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GOLD FEVER! Exhibition Features

San Francisco Archaeological Finds

Shipping is the Foundation of San Francisco--Literally

The city’s downtown is built upon the carcasses of hundreds of ships from the Gold Rush era. Many of the boats were abandoned in the harbor in the 1850s when both passengers and crew high-tailed it for the gold fields, leaving the wooden crafts to fall apart on a stretch of waterway dubbed “Rotten Row.” They became the city’s first landfill, extending San Francisco’s Pacific boundary as they clogged the harbor.

Others were salvaged by enterprising Charles Hare, who dragged the decrepit ships onto the beach near what is now the intersection of Harrison Street and the Embarcadero, where he demolished them, removed the brass and copper fittings and sold the metal to small foundries along First Street, along with splintered masts and deck planks to fuel the smelting fires.

"Anyone with a bright idea could make a buck back then,” notes Allen Pastron, an archaeologist who has excavated three important sites beneath the city’s streets.

Two entrepreneurs who decided that California’s wealth lay not in the gold mines, but in the pockets of the miners, are the subject of two other archaeological digs. Pastron is busy uncovering the Hoff Store, which catered to Anglo-Americans, and a store run by Chinese immigrants not far away at Sacramento and Kearny streets.

The Oakland Museum of California will put archaeological discoveries from the three sites on view in its major exhibition, GOLD FEVER! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush, opening January 24, 1998. The exhibition will contain more than 1,500 artifacts, including the gold nugget discovered by James Marshall that launched the Gold Rush 150 years ago.

GOLD FEVER! is one of a trio of exhibitions, presented under the aegis of the Gold Rush! California’s Untold Stories project, commemorating the event that shaped the California we know today.

Some of the objects Pastron has unearthed will be featured in a simulated archaeological dig as a reminder that California’s history lies just beneath our feet. Visitors will see remarkably preserved jars of 150-year-old olives and gooseberries, bottles of champagne and whiskey--both Scotch and Ng Ky Py, a Chinese rice whiskey--porcelain rice bowls and a toy teapot.

There also are Native American objects from that pastoral time before gold-seekers ran rampant over the landscape. “It’s important to know that California history didn’t begin with the Gold Rush,” says Pastron. “The Bay Area has thousands of years of Native American heritage.” Some of the richest troves of Native American artifacts in San Francisco, he says, are buried 15 to 20 feet below the most heavily occupied downtown real estate along Montgomery Street, which used to mark the shoreline.

One dramatic object on view will be the copper-sheathed stern of the Gold Rush ship Niantic. The bow remains beneath the Financial District. Other ships were resurrected for a life above water during the 1850s, according to Pastron.

"There was a shortage of buildings, so clever entrepreneurs got the idea of buying the hulk of a ship for a song, dragging it onto the beach, cutting the topsides off and converting it into a store, warehouse or restaurant.”

The Yank Sing restaurant is constructed over the skeleton of a ship called the General Harrison. The Euphemia became a municipal jail.

The Hoff store was located on Howison’s pier, which extended into the bay from Sacramento St. Its Chinese-owned counterpart stood three blocks west. “You have these two stores reflecting two different aspects of Gold Rush San Francisco, an incredibly diverse community,” Pastron says. Both stores were destroyed in the Great Fire of May 3, 1851.

"That’s almost too good to be true, from an archaeologist’s standpoint,” Pastron says. The stores’ inventory, encased in the detritus despite the city’s “chaotic amalgam of building, burning, clearing, dumping and building again,” offers a vivid picture of life at the time.

The Chinese store is the only major archaeological site ever found in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Pastron says. “Without question, it’s the largest, oldest and most important overseas Chinese site in America, and we’re lucky to have these artifacts in a good state of preservation.”

Yet another site celebrated its 25th anniversary in August as an icon of Chinatown politics. The International Hotel, once home to dozens of elderly Chinese and Filipino men, was demolished in 1972 despite rigorous protests by Asian-American activists. All that remains is a pit, undeveloped since, that proved to be a gateway to one of the oldest Gold Rush-era sites north of Market St.

"It’s a year older than the stores, apparently a combination residence and carpenter shop,” Pastron says. “It’s important because we found a lot of tools and hardware the owner probably used. It’s exemplary of the fact that the Gold Rush set in motion a whole series of social, demographic and economic effects. People realized: This city is growing; the gold is right here. They stayed and made a good living.”

Allen Pastron combs these archaeological sites not just for objects, but for clues to California’s character. “A lot of what we take for granted in the city today, and the issues facing the country, began in the Gold Rush,” he says. “Our multiplicity of languages, our ethnic diversity, cosmopolitan outlook and love of international cuisine--all were themes of the Gold Rush that shaped the American West in ways we can still see.”

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