Since the city of San Francisco’s incorporation, mammoth ships frequented its foggy piers. On any given day, waterfront workers, the bustling human machinery of the maritime economy, hauled giant nets filled with goods off those vessels as fog horns blared in the distance.
Over the decades, that industry vanished like a broken wave.
Today, the most recognizable modern symbol of The City’s waterfront is a barking sea lion. The massive merchant vessels coasting under the Golden Gate Bridge now veer port-ward for Oakland, if they grace the San Francisco Bay at all.
And with the late-May closure of the biggest shipyard on the West Coast, the Pier 70 Shipyard, perhaps the last remnant of San Francisco’s working waterfront past will vanish, too.
More than 240 jobs, many of them union workers, are already gone. But there is one hope held by the Port of San Francisco, which owns the drydocks that were operated by BAE Systems until early this year: finding another shipyard company to revive the site.
It’s a tall order, as the aging shipyard needs more than $9 million in repairs, according to court filings.
“It’s not dead yet,” said Jasper Rubin, a former San Francisco city planner of 13 years, who is now a San Francisco State University professor and author of “A Negotiated Landscape,” which chronicles the history of San Francisco’s waterfront development.
Still, Rubin added, “If the Port can’t find a new operator, it’s a loss not just for the people who work there, but symbolically for The City.”
The shipyard has a storied history. Its fortunes boomed with the rise of both world wars, allowing it to help build San Francisco icons.
“People ask how the West was built. Well, San Francisco built it,” said Bill Perez, president of the Bethlehem Shipyard Museum. The Pier 70 shipyard, now property of the Port of San Francisco — and, by extension, The City’s taxpayers — was once the privately owned Bethlehem Shipyard, among other monikers.
Of course, like many parts of San Francisco, it began as Ohlone territory, according to historical accounts, and part of the pasturage of the still-standing Mission Dolores church.
That pasturage was largely peaceful until 1849. Gold, San Francisco’s original boom, changed everything.
Amid San Francisco’s famous Gold Rush arrived two Irish immigrant brothers, James and Peter Donahue, according to a historical account kept by the Bethlehem Shipyard Museum. The brothers soon soured on their thirst for gold. Instead, they lusted for iron.
Along with their brother Michael, the Donahues founded Union Iron Works.
The brothers built many a ship in the late 1800s, including the monitor-class Camanche, and even fashioned parts for San Francisco’s iconic cable cars.
Ralph Wilson, a history buff from Potrero Hill who maintains the website Pier70sf.org, noted that Irving Scott, an engineer recruited by Peter Donahue, moved Union Iron Works to Potrero Point, where the modern Pier 70 shipyard stands today.
Many of the ships built after the move served in the Spanish-American war, including the USS Olympia, which today sits in Philadelphia as a museum attraction.
But despite its success, Union Iron Works was sold in 1902 to the U.S. Shipbuilding Company, and again in 1905 to Charles M. Schwab for $1 million to become part of his Bethlehem Steel Corporation. It was sold at a public auction held on 20th Street, according to Wilson.
Enter the calamity of 1906.
San Francisco’s infamous earthquake shook the passenger vessel Columbia, which at the time was undergoing repairs, into the shipyard’s hydraulic-lift drydock. It was summarily destroyed.
But dollar signs were still in the eyes of the ship’s owners, who repaired it in time for World War I.
War prompted employment at the shipyard to soar to 16,000 workers, only rivaled by its further boom in World War II, when 72 ships were built, most of which were Navy combat vessels, and more than 2,500 naval craft were repaired.
Famously, the San Francisco Yard of Bethlehem Steel built a destroyer-escort in nearly 24 days, a record in 1944.
“It’s tragic,” said Wilson, “that it’s the wars that made [Bethlehem] bustle, and made it big.”
It’s that same ingenuity, however, that would help launch a historic expansion of regional transportation: the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
At Pier 70’s shipyard, Bethlehem Steel built the BART Transbay Tube; construction started in 1964. Photos from the construction show workers in protective goggles and helmets, kneeling over steel, welding its seams as sparks shower like fountains.
“All the underwater portions” were built at Bethlehem, according to Perez. That’s 57 sections, roughly 325 feet long at a whopping 800 tons.
Meanwhile, it was a period of decline for San Francisco’s waterfront.
Rubin painted a picture of the time: San Francisco’s waterfront decline was complex, but one particular upheaval changed everything. In the 1960s, as San Francisco and Oakland vied for dominance of the local shipping industry, a new technology crept onto the scene: shipping containers. Cargo used to be hauled on pallets and in boxes, called “break bulk,” and lowered by crane from a ship. There was large netting involved and lots of labor to move goods, which was dangerous work.
Shipping containers brought uniformity, safety and speed.
“You could put containers up there with computers, in terms of impact on the world,” Rubin said. “That was, no pun intended, the wave of the future.”
But the Port of San Francisco surfed right past that wave and placed its bet on another technological innovation called “Lighter Aboard Ships,” or LASH, a barge-carrying ship with a large gantry crane running the length of the vessel.
That technology sunk. Oakland won the shipping arms race, and San Francisco’s waterfront withered.
Wilson characterized it bluntly: “It was kind of a backwater.”
Only in 1978 was the wharf somewhat revived with the creation of the tourist attraction Pier 39, but Rubin said for a long time after that “the waterfront was fallow.”
As for Bethlehem’s San Francisco Yard, though naval shipbuilding following World War II had declined, it built barges well into the ’70s, according to Wilson’s historical account. By 1979, shipbuilding had ceased as the shipping industry slipped into decline.
San Francisco bought the yard from Bethlehem, paying only a dollar.
In grand San Francisco tradition, it was an earthquake that opened up the withering waterfront. In 1989, the Loma Prieta temblor prompted The City to tear down the structurally damaged Embarcadero Freeway, allowing tourists and locals to broadly enjoy the Bay view.
Former Mayor Art Agnos, who was elected to office in 1988, said San Franciscans recognized the waterfront was deep into a systemic change.
“They saw it happening, they raised the questions and the answers came: Our Port is obsolete,” Agnos recalled.
“Particularly, when I decided to demolish the Embarcadero Freeway,” he added, and the growth of museums and restaurants along The Embarcadero, “it opened up a tremendous economic opportunity we’re still using.”
And with the boost in tourism came a boost in cruise ships — workers told the San Francisco Examiner tourists have been one of the few reliable clients of the Pier 70 Shipyard in recent years.
The lack of ship repair business led BAE Systems, a multinational corporation, to sell the rights to the shipyard to Washington-based Puglia Engineering — also for a dollar.
The drydock may have closed, but now a Forest City development is set to bring as many as 3,000 residential units there, drastically changing the landscape of a once blue-collar neighborhood. Some historic buildings from the 1800s survived at the drydock, too.
For now, San Francisco is adrift, waiting to see if its last shipyard will be revived once again.