piers extending out into the Bay built on acres and acres of land ll starting in 1878.

Originally this shoreline was dotted with sandy coves and rocky outcrops when the city of San Francisco was just a small trading post built around an anchorage where the Ferry Building now stands. However, events in 1848 quickly altered the future of this sleepy village forever:

March 15: Gold was reportedly discovered at a northern California sawmill along the American River. is news was not widely believed in San Francisco.

May 12: Gold fever was set o in San Francisco when a merchant waved a bottle of gold dust and shouted, Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!

May 29: The Californian newspaper reported,  the whole country from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the sea shore to the base of the Sierra Nevadas, resounds with the sordid cry of GOLD, GOLD, GOLD! while the field is left half-planted, the house half-built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes. is newspaper also announced the suspension of publication because the staff was leaving for the gold fields.

November 28: The USS Lexington departed San Francisco with $500,000 in gold destined for the U.S. Mint on the East Coast.

December 5: In a message to Congress, President Polk confirmed the discovery of gold in California. He wrote, "The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief."

Gold fever struck the nation and the Gold Rush of 1849 soon began. San Francisco was the destination of the "Forty-Niners," the nickname for the miners headed to California to seek their fortune. Of the thousands of immigrants from Europe and the Americans who flooded west looking for gold, only a small percentage made the journey overland in covered wagons.

The Oregon Trail traversed Native American homelands complete with treacherous mountain passes, and it took as long as six months. Hundreds of travelers died each year as a result of accidents, exposure, starvation or Indian attacks. The alternative route was by sea. Clipper ships sailed down to the East Coast of South America, rounded Cape Horn and then sailed up the Pacific side to California. This sea route was faster and safer than a wagon train. Other shipping companies developed an even quicker transportation route: steamship to the Caribbean side of Panama, then overland across the Isthmus of Panama by horse or mule and finally embarking on another steamer up to San Francisco.

During the year of 1849, the population of San Francisco skyrocketed from less than a thousand to 25,000 people. The anchorage in the bay, which typically had one or two ships arriving each month prior to the Gold Rush, immediately became the port of entry for 700 vessels filled with Forty-Niners. And it soon became clear that all these ships would become a liability.

By June 4, 1849, there were already 200 deserted ships in the harbor. Their crews had abandoned them for the gold fields. Even the Navy's ship of the line, USS Ohio, had 18 sailors jump ship to search for gold. Two years later, there were 465 ships lying in the port, and most were lacking the able-bodied crew needed to man them. is labor shortage brought the verb "to shanghai" into the American lexicon, as unscrupulous captains paid crimpers a commission called blood money to kidnap and render sailors unconscious. The shanghaied sailors would eventually wake up aboard a clipper at sea and find themselves on a two-year voyage to China.

Soon the sheer number of ships, both those actively engaged in trade and those abandoned, were clogging the harbor at anchor. Added to this problem was a critical shortage of wharves to unload shipments. It was time for the newly incorporated City of San Francisco to take action.

"The Harbor Master shall have all the power and authority vested in the corporation of this city, to regulate and control the position of the steamers, sailing vessels, or other craft lying and situated in the harbor. He shall, whenever it is deemed advisable, cause any steamer, sailing vessel, or other craft to change its position . . . It shall be the duty of the Harbor Master to keep an open and free passage to all wharves of the city."
--- John M. Geary, Mayor of San Francisco in 1850

Enterprising developers decided to use landfill to extend the shoreline of San Francisco to accommodate new piers that would jut out farther into San Francisco Bay. Much of this landfill consisted of the rotting carcasses of the abandoned ships at anchor. Other entrepreneurs even converted some of these old ships into saloons, warehouses, lodgings, a jail and even a church. San Francisco's natural shore line was pushed a full six blocks out into the bay south of Market Street. To the north of Market Street, a similar landfill reached all the way to what today is known as Fisherman's Wharf.

