The Niantic: Ship, Spring, Store, Hotel

by Joel Pomerantz

June 18th, 2010

When gold was discovered in California there was no crossroads at Sansome and Clay Streets because in 1848 that was the shore of San Francisco Bay. It was an undulating and sandy shoreline, with large drifting dunes.

As soon as word of gold got out to the world, uncountable ships full of fortune-seekers slogged across the seven seas, all headed here. Many hundreds of them were abandoned in—and quickly filled up—the small harbor, called Yerba Buena Cove. Crew and passengers rushed off to the Sierra hoping for riches. This left the Cove cluttered with ships which were then sold off as storage space, partly dismantled, or abandoned intact.

One such ship, the 119-foot Niantic, arrived in mid 1849 and couldn’t make it into the harbor for the crowds. A few months later, on a high autumn tide, the ship was dragged to shore, to a spot near what is now Sansome and Clay. Piles were driven on both sides to brace the ship upright. By a peculiar stroke of luck, the Niantic was for some time one of the primary water sources for the town. A hollow pile driven into the soils beneath the salt water broke into an underground stream and began to gush fresh water out of the top—an artesian spring!

The ship gradually became less of a ship and more of a building. Verandas were added. Sand from the dunes was dumped by steam excavators, surrounding the hull. Stairs were added. Office space was built.

The “ship” then burnt to water-level, along with all the others, in San Francisco’s fifth great fire (1851). Water-soaked sand prevented combustion of the hold and its contents. A three-story hotel, also named the Niantic, was built on the remnant hull, surrounded by streets and sidewalks. It was said to be the nicest hotel in the city.

When, in 1872, the hotel was demolished and replaced, the hull was rediscovered along with 35 baskets of Jacquesson Fils champagne that had been stored before the fire. After the 1906 Great Quake and Fire, the building was again rebuilt, and French champagne was again found in the ruins. The same again happened in 1977 when new construction was underway at 595 Sansome. The bottles, still in their original packing crates, are on display at the Maritime Museum at the north end of Polk Street.

The Niantic is located at 505 Sansome Street, lower level. The cross street is Clay.

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