SAN FRANCISCO’s BEST ●Attractions●Museums
The collection of historic ships berthed along the San Francisco waterfront is the largest (by weight) in the world.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Fisherman’s Wharf; Visitor Center: 499 Jefferson St. Free. Get oriented to this spread-out park with “The Waterfront” exhibit located in a historic brick warehouse.
●Maritime Museum 900 Beach St./foot of Polk St., across from Ghirardelli Square. Free. Appropriately resembling a ship, this architecturally interesting art deco-streamline moderne building was built by the Work Project Administration (WPA) in 1939. It was originally a bathhouse and held a restaurant/bar and aquatic activities center. Now, the large lobby features murals of undersea scenes and displays changing exhibits. In 1951 the building held the nation’s first senior center, which still operates in a section on the east side. On either side, steep concrete walkways lead down to Aquatic Park.
●Hyde Street Pier 2905 Hyde St./Jefferson St. Pier free; vessels fee. The vessels moored on this scenic pier represent the late 19th century--a time of rapid growth for San Francisco begun by the 1849 Gold Rush and an era during which the city was an important shipping center. Visitors can board four:
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Balclutha A Cape Horn sailing ship built in Scotland in 1886, this 301-foot steel-hulled merchant ship carried whiskey, wool, and rice, but mainly coal, to San Francisco. On her return sailing to Europe she carried grain from California. Typical of Victorian British merchant ships, she is described colorfully by the men who sailed her as a “blue water, square-rigged, lime juice windbag.” She is the last of the Cape Horn fleet and ended her sailing career as an Alaskan salmon ship. She opened to the public in 1955.
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A fascinating way to experience this ship is at a free chantey sing held in her cozy hold. Participants should dress warmly and bring a cushion to sit on, a mug for hot cider to wet your whistle, and a chantey or two to share.
C.A. Thayer A fleet of 900 ships once carried lumber from the north coast forests to California ports. This is one of only two that still exist. A three-mast lumber schooner built in Fairhaven (near Eureka) in 1895, she was the very last commercial sailing ship in use on the West Coast and made her last voyage in 1950 as a fishing ship.
(notes: 07 no more: Visitors can descend into her dank wooden hold to see the crew’s bunkroom and then ascend to the captain’s lushly furnished, oak-paneled cabin--complete with gilded canary cage. A 25-minute film of her last voyage is shown several times each day, and guided tours are available.)
Eureka Originally named the Ukiah, this double-ended, wooden-hulled ferry was built in Tiburon in 1890 to carry railroad cars and passengers across the bay. She was rebuilt in 1922 to carry automobiles and passengers and renamed the Eureka. Later she served as a commuter ferry (the largest in the world) between San Francisco and Sausalito, and yet later as a ferry for train passengers arriving in San Francisco from Oakland. She held 2,300 people plus 120 automobiles. Her 4-story “walking beam” steam engine is the only one still afloat in the U.S. A model demonstrates its operation, and a ranger-guided tour through the engine room is sometimes available. Two decks are open to the public. The lower deck houses a display of antique cars, and the main deck features original benches and a historical photo display.
Hercules This ocean-going tugboat was built in 1907.
More ships are moored at the pier but are not usually open for boarding.
The Alma, a scow schooner built in 1891 at Hunters Point, is a specialized cargo carrier and the last of her kind still afloat.
The Eppleton Hall, built in England in 1914 and used in the canals there to tow coal barges, is the only vessel in the collection not directly associated with West Coast maritime history.
Non-floating displays at the pier include a late 19th-century ark (houseboat), a restored donkey engine that is sometimes operated for visitors, and the reconstructed sales office of the Tubbs Cordage Company.
S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien Pier 45, foot of Taylor St., Fisherman’s Wharf. Fee. This massive 441-foot-long vessel is one of only two Liberty Ship that remain from World War II, and she is the only one that is still unaltered and still in operating condition. She was built in the South Portland, Maine shipyard Between 1941 and 1945, in an all-out effort to replace the cargo ships being sunk in huge numbers by enemy submarines, 2,750 Liberty ships were built to transport troops and supplies. Shipyards operated around the clock. Assembled from pre-fabricated sections, each ship took only between 6 and 8 weeks to build. Shockingly large, the O’Brien was built in South Portland, Maine in 1943. She was in operation for 33 years and sailed from England to Normandy for the D-Day invasion where she was one of 5,000 ships that took part on June 6, 1944. In 1978 she was declared a national monument. Since then, dedicated volunteers--many of whom served on similar ships--have worked to restore her to her original glory. Visitors have access to almost every part of the ship, including the sleeping and captain’s quarters, wheelhouse, and guns, as well as the catwalks in the eerie 3-story engine room. The triple expansion steam engine operates on the third weekend of each month.
An annual fund-raising Seamen’s Memorial Cruise occurs in May, and Fleet Week Cruises occur in October.
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USS Pampanito Pier 45, foot of Taylor St., Fisherman’s Wharf. Fee. This 312-foot-long World War II submarine built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1943 is credited with sinking six Japanese ships and damaging four others. She also rescued a group of British and Australian POWs from the South China Sea. The self-guided tour through her cramped belly and meticulously restored compartments is enhanced with a recorded audio tour that provides narrative by former crew members and helps listeners imagine what it must have been like for men to be cooped up in this small space for months at a time.