San Francisco History

The Armada of Golden Dreams

By Walter J. Thompson

“Stop, for thy tread is on an empire’s dust,” was the poet’s abrupt methodical injunction to the lounger in the vicinity of the battlefield of Waterloo. Such figures of speech are unfashionable in this practical, kaleidoscopic epoch, but standing in any one of San Francisco’s downtown streets east of Sansome, amid the hurly-burly of business uproar, one does feel like saying to the knight of the rumbling auto truck and the commander of the whirring trolley car: “Go a bit easy on the noise, old Top, as you are maneuvering on sacred soil."

Of course, they would not pay attention to you. They might even set you down as a bug.

Certainly, there is not any dust of empire sepulchered below, nor is there anything resembling dust in the ooze beneath those bay-born thoroughfares. But we do know, or every San Franciscan ought to know, that that ooze is the winding sheet of many a gallant craft that once proudly plowed the bounding billows of the open sea, and which formed one of the great fleet of vessels that brought the fortune-hunters to the Golden Gate—that made up the Argonauts’ Armada of golden dreams that was soon to be scattered and strewn even as was that maritime pageant once assembled under the management of Philip of Spain.

Note that old print representing San Francisco in 1849 [not included here], with its homely shacks straggling along the bayshore at the base of chaparral-covered slopes and with the bay waters resembling the floor of a convention of toothpicks stood on end, so dotted is it with the stick of a myriad, masted fleet craft of all sizes, styles and nationalities.

There is a pathos in their presence, a pathos that calls for quite as much homage as do those pioneers who deserted them for other fields of activity in the fulfilment of their mission in the West.

Faithfully and well did those vessels serve their masters, even to the fountain head of their dreams, and now here they were staked out in the front yard of their masters’ new home like cattle awaiting slaughter.

There was a dignity in their destiny, however. They were to serve as the foundation of the improvements to the new home. One by one they went to their common grave; one by one and side by side they took their allotted place in the basement ooze of San Francisco.

Their burial was a fitting climax to their career of adventure, accompanied as it was by popping of pistols, the yells and curses of angry men and the groans of wounded mortals, all concomitants of the water lot warfare that rattled over the harbor frontage from 1849 up to 1853, and even later.

From Cowell’s wharf at Union street to the sunken reef off Rincon point surged that harbor warfare.

The bleak hill slopes were not looked upon favorably by the residents for business expansion. Blocks of water lots were surveyed off in the cove in accordance with streets laid down as they appear today.

Affairs in the young city were not of such a harmonious nature that would lead one to think a feast of good will among mankind had been proclaimed. There was a clash of authority between the burgomaster and his bureaucracy and the people growing out of election frauds, and prejudices existed between the old and new population. The town was as bankrupt as an iceberg is bare of foliage.

This solemn fact was realized by one Dr. Peter Smith, an enterprising resident, who was the possessor of a judgment against the city for several hundred thousand dollars.

Feeling the chill of the aforesaid iceberg effect, Dr. Smith concluded the only way he could secure payment was to seize something, and he immediately levied on the water lots, taking unto himself nearly all of them. Sales were in order then.

Began then the trouble, and a new professional gentleman as noted among the hotel arrivals. He was the hulk undertaker.

New owners of lots soon found that while it was an easy matter to drop shekels into Dr. Smith’s yawning pockets, it was difficult to prove up on their titles, and assert their ownership rights.

Interspersed among the water lots were the slips and wharves of the Broadway and Pacific Wharf companies and others erected for the entrance of vessels and landing of boats. The wharf companies also owned a few water lots of their own, and they were not bashful in claiming the right to resist any encroachment on their slips and to prevent water-lot owners from driving piles or in any way making any practical use of the property they had purchased.

Here is where the orchestra plays soft and low and the limelight begins to cast its rays around as the hulk undertakers appear on the scene.

They were primed for action. Already had many of them made their raid upon the Armada of Golden Dreams. They were prepared to show lot owners the advantage of perfecting title to a lot by floating in a ship and sinking her.

No owners could be found for many hulks, and these were promptly picked up by the undertakers on the suddenly conceived plea that they were floating nuisances and menaces to incoming craft. Others were bought from representatives of their owners or their captains, who despaired of ever getting them manned again, for nominal sums, ranging from $300 to $1000. The lot owners willingly paid as high as $3000 or $4000 to have a title secured by a hulk.

The movements of the hitherto neglected hulks were watched day and night by the opposition and spies were employed to get hints of the proposed movements of hulks. Whenever a hulk was observed towing landward, a force was assembled to prevent her being placed in the contemplated location. The fights were bitter and fierce. Hawsers were cut and shots whistled through the profanity-laden air. Not infrequently one or two men were killed and the wounded were numerous.

Care in the selection of the exact spot for the grave was needful on the part of the undertakers who personally conducted these hulk excursions. Sometimes mistakes were made and they were costly. There was the case of the bark Cordova, and the brig Garnet, which, with their dream-haunted quarters, were laid at final rest on Davis street, between Pacific and Broadway.

A cut-rate undertaker was responsible for it all. Rivalry had been keen for the directionship of this funeral. Palmer, Cooke & Co., the bankers, who supplied the funds for most of the water-front sepulture work, had let the contract for $1000, which was several thousands less than the other bids. A scheme was put up to torment the successful bidder. While he was towing in the Cordova, some one shanghaied the Garnet. She was missing for several days, but was finally found trying to butt her way through Carquinez straits.

