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Gold Rush Port: The Maritime Archeology Of San Francisco's Waterfront.

GOLD RUSH PORT: THE MARITIME ARCHEOLOGY OF SAN FRANCISCO'S WATERFRONT By James P. Delgado (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, 256 pp., $45 cloth)


JAMES P. DELGADO grew up with the historical archeology of the San Francisco waterfront, which began in 1978 with the accidental discovery of the storeship Niantic. Soon this National Parks historian dug up the William Gray, dove on the PMSS Tennessee in the cove of that name, and edited the log of the Apollo, another storeship, for the Book Club of California. Delgado then unearthed Charles Hate's ship-breaking yard, William C. Hoff's ship chandlery, and most significantly, the storeship General Harrison.

In 1850, E. Mickel & Co., the San Francisco branch of an American firm in Valparaiso, Chile, beached the General Harrison on a water lot to use as a warehouse. Perceptively, Delgado melds advertisements in Alta California with archeology to determine the merchandise stored on the ship from May 1850 until the great fire of May 4, 1851, which also destroyed the Niantic and Hoff's store. His study becomes a microcosm for the growth of the port of San Francisco.

In Gold Rush Port, Delgado details how the waterfront grew ever bayward into deeper water. A heading says it all: A "Venice Built of Pine [pilings]" and its Storeships. (60) At first, merchants kept goods in the ships that brought them. Delgado estimates that San Franciscans used 250 ships either at anchor, connected to wharves, or less often sunk to claim water lots, or beached. The majority went back to sea.

Lacking, though, is an acknowledgement of the role of the federal government. James Collier, the first collector of the port, arrived in November 1849 to find nineteen floating warehouses. Storage cost merchants huge amounts on shore where buildings were at a premium, leaving Collier to lament that he had to station up to sixty inspectors on the ships to receive the proper tariffs. He yearned for bonded warehouses and in February 1851, a new collector brought new regulations demanding goods be landed.

Furthermore, this is an academic study, and therefore must fit into a "model." Delgado follows the Annales school, which measures broad changes over centuries and adopts Immanuel Wallerstein's 1974 "World Systems Theory" on the rise of capitalism. He therefore argues that San Francisco was not "accidental" and that "gold was not an instigator," as "preexisting Pacific and global maritime trade and commerce" had already found the city. (14, 2) He fiercely concludes, "This construction of San Francisco as a key maritime player was not an isolated accident of the Gold Rush. It was the culmination of decades of work by a group of mercantile capitalists, who seized the moment, between 1848 and 1851, to alter forever the patterns of global maritime trade." (49)

To use Gold Rush phrases, "We don't see it" and this is all "humbug." During Mexican California, Honolulu stood as the center of commerce, culture, and communication. Without gold, an agricultural San Francisco region with few people and little demand would have developed slowly, like the ports of Portland and Seattle.

As for "speedy communications," in the era of storeships, mail steamers left monthly then semi-monthly, with a letter once taking six weeks now reduced to a month to the reach the East Coast. A reply took the same time, while a ship carrying merchandise around Cape Horn required from three to six months to arrive in San Francisco. Individualistic merchants guessed. In a letter written on the back of a Prices Current for April 14, 1851, commission merchant Samuel J. Gower found no rational hand: "The market is overstocked in almost every article you can mention and every new arrival seems to knock prices one step lower." Firms must "pay the duties of fresh arrivals," he continued, and these "enormous" tariffs tied "up all of their capital." Gower concluded: "There is not a man that has given orders for goods lately, either from China, Manila, Europe or America that has not nearly or entirely ruined himself." One such was Joshua Norton, who owned the only rice mill in the city and attempted to corner the rice market in 1852. No other could be like the self-proclaimed Emperor Norton I and Jose a business to gain an empire.

Yet, the global surges raised in Delgado's hypothesis shake up a focus on the local to ask "why?" For instance, moving ahead a century, world container technology joined with local low railroad tunnels and labor union requirements to make Oakland the Bay port. Delgado, a versatile maritime historian, is a remarkable authority on the San Francisco waterfront. Enjoy Gold Rush Port. You will learn how to calculate the number of pilings needed for a wharf.

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Author:Chandler, Robert J.
Publication:California History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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