Day 69: The Ship’s Keeper

There are ships buried beneath downtown San Francisco.

58 days ago, I went in search of them. If you haven’t looked at the entry from that day, you should do so before reading further.

Two days later, I got a phone call from a man named Leigh Newcomb. He heard that I had been snooping around for information about a buried ship called the Niantic. (Yikes, how much trouble am I in?) Leigh invited me to the maritime archive see the artifacts pulled from that ship’s wreck.

Today is our meeting.

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I’m excited, but keeping my expectations at a calm level. Here’s what I’m hoping to see:

  • Leigh’s office, with a cabinet of artifacts.
  • I’ve heard there was champagne on board when it was buried. How cool would it be to see some fragments of that?

(From my library run, I understand there was also a torn, dusty old book with a gold-leaf star on the cover. This is of interest, but books don’t tend to survive being burned and then buried and forgotten for a hundred years.)

Leigh meets me at the door, shows me inside, and I nearly fall over. This is no “office with a cabinet of artifacts.”


I’m sure I saw this room in Raiders of the Lost Ark.


The interior of this room is nearly the size of a city block, and every single object here could have a book written about it. Leigh has stories to go with everything.

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This is going to take all day. Awesome.


As we walk through, there are statues, figureheads, and parts of ships from just a few different centuries. Every single item is labeled and cataloged.
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Lanterns, spotlights, signal lights. I’m starting to suspect that everything which ever went missing at sea is here.

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Yes, that’s a 6-foot evil unicorn head.
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This is what it looks like, and it’s real. When you wear the suit, the air pump on the right should be operated by two people you really trust.
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This next one is not from a ship. It’s a plaster sculpture of a sleeping guy’s head, good enough to fool the guards in the only successful escape from Alcatraz. None of the three escaped prisoners has ever been found.
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These are not mailboxes, they’re compasses.
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…except the last one, which is one of the first gyroscopic stabilizers ever used at sea.

And in this part of the building, I notice a crate which makes me take a few steps back.

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My new phone does not have a Geiger counter.

I ask the obvious question, and I’m not telling what the answer was. Let’s just say they have artifacts from all sorts of wrecked ships here. All sorts. Leigh’s not worried, so I’m not worried.


I didn’t recognize this outboard motor. It’s the Evinrude One.


Thre are radios here from several different decades.
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…and then a shipboard gambling machine. It’s like a slot machine, but it produces poker hands. Oh those crafty sailors.

We’re having a great time (I know I am, anyway), and then Leigh unlocks a thick door, and says “Look in here.” I’m thinking that if all of this is outside the thick door, what could possibly be inside?
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This is so cool it’s hard to believe. Original paintings, from ships, or of ships. They’re perfectly preserved (except for those damaged before they made it here).

Leigh starts pulling them out to show me his favorites.
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This is downtown San Francisco, way before the 1849 gold rush.

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This is the original architect’s drawing of the Ferry Building, when it was still an idea.
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This small gold and silver model is a actually handmade music box which plays Italian opera from the 1830’s.

So I originally came here to see artifacts pulled from the wreck of the Niantic. Have they got any? Oh, one or two…
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Someone’s missing a shoe somewhere.
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Hundred-year-old peanuts? Yep. Yummy!

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Bottles and corks! These are all broken.
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If there is a better tour guide than Leigh, I have not seen him.

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…and suddenly in the middle of all of this, there it is, just as it was described. Hard to believe it survived.
If you’ve never seen this book before, it’s best to just forget about it. Some books are safe, and some are not.

Now I know it’s here, more or less intact, but I dare not touch it. Close the drawer, note the number, and move on. Someone may need this knowledge some day, but I hope not.

So that’s all of the… oh wait, no there’s more. Same ship? Same ship.

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We see tools, burnt papers, fragments of weapons…

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…and then, at the end of the row, there are shelves of boxes I wish I could open.


But Leigh knows this, and has opened one for me already.

This bottle has seen many days, but it’s not entirely empty.

