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In San Francisco, a construction crew recently dug up a well-preserved chunk of the city's past. They found the remains of a 19th century ship, a whaler. Archeologists believe the vessel was buried and forgotten after being abandoned by fortune-seeking sailors. Now those remains and the story behind them are helping scholars write a new chapter about San Francisco's Gold Rush days.
NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.
RICHARD GONZALES reporting:
Near the foot of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, south of Market Street, construction workers are preparing to lay the foundations of a new high-rise that will reshape the city's skyline of the future. But their work was delayed recently because during the excavation, workers discovered evidence of the city's maritime past.
Dr. James Allan is a maritime archeologist who supervised the excavation. He's linked the remains to an old salvage yard run by a pioneer businessman named Charles Hare.
Dr. JAMES ALLAN (Maritime Archeologist): Charles Hare was a ship wrecker who arrived in San Francisco about 1852, I think, and started the business of dismantling the ships that had been abandoned during the Gold Rush. And what we found here was the remains of the very last one that he was working on. It was deeply buried. It was probably 15 to 20 feet below present street grade.
GONZALES: Allan and his crew dug the ship out by hand and shovel. It's not the first Gold Rush ship found at a modern construction site. But all the others were reburied. After its discovery, the ship was transported here to the corner of a waterfront warehouse, where volunteers are patiently applying preservatives to its timbers.
Through painstaking detective work, James Allan believes that this is the Candace, a three-masted bark about 100 feet long, built in 1818. In its heyday it sailed the globe, and it was likely among the first merchant ships to carry the American flag into the Pacific.
Allan says there had been five ships scrapped in Charles Hare's old salvage yard. Its size, configuration and framing tells him this can only be the Candace.
Dr. ALLAN: It's a little bit circumstantial. 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.
GONZALES: It 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 the fourth of July 1855.
Jerome Dodson, president of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society picks up the story.
Mr. JEROME DODSON (President, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society): The ship was no longer fit. The ship was actually being sued by its crew for payment of back wages, which it never received. So there was, in fact, a lawsuit, which the crew won. So, all you populists will be happy to know that the crew went out over the ship owner. They sold the ship for scrap.
GONZALES: Historians believe more than 60,000 fortune seekers came here 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 in what used to be the docks of the bay.
Mr. DODSON: Right now, we call it the Financial District. It's streets with names like Battery, like Market Street, and most importantly, the Embarcadero. And so underneath that area, that used to be water, part of Yerba Buena Cove, which is, in fact, part of San Francisco Bay. We think there's a lot of ships that are all buried there, either for salvage or, in some cases, where the crew abandoned them. So what they did is, the ship was abandoned and then buried again to get your prime waterfront real estate on new land, so to speak.
GONZALES: And beneath this new land, arguably some of the most expensive in the country, rest the remnants of history, says Archaeologist James Allan.
Dr. ALLAN: Particularly here in San Francisco because of its history. You know, it was filled so rapidly. And they needed so much material that what they threw in the fill up the cove, in particular, was all the stuff that they didn't consider important at the time. And when we find it, it's, you know, amazing, just amazing things that they threw away.
GONZALES: Restoration and study 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.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.
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