Then, after the vessels were sunk, about twenty feet apart, it developed that they rested partly on property belonging to the omnipresent Pacific and Broadway wharf companies. The tocsin of war was sounded and, to avoid conflict, Palmer, Cooke & Co. had to purchase the entire block at a cost of more than $100,000.

How the associated undertakers chortled! Cut rates, hey?

Another vessel that was laid in a misplaced grave was the English ship Bethel. She lies under Drumm street, close to Jackson. In addition to her allotment of ghosts of Argonauts’ dreams that trooped about her otherwise deserted companionways, the Bethel had a touch of romance all her own. She had the name of being “Mizzentop Joe’s boat.” Briefly told, the story went that Mizzentop Joe had once been a musical member of the crew who had earned his sobriquet by his habit of taking his fiddle aloft and sitting in the mizzentop, charming the albatrosses. Mother Carey’s chickens and other feathered wanderers of the watery wastes with weird wailings from his instrument and crooning in a somewhat asthmatic voice a rare morsel of sentimental melody:

“Rock-a-back Davy, cuttin’ up a shine
Gal with the red hair kicking’ up shind.”

One day Joe fell overboard and did not return in person. However, tradition has it that he did come back and that his spirit haunted the mizzentop, playing upon the fiddle, which could not be found among Joe’s effects. But Joe’s spiritual doings did not cause much of a sensation except with the men on the night deck watch.

It was only after the harbor was reached and the captain tried to hold his men aboard that they proclaimed that Mizzentop Joe’s fiddling was on their nerves and they could not live in a haunted ship. One by one they disappeared over the side. The last one was the cook who was deaf as a post.

“Why, how in h— can you hear that fool’s fiddle?” asked the angry captain.

“Oh, he comes into the galley and sits on the stove and plays awful loud, and he musses up the grub fierce,” was the reply, and the next day Cookie was mingling with the gold rush ashore.

The Bethel’s funeral was under the direction of Captain Fred Lawson, a regular Conrad the Corsair among the hulk undertakers. Rapid action figured in his every move, as did a pistol and a big cutlass. He got the vessel in all right, but took the liberty, in warping around, of securing her by a line fixed to the wharf. This aroused the wharfinger, who proceeded to cut the line. Lawson waved his cutlass, yelled to stop, and then shot the knife from his hand.

But the rope had parted and the Bethel began to drift, with the water pouring into her hold. Lawson had a narrow escape from going down with the craft, which finally settled on property belonging to Miller & Hough.

A ceremony at the southwest corner of East and Market streets was the planting of the Russian coal ship Rome. Joseph Galloway had bought the lot from Dr. Smith and was engaged in piling it when he learned that legal proceedings had been begun to dispute his title. Furthermore, papers were being prepared to enjoin him from further pile driving. He took Corsair Lawson into his confidence. The corsair would nail his title down with a hulk for $5000. It was an exciting day on the water front when Lawson towed the Rome in. Galloway’s rivals made every effort to delay the proceedings, but Lawson’s pistol shots and cutlass swings won out. The Rome was laid to the dirge of the corsair’s curses and amid the incense of powder smoke with her carved figurehead resting off Market street. Another grave on Davis street, between Washington and Jackson, holds the big ship Alida, about which clings the story of Matt Morgan’s misfortune, which was handed down in waterfront annals for many a long day afterward.

Morgan was a passenger on the Alida who was bringing to San Francisco for exhibition purposes the thinnest man that ever lived—a chap who wouldn’t cast a shadow on the sunniest day. Like Mizzentop Joe, Shadowless Sam disappeared during the voyage. The general impression was that he had slid through a rift in the ship’s side during heavy pitching in a storm, as he was never allowed on deck. The remainder of the voyage was memorable by a remarkable disappearance of the ship’s stores and grim famine had kicked Jack’s cherub from aloft and sat glowering on all hands as the Alida passed through the Golden Gate. Then was the mystery revealed. In the hold on a throne of empty cases was discovered Shadowless Sam. But no longer shadowless. From an avoirdupois of 51 shy he registered 250 up. He was clad only in a blanket; his clothes having burst into ribbons. Cursed by the captain, berated by his shipmates, and reproached as an ungrateful cuss by his manager, Sam was bundled ashore, still wrapped in his blanket, no heed being paid to his plea that the Lord only knew how hungry he was when he yielded to temptation and how he was only getting even for the many square meals of which he had been deprived during his course of training as the shadowless one.

The story of the Ship Niantic that lies at the northwest corner of Clay and Sansome streets, is well known. She was placed there in the fall of ‘49, and, not being under water, was long used as a hotel. On the opposite corner is the hull of the old ship General Harrison. Before she was burned she was used as a warehouse.

Another large ship, the Apollo, was scuttled on Front street, between Sacramento and Commercial. Like the Niantic and General Harrison, she was not submerged and was occupied by a restaurant man who did a rushing business. Her fate was cremation. At the southwest corner of Sacramento and Front streets the hulk of the ship Thomas Bennett lies, parallel with Sacramento street. The English brig Hardie, the ship Noble and the Inez are in the block bound by Drumm, Davis, Jackson and Pacific streets.

So wept the Armada.

So it lies, sepulchered in the clammy ooze beneath the tread of scurrying thousands and uproar of a great city’s industry. There lie the golden dreams of the Argonauts, their gaudy hues mottled and marred by splashes of foul harbor mud; there lie in everlasting repose the restless spirit of Mizzentop, Joe and his weird melodies, the plaintive protests of Shadowless Sam against reproaches and oaths, and the cutting curses of Corsair Dawson, all—all (to close with the poet with whom we started) “in one mud burial blent.”

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 2 July 1916. 28.

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