Excavations in downtown San Francisco for skyscrapers and other development in the late 20th century have uncovered many of the once abandoned vessels. In 1978, during excavation for the Mark Twain Plaza Complex next to the Transamerica Pyramid, the remains of the whaling vessel Niantic were discovered. Deserted by her crew, the Niantic was run aground and converted into a hotel.

By 1855, the California Gold Rush was over. San Francisco, however, continued to thrive as an international port of call. Clipper ships were bringing whale oil from Alaska and coal from England. Steam ships brought silks, tea, rice and opium from Hong Kong. During the last three decades of the 1800s the "grain fleet," sailing ships built of steel, carried California wheat to Europe. By 1900, the port of San Francisco moved more cargo than all the other West Coast ports combined.

Where to Visit

  • San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (Aquatic Park and Hyde Street Pier, 415-561-7000)
  • Maritime Museum (900 Beach St., 415-561-7100)
  • Ferry Building Marketplace (One Ferry Building, 415-983-8030)
  • Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill Blvd., 415-249-0995)
  • Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture (2 Marina Blvd., 415-345-7500)
  • Barbary Coast Trail Guided Tours (San Francisco Museum & Historical Society, 415-454-2355)
  • Wells Fargo History Museum (420 Montgomery St., 415-396-2619)
  • The Gold Rush Trail An Outdoor Museum of San Francisco's Heritage (57 Post St., 510-981-0549)

Where to Dock

Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht's fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.

Related Articles
Women Circumnavigators
|

To sail around the world is an ultimate endurance test and a dream that has for centuries tempted explorers, adventurers and those who love sailing. Ferdinand Magellan was the first maritime globe trotter, and he gets all the credit — even though he didn’t finish the journey.

During a skirmish with natives in the Philippines, he was shot by a poisoned arrow and left by his crew to die. His navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano then captained the Victoria, a 31-foot, 85-ton ship with a crew of 45 men back to Spain in September of 1522, three years after Magellan led his flotilla of five ships westward across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new route to the Spice Islands.

In September of 2022, Ellen Magellan set off down the Trinity River in East Texas in the Evelyn Mae, a 22-foot, carbon fiber rowboat outfitted with two cabins and a solar power generator, on her way to the Gulf of Mexico in the first leg of an audacious, seven-year attempt to row a boat solo around the world. At the age of 27, Ellen seeks to raise awareness of the state of the ocean and promote the notion that it’s okay for women to travel alone and experience life-changing experiences.

Jeanne Baret | Wikimedia Commons

Will Magellan complete her journey? Who knows. But, inspired by her passion, Marinalife presents the stories of eight trailblazing women who circumnavigated the globe via boat in their own ways, taking on a challenge historically reserved mainly for men.

JEANNE BARET of France became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, albeit without knowing it. Jeanne disguised herself as a man to illegally accompany her botanist lover as part of a French Navy scientific voyage looking for exotic plants. Women weren’t allowed on Navy boats. In Brazil, it is believed she discovered a new exotic flowering vine and named it Bougainvillea in honor of Louis de Bougainville, who headed the around-the-world expedition. Her identity was eventually discovered in Tahiti where some historians claim she was sexually assaulted by her crewmates. Baret and her lover Philibert Commerson were later left behind in Mauritius in the Indian Ocean as the expedition continued. On Mauritius, they befriended the governor, an avid botanist, and studied the flora of the region. When Commerson died, Baret married a Frenchman and together they returned unceremoniously to France three years after Baret’s journey began, thus completing the around the world journey. Bougainville later arranged for Jeanne to receive a Navy pension in recognition of her contributions on the exhibition.

