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Remnants of boozy village found beneath downtown San Francisco

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By the time it boasts all its glory, the “Grand Central of the West” will actually sit on the site of an ancient village archeologists recently dusted off one relic at a time on their hands and knees.

They found dozens of vestiges — dolls, a piece of a tent, tableware and “many, many liquor bottles” — that tell stories dating as far back as 1848 under a roughly 100-square-foot portion of a parking lot near First and Minna streets by the future Transbay Transit Center. Underneath the asphalt, archeologists rummaged through what used to be shopkeepers’ and entrepreneurs’ homes that once sat between two enormous sand dunes.

“This working class came from all over. Eleven feet down, there was tableware manufactured in Philadelphia and coins not minted as money that also came from Philadelphia,” lead archeologist Heather Price said. “And from the ground surface all the way to 12 feet below, we found fancy serving platters … and many, many liquor bottles.”

Twelve feet down, Price said, they found pieces of a tent that roaming miners might have used on their way up to Gold Country.

“The supercool stuff was 12 feet deep,” she said. “We got down to just immediately after the Gold Rush, like 1850 and maybe even late 1840s.”

At that time, the shoreline of San Francisco Bay was about 1½ blocks away. Then the 1906 earthquake and fire pulverized the homes, and the sand was leveled for industrial development.

Now the personal lives of people who lived through the 1800s are sitting in a laboratory in Lafayette until they are processed, catalogued and possibly displayed in the new transit center.

The $4 billion, 1 million-square-foot hub is scheduled to open in 2017.

Construction projects in The City often require that developers prove they are not disrupting any potentially significant historic deposits and have archeologists on site.

Price works for the consulting company William Self Associates, which was hired by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority to check out the land’s history for that reason before construction began.

And that requirement has led to several more treasures at other dig sites throughout The City.

Another recent example was in October when the National Park Service was remediating lead-riddled paint that had chipped into the dirt at the base of a home at Fort Mason. The home used to be a hospital and park officials, who had an archeologist on hand, came across human bones just inches below the surface.

“We’re not talking skeletons, we’re talking vertebrae. There were no skeletons intact,” said Alexandra Picavet, a spokeswoman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “I’m glad we came upon it instead of the property owner because we knew what to do and we had an archeologist.”

Also in October, Presidio Trust archeologists unearthed a “dairy box,” or a primitive refrigerator, and a kiln that might be more than 200 years old.

And there is almost always a chance of coming across remains from The City’s first inhabitants, the Muwekma Ohlone indians. Their bones have been unearthed at the foot of the Bay Bridge, among several other spots, and archeologists say they might just as easily be found at the transit center.


What lies beneath

Digs at the Transbay Transit Center construction site have turned up more than 60 relics.

Findings: Wooden toothbrush handles, jewelry, leather shoes, ceramic pipes, imported Chinese tableware, nonminted coins, medicine vials

Alcohol bottles: Beer, whiskey, ale, sparkling wine

Testing period: Seven weeks

Time period of items: 1848 to 1906

Source: William Self Associates

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