Sailing Into San Francisco’s Past
By Marc Ricketts
For years the best free thing to do in San Francisco was the Hyde Street Pier with its collection of historic ships. Times change, of course, and “free” is practically an endangered species. So now with a $5 adult entry we must amend the topic sentence to best cheap thing to do in San Francisco.
The Pier is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Across the street is the Visitor’s Center with the type of artifacts one might expect like this lighthouse lens and a walk through exhibit of the various stages of the City’s waterfront. During the gold rush countless ships were abandoned as all hands headed for the hills, and a unique display set into the floor shows some objects that have been found beneath the streets of San Francisco.
The real fun is on the pier itself, and the approach includes displays from the interactive barrels that demonstrate how the pulleys of a block and tackle make a longshoreman’s job easier, to old steam engines and paddle wheels. Even ships that are always berthed require constant attention against the wind, fog and salt of The Bay, and the boat shop gets a lot of use by the park’s volunteers.
Finally, the ships themselves. One can approach as a connoisseur of maritime history, or perhaps an aficionado of the craftsmanship involved creating these vessels, or just enjoying a sunny day beside the water. If you’ve got kids, then there’s not a child in the world that won’t like running around on an old ship, pretending to be the captain, taking the helm against an angry sea.
First up is the ferry Eureka, a steam driven double wheeler.
Car enthusiasts will undoubtedly appreciate the bonus historic vehicle display on the lower deck.
Passengers had plenty of room to stretch out as well as an assortment of the day’s sundries, sweets, and magazines.
The upper deck offers a close up of the Eureka’s stack plus the Bay and Alcatraz beyond.
Berthed adjacent to the Eureka is the Tugboat Hercules.
Hercules is also steam powered, but here the engine can be seen during one’s exploration.
The crew also spent a bit more time onboard than those that merely bounced back and forth from one side of the Bay to the other. Far be it for your humble narrator to imply that these accommodations were less than spacious, but these photos had to be taken from the outside. At least the second mate won’t have to get up in the middle of the night if he needs an exhaust pipe.
Little space is wasted, from the kitchen to the towing machine necessary for Hercules to fulfill her core objective.
The three masted square rigger Balclutha spent years hauling cargo, timber and salmon between three continents. After retirement, she spent years on San Francisco’s Pier 41, commanding an admission fee even during the Hyde Street Pier’s free era.
Unlike the Hercules, there is plenty of space onboard, whether in crew areas or the hold below, now filled with replicas of the types of cargo she hauled.
Tradition be damned, this captain had his wife aboard for the months at sea.
This meant spacious luxurious quarters,
and, of course, a galley complete with a high chair and pig.
The cre….wait, a pig? (long voyages required fresh meat, one time dinner got loose on the deck, it was hilarious). OK, cool. Anyway, the crew didn’t have that kind of space, but if the Captain needed an anchor chain, he had to walk all the way from the stern to the bow.
The crew got to sleep in the bow because, well, that’s the part that crashes into the rocks, and we can’t expect the Captain’s wife to sleep there, can we? Below decks, one can see how a typical crewman may have lived onboard.
So I think the lesson is clear: stay in school, become a captain, get a bathtub and a pig.
As previously mentioned, the boat shop always has a project underway, and the big one currently is aboard the CA Thayer. This schooner also hauled fish and lumber, but is in the midst of a massive rehabilitation, so while she can still be boarded, most of the deck is stripped and they have closed off the hold below.
The steam powered sidewheeler tug Eppleton Hall tug spent most of her career plying the rivers of England. Although owned by the park service since the 70s, restoration is still underway, and to my knowledge has yet to be available for boarding by visitors.
While You’re In The Area!
Still need more nautical history? That ship shaped building is the Maritime Museum, also part of the National Historic Park. And the sign on that brick building is also mighty intriguing.
And, of course, one can ride Mr. Toad’s Yellow Car Trolley to reach all of these destinations.
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