Strange times, odd scenes

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This 1850 photograph, taken a year after the peak of the California Gold Rush, shows just some of the hundreds of ships from countries all over the world that had been abandoned in and around San Francisco Bay as passengers and crews alike joined the rush. The photo shows part of the not very large Yerba Buena Cove; more than 800 ships lay derelict in that cove alone. In the several years following this photo, the cove was entirely reclaimed with landfill and it’s where a good portion of downtown San Francisco is now around the foot of Market Street. The wood from many of these ships was recycled to make buildings and furniture, but some sank in place, got buried during the reclamation, and are still occasionally found today underneath new construction.


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As with most gold and silver rushes, relatively few individuals made a lot of money finding the shiny stuff. Because of the extreme tonnages of earth and water movement required after the brief initial somewhat easy pickings, large commercial enterprises took over most of the effort and profit within months, often hiring solo prospectors – almost all of them rank amateurs, remember – who were finding little or no gold and quickly becoming desperate. They weren’t paid well, which made it difficult if not impossible to save up for passage back home. A decade after the California Gold Rush, even Mark Twain tried and failed miserably at the Comstock (silver) Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, later documenting the mortification in his fantastic 600-page travelogue of the West, Roughing It (links to a sample from the book). The great majority of individuals who did make a bundle were the shrewd women and men who supplied hotel and boarding house rooms, hot meals, prospecting tools, and camping gear to the pipe dreamers – at prices commensurate with the times.

“How much is this hyar pickaxe?”
“Depends – how much you got?”

I think it’s almost a certainty that the value of all those ships in San Francisco Bay far exceeded the total riches found by their crews. One can only imagine their thousands of stories of lives changed forever.