NELLIE BLY was an American investigative journalist widely known for going undercover to report the terrible conditions of a New York City insane asylum. In 1888, she began what would be a 72-day trip around the world via steamship, horse and railroad to emulate Jules Verne’s popular fictional character Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days. She was the first person to turn the fiction into fact. New York World Publisher Joseph Pulitzer initially was against it, believing only a man could make such a trip. He eventually acquiesced and published daily updates on her journey. The entire nation followed along as Nellie raced not only time, but also another woman. Elizabeth Bisland, representing Cosmopolitan Magazine, finished her circumnavigation four days after Nellie triumphantly arrived in New York. Bly was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 2002.

KRYSTYNA CHOJNOWSKA-LISKIEWICZ, an experienced Polish sailor and ship construction engineer, became the first woman to sail around the world solo. Krystyna was selected for the challenge in a competition held by Poland’s Sailing Association to promote Polish sailing during the United Nation’s International Women’s Year. Her husband, also a shipbuilder, custom- designed the Mazurek, a 9.5-meters long by 3-meters wide boat for Krystyna. During her voyage, Krystyna was stopped and suspected of drug trafficking, overcame storms, and battled not only kidney stones, but New Zealand sailor Naomi James, who was also trying to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by herself. Krystyna beat Naomi by 39 days. Now retired, Krystyna continues to sail and encourages women to take up the sport.

Tracy Edwards and The Maiden Crew and RJA Stewardesses with Beefeater Trophy-source-Wikimedia Commons

TRACY EDWARDS was expelled from school in Britain at the age of 15 and began traveling the world. She worked on charter yachts in Greece and learned how to sail, eventually taking part in the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race as a cook in 1985. Four years later, Edwards skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Race. Edwards’ Maiden, a restored second-hand racing yacht, went on to win two of the six legs of the race and finished second overall. The media covering the race was often derogatory. One sailing journalist described the Maiden as a “tin full of tarts.” Nevertheless, Tracy and her crew garnered worldwide praise, and she was awarded Britain’s Yachtsman of the Year Trophy and the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). Today, she works with charities around the world to break down barriers preventing girls from getting an education.

Laura Dekker | Savyasachi via Wikimedia Commons

DAME ELLEN MACARTHUR, a British sailor, broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005 on her first attempt. Her time of 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds beat the previous record by more than a day. Shortly after her return to England amid a flotilla of boats and cheering crowds, MacArthur became the youngest woman in modern history to be made Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE). In 2009, she announced her retirement from competitive sailing and subsequently launched a foundation promoting the concept of the “circular economy” — rethinking how to design, make, and use the things people need, from food to clothing, to transform our economy into one where waste is eliminated, resources are circulated, and nature is regenerated.

LAURA DEKKER, a New Zealand- born Dutch sailor became at age 16 the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe single handedly. Because her parents were divorced, Dutch courts stepped in to prevent her departure earlier at age 15 because national law prohibited a captain of a boat younger than 16 to sail a boat longer than 7 meters in Dutch waters. Dekker, who was born to parents living on a boat off the coast of New Zealand, first sailed solo at the age of six and soon thereafter began dreaming of sailing around the world. When she finally won the right to sail, she launched from St. Maarten in her 38’ boat Guppy. In 2018, she founded the Laura Dekker World Sailing Foundation to provide programs for young people to develop life skills such as teamwork, self-confidence, responsibility and leadership.

Jeanne Socrates | Ennya2000 from Flickr

British sailor JEANNE SOCRATES became the oldest woman at age 77 to single-handedly sail around the world, non-stop and without outside assistance. It was her third attempt. When she departed Victoria, British Columbia, aboard her 38’ boat Nereida, she was still recovering from a broken neck and broken ribs from a fall in a previous attempt. Socrates accomplished the feat in 11 months, sailing around all five great capes (Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, South East Cape of Tasmania and the South Cape of Stewart Island) and dodging three cyclones. In honor of her feat, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority in Victoria named the inner harbor commercial dock the Jean Socrates Dock. Socrates is still sailing today.

