By Stephen Canright, Park Curator, Maritime History
A particularly evocative ship timber, the stern "deadwood knee" (a central piece of the ship's stern structure) of an unidentified wooden sailing vessel, will be included in a new exhibit in the park's visitor center. An intricately shaped mass of tropical hardwood weighing 600 pounds, it retains the broad headed copper nails that once held the yellow metal sheathing that protected the underbody of the vessel.
This timber was one of dozens of pieces uncovered twenty feet below street level at the corner of Folsom and Spear Streets in downtown San Francisco in September, 2005 during the excavation for the foundations of a condominium complex. In the 1850s this site was on the shoreline of Yerba Buena Cove.
Between 1852 and 1857 Charles Hare ran a ship breaking yard there. He employed crews of Chinese immigrants to dismantle 77 old wooden vessels, salvaging their metal and selling their planking and timbers for construction material or firewood. These vessels were among the huge number that ended their days at San Francisco in the years following the Gold Rush of 1849. The most striking find on the site was the largely intact stern of a small square-rigger, later identified as the whaling bark Candace.
The stern deadwood piece was one of a dozen timbers from the same vessel. We have not been able to identify the East Indiaman vessel the piece came from, but research indicates it was built in Asia, probably in India or Sri Lanka, during the 1820s or early 1830s. This timber connected the vessel's keel to the stern post and transom and includes a portion of the rabbet, a carefully shaped groove which anchored the ends of the hull planking to the ship's frame.
"The Waterfront" exhibit (opening early 2012) includes an area where visitors will look into and walk over the re-creation of a dig zone of Gold Rush ships buried under the Barbary Coast. This timber, under the Bay mud for over 150 years, will be a tangible (and touchable) connection to those historic days.