San Francisco’s real estate wars may be vicious now, but they’re nothing compared to what went on along the waterfront during the Gold Rush.
Forget the Ellis Act and owner move-ins – in those days, evictions were carried out by the firm of Smith Wesson, and legal title was established by sending large ships crashing to the bottom of the bay.
Ghostly remnants of those swashbuckling days still exist. Under the Financial District and along the northeastern waterfront lie the buried hulks of dozens of Gold Rush ships.
Most of these ships were abandoned by their crews and used to fill in the bay. Some were used as stores or hotels before being dismantled. But a few of them met a more colorful fate: They were intentionally scuttled to establish title to water lots – real estate that was underwater at the time.
The financial rewards for sinking ships on water lots were vast, but so were the risks. The water lots were invariably next to one of the many wharves that sprang up during the Gold Rush. The owners of these wharves, for obvious reasons, were violently opposed to having their berthing spaces filled in, and would stop at nothing to prevent it.
As a result, the ships had to be sunk fast, usually in the dead of night, and the men doing the scuttling had to be prepared to fight for their lives against armed wharf employees.
San Francisco’s champion scuttler was a Norwegian sea captain named Fred Lawson. From 1850 to 1853 he was responsible for sinking numerous vessels, including four in the block of water lots now bounded by Davis, Drumm, Pacific and Jackson. His story, as he related in the Examiner on Aug. 31, 1890, sheds light on one of the most unusual episodes in the city’s history.
Lawson landed in New York in 1837 and arrived in San Francisco in the fall of 1849. After brief stints in the gold fields, he became a real estate speculator.
As Roger and Nancy Olmsted and Allen Pastron note in their 1977 book, “San Francisco Waterfront,” Lawson and a partner bought three blocks of water lots in the early 1850s in the infamous “Peter Smith sales,” a real estate and legal debacle in which the bankrupt city sold off 2,000 acres of prime land to satisfy a court judgment against it for $64,000 in favor of one Dr. Peter Smith.
Lawson bought the submerged lots at the absurdly low price of $3,500 – blocks on the city waterfront were by far the most valuable in town, worth $500,000 or more – because their title was legally contested. But as the Olmsteds and Pastron write, “Lawson was prepared to operate on the not uncommon premise that possession was nine-tenths of the law.” And the way he would take possession was either to sink pilings into the water or to sink ships.
Neither activity was for the faint of heart.
In the Examiner, Lawson recalled the day he sank the English ship Bethel at the corner of Drumm Street and the former Clark Street.
” ‘She cost me $450,’ he said. We exchanged a few shots before she went down. That is, I mean the wharfinger and myself did.’ “
The wharfinger was the wharf boss, and he was no ally of Lawson or the scheme to scuttle the Bethel, to which he soon caught on.
” ‘I had a line fastened to the wharf to steady her, and he started to cut it so she would drift away,’ Lawson said. ‘I yelled at him to drop the knife, but he didn’t, so a bullet took it out of his hand. But he cut the rope first. No, there wasn’t anybody hurt at that time; but there might have been.’ “
The ship drifted away, and Lawson had to sell it to a different lot owner.
A quick sinking
On another occasion, Lawson sank a ship called the Inez next to the Pacific Wharf Co.
” ‘When my men drove piles for buildings in the slip in the daytime, (wharf employees) had them yanked out at night,’ Lawson recalled. ‘I got a little tired of this, so one dark night I floated the Inez in, ran her up to where I wanted her and she was on the bottom in a few minutes.
” ‘She sank so rapidly that one of my men had to swim for it and was almost drowned,’ he said. ‘The crash apprised the opposition of what was going on, but they were too late in finding it out to do any good.’ ”
The Olmsteds and Pastron note that to sink large ships as quickly and precisely as Lawson did, he must have had a “large gang of men to ballast the vessel heavily and drill and temporarily plug enough holes so that she could be very swiftly sunk at the edge of the disputed property line.”
Shot through cheek
Lawson’s closest shave came when he had his men drive piles between Broadway and Vallejo. ” ‘It was in the nighttime and about 400 men were working,’ he told the Examiner. ‘Suddenly we were fired upon and one man was instantly killed. Only a few of my men were armed, but we returned the fire, being guided by the flashes to be seen when the others fired.
” ‘I don’t know whether we hit anybody or not. Before the firing ceased another man on our side was struck and that was me.
” ‘Just put your finger at this spot,’ said the captain, indicating his cheek. On either side a hole could be found large enough to admit the end of the little finger.
” ‘That’s where I got a bullet,’ Lawson said. ‘The doctor said I must have had my mouth open giving orders, and I guess I did, for it went clean through my mouth without touching a tooth.’ “
As the Examiner headline put it with considerable understatement, they were indeed “Exciting Times on the Waterfront Away Back in the Fifties.”
Every corner in San Francisco has an astonishing story to tell. Every Saturday, Gary Kamiya’s Portals of the Past will tell one of those lost stories, using a specific location to illuminate San Francisco’s extraordinary history – from the days when giant mammoths wandered through what is now North Beach, to the Gold Rush delirium, the dot-com madness and beyond.
Last week’s trivia question: What year did the first motel appear in the Fisherman’s Wharf area?
This week’s trivia question is: What San Francisco street was nicknamed “Fifteen Cent Street,” and why?
Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco.” E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org