Read More
Hurricane Hunters
|

Hurricanes are nature’s grandest, most ferocious storms. They fascinate us, and they repel us. As a radio news and weather reporter in Miami for 30 years, my grandfather was obsessed with hurricanes. (Confession: I am, too.) Using colored pencils and a wooden ruler, he meticulously plotted their paths onto an enormous paper map tacked up on the wall of his study. It was a beautiful and mesmerizing record of these ferocious and complicated storms that somehow feel alive as they zigzag and wobble across the ocean like drunken sailors.

Science has improved dramatically since my grandfather’s era. A fleet of Earth- observing satellites providing real-time data now help thousands of scientists around the world answer three age-old questions: Where and when will the hurricane hit and how strong will it be? Modern forecasts are pretty accurate. Long gone is the day when a storm could sneak up and hit without any warning. Here are the stories of three men who helped pave the way.

Three Who Paved the Way for How We Track & Predict Hurricanes Today

Father Hurricane

When the regime of Queen Isabella II of Spain collapsed in 1868, many who supported her thought it wise to flee the country. Father Benito Viñes, a Jesuit priest and educator, was one of them. He emigrated to Cuba and found a position as director of the meteorological observatory in Havana. Shocked by the damage hurricanes regularly inflicted upon the island, he made it his mission to learn everything he could about them.

Within five years of arriving, Father Viñes knew more about hurricanes than any living person. He was the first to discover that the cloud pattern and the behavior of the wind well in advance of a storm could be used to track it accurately. Using this information, he designed the “Antilles cyclonoscope,” a kind of slide-rule that could estimate from a considerable distance the current position of a hurricane and calculate its likely path. Up until then, weather observers could tell when a hurricane was coming but not where it was going.

His first forecast was published in a Havana newspaper on September 11, 1875 — two days before an intense hurricane ravaged the southern coast of Cuba. Many lives were saved because of the timely warning. Throughout the 1880s he exchanged hurricane information with other weather observers across the Caribbean via telegraph. It was the first hurricane warning system and a model the United States. Weather Service later emulated it. Father Viñes was so well-respected that for a short time hurricanes were even called Viñesas and identified numerically. The pronunciation, however, was difficult for Americans, so the practice ceased. Father Viñes died in 1893.

The Aerial Acrobat

Len Povey

Len Povey was a self-taught pilot who flew with the new U.S. Army Air Service until 1922 when he left to pursue a more “colorful” career testing race planes, flying bootleg liquor and barnstorming over the Great Lakes as a headliner with a flying circus. His aerial acrobatics at the All-American Air Maneuvers show in Miami in 1934 caught the eye of a Cuban Air Force official who hired him to train Cuban pilots and serve as the personal pilot for Fulgencio Batista, the chief of the armed forces and later president and dictator of the island nation.

When Cuba’s Weather Service detected a storm intensifying several hundred miles east of the island in early September 1935, Len Povey volunteered to help pinpoint the location and movement of the storm. He jumped in his Curtiss Hawk II, an open cockpit biplane, and flew over the Straits of Florida where he located the hurricane farther north than predicted and moving northwestward toward the Florida Keys. The Cubans dispatched a warning, but it was too late. Later that same day, the storm roared ashore at Islamorada, FL, with winds of 200 m.p.h. and a 20-foot storm surge that drowned more than 400 people, mostly Army veterans who were building the Overseas Railroad.

Povey later joined the faculty at Embry-Riddle, a private Florida college focused on aviation and aerospace programs, where he was a tireless advocate for aerial hurricane patrols. However, the type of reconnaissance mission he envisioned didn’t happen until July 1943, when Air Force Colonel Joe Duckworth flew a plane directly into the eye of a hurricane churning toward Galveston, TX. Len Povey died in 1984. His obituary claimed he survived a mid-air collision and an encounter with a turkey buzzard that sheared off a portion of his plane’s wing.

The Data Cruncher

One of the most recognized voices on hurricanes in the late 20th century emanated ironically from a mile-high lab at Colorado State University. That voice was Dr. William Gray, a professor of tropical meteorology from 1961 until 2005.

