Wandering the West
February 9, 2010
Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco can be a tourist trap, what with all the Alcatraz T-shirts, sourdough bread stands and Pier 39 nonsense. But I still go back every chance I get to soak up the sights and smells of the San Francisco waterfront. Not everything is there for the tourist photos. There are remnants of the days when San Francisco was the golden city of the West, and the only way to get there was to sail around fiercely stormy Cape Horn.
That’s the wharf I go to visit and I was there again last month, seeing the same things I’ve already seen a dozen times, but still taking away something new. Much of the waterfront is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. At the base of Hyde Street, the Hyde Street Pier moors six classic ships representing various elements of the West Coast trade. Several smaller workingman boats are also tied up here, and there is a shipshape wood shop where you can watch boat wrights working on restoration projects.
You can board Hyde Street’s boats after paying a small admission fee. The most impressive is the 256-foot Balaclutha, a three-masted square-rigger built in Scotland to haul California wheat to Europe. Sailors were aboard for months rounding the Horn to deliver their cargo, crammed into tiny bunks in the forecastle while the captain luxuriated in his quarters in the aft.
The C.A. Thayer is another, shorter three-masted schooner used in the Pacific lumber trade. Its decks were piled high with the Douglas fir that built West Coast cities. It later worked the Alaskan fish trade. The Alma, a flat-bottomed scow, carried farm goods from inland valleys across the Bay to bayside cities. The Eppleton Hall is a tugboat with a side paddlewheel that recalls the earliest days of steam power on the Bay. The Eureka is a 300-foot paddle-wheel ferry that first hauled train cars across the Bay and later was modified to carry automobiles. Hercules is a turn-of-the-last-century tugboat that towed log rafts, railroad barges and even big cargoes used to build the Panama Canal.
Beyond Hyde Street Pier, keep walking along the waterfront to the Aquatic Park Historic District, where the dominant structure is a white art-deco building that looks like a ship itself, presiding over a rounded lagoon bordered by a breakwater on the left and Hyde Pier on the right, with a sandy swimming beach in between. The art-deco building was the city bathhouse, built in the 1930s as a WPA make-work project. The inside is decorated with ’30s era floor-to-ceiling murals, which were part of the WPA’s art project. The artists painted blue undersea scenes filled with fantastic sea creatures, real and imagined. You can duck in to see the murals, but the rest of the building is undergoing renovation.
There’s more maritime history — history of the World War II era — to see on Pier 45. The Liberty ship S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien and the submarine U.S.S. Pampanito are berthed here, both saved from the scrap yard. The O’Brien is one of the only two remaining of the 2,751 cargo ships built quickly in World War II to haul food and war material to England. It still sails the Bay on special occasions and even sailed to the Normandy beaches of France on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. It hauled soldiers and military weaponry to the beach on June 6, 1944, starting the European invasion that ended Hitler’s world reign of terror. You can walk the decks of the ship, crawl around inside, and even book a Bay cruise on one of its infrequent sailings. You can walk through the engine room, where the engine-room scenes of "Titanic" were filmed. The Pampanito likewise offers tours (at $10 a pop, like the O’Brien) and is one of just a few World War II subs restored to its 1945 fighting condition.
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Another favorite stop is along Jefferson Street, around the corner from all the seafood stands. Here the remnants of a once-great Bay fishing fleet reside. It’s kind of shocking to see how small and precarious these little wooden craft look. Imagine 80 years ago when the DiMaggio brothers boarded a similar boat to help their Sicilian immigrant father fish to support a family of 11. Three of the brothers — Dom, Vince and Joe — found a better life playing major-league baseball, with Joe, of course, becoming the great DiMaggio. Across the street is the Dom DiMaggio Building, once home of "Joe DiMaggio’s Grotto," a restaurant Joltin’ Joe ran in the ’30s.
"I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing," the old man says in Hemingway’s "The Old Man and the Sea." "They say his father was a fisherman."
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Insider tip: Drop into Frank’s Fisherman at 366 Jefferson just past the fishing fleet. Great maritime antiques and a storekeeper who has the story behind every memento.