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Hyde Street Pier Historic Ships

Balcutha and Golden Gate photoIt has always been one of my favorite spots in San Francisco, since my first visit as a kid. There’s something about old sailing ships and the nautical history of San Francisco. When gold was discovered in California, the big city on the coast was Monterey, and San Francisco was a sleepy little shanty town of muddy shores. But soon sailing ships from around the world filled the harbor, mast to mast, deck to deck, abandoned by their crews to seek the dream in the gold fields. The ships and their cargos where stripped of the wood and turned into sidewalks, piers and dance halls. The historic ships that remain at the Hyde Street Pier are from a later time, but harken back to the days gone by.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Entrace photoThe San Francisco Maritime Museum is a National Park which features six historic landmark vessels at the Hyde Street Pier. The symbolic ship of the park is the 3-masted steel hulled square-rigger Balcutha, built in 1886 in Glasgow Scotland, after the clipper ships which raced around the horn to California. The Balcutha carried cargo around the world with a crew of 26 men and 25 sails on its complex rigging. The C.A Thayer is a wooden hulled schooner built to carry lumber up and down the west coast. The Thayer has been undergoing restoration, back in the water, but currently without its masts. The intent is to refit her to sail again, in the next couple of years. The most striking feature of the Thayer is the giant doors in the back of the under deck where great logs from the northwest coast forests would be slid into the cargo hold.

Old Time Antique Cars on the Eureka Steam Ferry photoBefore the bridges were built across the Golden Gate and the bay, the way to get to the city from the opposite shore was by ferry. The Hyde Street Pier was originally the San Francisco wharf end of Highway 101. The ferry terminal moved over near the Bay Bridge later on. The side-paddle wheel steam ferry ship Eureka, built in 1890 served duty into the 40s, carrying first carriages, then cars and passengers from Oakland to San Francisco’s wharf. The Eureka’s steam engine is still intact and on display on the dock with one of the great paddle wheels. The Eureka is the world's longest wooden boat still aflaot. The decks now hold a collection of period vintage cars and trucks which might have made the trip in the 1920’s and 30s. Other vessels are the 1907 Steam tug boat the Hercules, and the 1915 steam schooner the Wapama still being restored. The smaller ships include the 1891 sailing scow the Alma, a 1923 Monterey shrimp fishing boat, and a replica Chinese shrimp fishing Junk the Grace Quan, built by the National Park Service volunteers from San Francisco and Chinese Camp in Northern California.

San Francisco Maritime Museum Fresnel Lighthouse Lens photoThe Hyde Street Pier is right next to the cable car turntable of the Hyde Street line at Jefferson Street where you can watch the cable car operators turn the cars by hand before heading back over the hill. In fact the best way to complete the experience is with a cable car ride up the Hyde & Powel Line to the Cable Car Museum (SF Cable House Museum). The Visitors Center at the San Francisco Maritime Historic Park has interior displays of the nautical history of San Francisco, including the impressive huge refracted lighthouse Fresnel lens, which greets you at the door, like a huge crystal jewel, and exhibits of going to sea and shipwrecks.

Deck of the Balcutha photoActivities at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park include music concerts on the ships in summer, monthly sea chantey sing-alongs aboard the ships, historic lectures in the museum library on the nautical past of San Francisco, lighthouses and lifesaving, and special programs just for kids. There are also walking tours of the waterfront and tours of the small craft collections. For sailing trips on the bay, the Alma makes 3 hour afternoon sailing adventures on selected days from May to September.

Balcutha Bow Sprit photoAdmission to the ships of the Hyde Street Pier is $5. Children under 16 are free with an adult. The pier is open from 9:30am to 5pm daily (until 5:30 June to August). The Alma sailing trips cost $40 for adults, $30 for seniors and $20 for kids (6 to 15). The museum store sells model boats, books and other unique nautical items of interest to the lovers of the seafaring life. If you want to explore WWII era ships, the USS Pampanito Submarine (see USS Pampanito) and SS Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty Ship are a several docks down the wharf at Pier 45 (see Musee Mechanique) and require separate admissions.
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