Bill Gray grew up in Washington, DC, wanting to be a baseball player. He was a standout pitcher for George Washington University until he hurt his knee. During service in the Air Force, he turned to a career in climatology. He once told the Los Angeles Times he was inspired to study hurricanes after he flew a plane through one off the east coast of Florida in 1958.

Dr. Gray was an outlier when it came to hurricanes. He eschewed computer modeling, focusing instead on observational science: historical storm data, old maps featuring storm patterns, and statistics on wind speed, water temperatures and other meteorological factors. He was the first to determine that the intensity and frequency of storms in the Atlantic was cyclical and that likelihood of a hurricane reaching the East Coast of the United States depended on a variety of factors including the amount of rainfall in Africa and the impact of El Niño (the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that produces powerful winds that shear off the tops of storms developing in the Atlantic). In short, he figured out Mother Nature’s recipe for powerful storms.

In 1984 Dr. Gray unveiled the first Atlantic seasonal hurricane forecast and quickly became a hurricane superstar and media darling. He, however, considered his greatest legacy the students whom he taught and mentored, many of whom went on to become leaders in weather research and forecasting. He died in 2016.

Check out Marinalife's recent article about How Hurricanes Get Their Names.

Hurricane Tracking Apps for Your Phone

You don’t need all six of these apps, but we’re certain you’ll find one here that you like. All are available on Google Play and the Apple App Store.

THE WEATHER CHANNEL

Rain radar, storm tracker and severe weather warnings help you prepare for hurricane season, as well as storms and heavy rain. Monitor live radar updates, an hourly rain tracker, storm radar news, and local weather forecast on the go. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.

NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER DATA

Official data, custom graphics, updates and maps from National Hurricane Center (NHC) experts. Considered the grandparent of all hurricane trackers. Free. Available in English and French.

WEATHER UNDERGROUND

Reliable, real-time and hyperlocal forecasts combining data from 250,000+ personal weather stations and a proprietary forecast model provide an incredibly accurate local forecast. Interactive radar and customizable severe weather alerts. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.

CLIME

Previously called NOAA Radar, this is a good hurricane tracker app, because it lets you overlay rain, radar or satellite images on top of the tracker. This gives you a detailed look at what’s happening in the storm. Add multiple locations to the map to get alerted if you’re in the path of a hurricane. Free. Multiple languages. Paid upgrade packages available.

RADARSCOPE

If you’re willing to spend some money on an app favored by weather nerds and professional storm chasers, then check out RadarScope. The learning curve is steeper than with others, but it features high-resolution radar data sourced from NOAA’s next generation radar and Doppler Weather Radar. Available in English, French, German and Spanish.

HURRICANE – AMERICAN RED CROSS

Monitor conditions in your area or throughout the storm track, prepare your family and home, find help and let others know you are safe. Free. Available in English and Spanish.

Read More
How Hurricanes Get Their Names
|

Historically, hurricanes in the United States were referred to by their time period and/or geographic location, e.g., the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In the West Indies, they were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. A colorful Australian weatherman named Clement Wragge began assigning Greek and Roman mythological names to Pacific cyclones in the late 19th century. He later began naming them after politicians he particularly disliked.

During World War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists plotting storms over the Pacific needed a better way to denote tropical cyclones while analyzing weather maps. Many began paying tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home by naming the cyclones after them. In 1954, the National Weather Bureau officially embraced the practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology, the practice was adopted elsewhere.

In response to pressure from women’s groups, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association began using both men’s and women’s names starting in 1979. More recently, the lists of names, which are predetermined and rotate every six years, have been further diversified to reflect names used in the many regions where tropical cyclones strike. Names of devastating storms, such as Katrina in 2005, are permanently retired.

Read More

Want to Stay In the Loop?

Stay up to date with the latest articles, news and all things boating with a FREE subscription to Marinalife Magazine!

Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Marinalife articles