San Francisco Tour Tales

Pier 70 – A View from Inside

By Bruce Smith

Pier 70, which lies on the cusp of the Dogpatch Historical District, is not your typical pier – it is almost 70 acres in size. The long wharf, made of timbers that at one time extended from 20th Street into the bay, is now mostly gone. It is a place I discovered not long after moving from New York to San Francisco five years ago. I was attracted to the area because of its similarities to the waterfronts of port cities located on the east coast. It is also one of the few remaining spots in this city where brick industrial buildings continue to stand their ground – even after earthquake, fire, and the decline of industrialization.

Shipbuilding and repair thrived here for over 150 years. The Aragon, the first steel hulled ship launched on the West Coast, was built at Union Iron Works at Pier 70. The USS Charleston, Olympia, and Oregon played a role in the Spanish American war and were also built here along with several Adder-class submarines.

The shipyard was purchased at auction for one million dollars by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation in 1905. Charles M. Schwab, the president of the company, was the only bidder to show up for the auction. It was the primary naval shipyard of the West Coast during World War I. During World War II, the yard produced 72 military vessels and approximately 2500 damaged ships were repaired. Naval ship repair continued through the Vietnam War. During the 1960s BART’s transbay tube was fabricated at the facility. Today, ship repair continues with the 250 employees of BAE Systems who utilize the ports floating dry docks and cranes.

Up until forty years ago, Pier 70 bustled with crowds of people. Bethlehem Steel’s Bay Area work force peaked in 1945 at around 25,000 workers. Until its decline in the 1970s, industry and businesses catering to these workers thrived in Dogpatch and the surrounding areas. Most of the buildings are now off limits. They are vacant and unsafe, boarded up and surrounded by fencing, graffiti tagged, and riddled with broken windows. This is what attracted me to the area and compelled me to want to explore even more.

While doing research as a new Dogpatch guide, I happened upon a plethora of information about Pier 70 from the Port of San Francisco website. The Port is tasked with the shipyard’s future development and has, along with the community, created a detailed master plan with the intent to create a new National Historic District.

Their website contains detailed information about the proposed use of the Pier, its history, and the buildings that are to be revitalized while maintaining the shipyard’s historical significance and on-going ship repair. The Port is offering tours of the buildings, primarily for those who might be interested in developing the site. Development Manager Lynda Swanson setup a tour for the Dogpatch Guides, led by David Baupre. He is the Project Manager for Crane Cove Park, and one of the designers of the Master Plan for Pier 70. We were able to enter 5 of the 6 buildings that are up for rehabilitation and repurposing.

Previously we had only been able to peek through the windows of these buildings and imagine what they were like on the inside. We now walked down the time worn historic hallways where, if you listened closely, you could hear the buzz of workers and machines that had kept shipbuilding and repair a vital part of San Francisco. This had been a place where thousands of workers clocked in each day and many of the nations battleships were born, christened and launched. Going forward, City Guides will be able to guide with an informed voice about its significance in San Francisco’s history.

If the Port plan comes to fruition, this district will be revitalized and thrive once again – with thousands of people gravitating towards its shops, restaurants, historical structures and offices. With Mission Bay on the rise and the 3rd Street T cutting a path right at its doorstep, you can almost smell the food, taste the wine, and embrace the crowds today.




Striking workers outside Bethlehem Steel, 1941

Cranes at Cove Park

Dogpatch guides: Bruce Smith, Natalie Wisniewski, Paul Rosenbloom, Sam Breach and Sina Ghaemmaghami

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the September, 2011 issue of Guidelines, a publication of SF City Guides.