As private tours go, this is beyond anything I had hoped for. Leigh knows what everything is, and more importantly, where everything is. He even knows about shipwrecks in mud flats and under bridges around town.

We’ve spent several excellent hours together. Leigh clearly loves working here, having run of the place every day. He says he’s planning to retire very soon.

The next keeper of the archives will have some big shoes to fill.

Random assertion: For every lost artifact, there’s someone who knows where to find it. The treasure is not the artifact, but this person to whom the artifact led you.

Steganographic data: 1838/7.2

Published in: on July 28, 2008 at 12:11 pm  Comments (3)  
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Day 11: Ships Under the City

There are ships buried beneath downtown San Francisco.

I remember reading a news article about some very surprised construction workers finding a buried ship somewhere in the city. Today I decided to find out if there was truth to it. (Imagine standing between the skyscrapers of a modern city, knowing there’s a huge forgotten ship right beneath your feet.)

Most of what’s now the downtown area used to be underwater. When they filled it in, some ship owners decided for various reasons (expense, lack of crew, secrets to be kept) that it was best to just let the ships be buried in-place.

Searching online, it didn’t take long to find that news article, and a map of the known and suspected ship locations. That’s great, but my real question was “Can I see one?” So I walked across the city to the Maritime Museum at the Hyde Street Pier.

I told the man at the desk what I was up to, and he said “Seems like you’ve already got all the information you can get from the computer. Try the red telephone in the back.”

Eh, what? Sure enough, there’s a red telephone which looks like it belongs in an episode of Batman. I pick up the receiver, and find myself talking to a man at the Maritime Library.

Getting into the archives requires an appointment, so he transfers me to the appointments desk, where I find I’m talking to the same guy. We make an appointment for “however long it takes to walk over.” Up the stairs, ring the buzzer, and Ted (the man I spoke to on the phone) is there.

He’s already got some materials out for me. I look up the ship I’m interested in (a three-mast ship called Niantic, built in about 1830), pull a few cards from the catalog, and before I know it, Ted makes good on his offer and my whole table is covered with information that can’t be found on the web.

There’s no one else in the room, but I decide not to flow onto a second table; this is more than I’ll get through. My favorite is something called the “pam file” which is like a fat scrapbook of loose bits of information.

There are typewritten notes from the people who buried the ship, news articles from people surprised to find it thirty years later, and letters from people even more surprised to find it almost a hundred years after that.

The discoverers in 1978 had limited funds, so they saved what they could before the rest was destroyed to create the foundation of a new building. They did recover hundreds of items, including several dozen intact champagne bottles. That’s pretty cool.

So here’s where things get interesting. On the chart which shows the dig site, only half the ship is there. Where the other half should be, it just says “UNEXCAVATED”. Ted says “Yeah they usually can’t get the whole thing, property lines and such.”

Now I’m intrigued. Most likely, someone else demolished the rest of it for some other building, but maybe not. Suppose there’s still half a ship down there. The dig-map says it’s under “Redwood Park” which sounds nice, but I’m sure there’s no redwood park between the skyscrapers.

I’m restless in the map room, so I decide to just go see the site for myself. Half an hour later, I’m there. Well I’ll be damned, there’s a redwood park between the skyscrapers.

This ship’s not thirty feet from the city’s skyline icon, and it’s still down there. Looking at my notes, I walk over and stand on the exact spot, imagining I can see half a ship under my feet.

If the wreck is haunted, at least the ghosts have good champagne.

On the walk home, I stop to pick up a bunch of fresh clams, a baguette, two ears of corn and a fresh mango. My muse has been at work all day; it can’t hurt to cook her dinner.

I also stop to pick up flowers from Andre and Lisa, the owners of the best flower shop in our neighborhood. Last winter, we got to know them by inviting them to our place for a rowdy night of drinks, homemade desserts and excellent stories.

Additional reference on buried ships:

Random assertion: Over time, people misplace the most amazing things, passing them as gift-wrapped surprises for their descendants to discover.

Steganographic data: 1888/7.9