San Francisco Tour Tales

“Sheep in the Tunnel”

By Harry Rabin

In November 1993, construction began on the Muni Metro Turnback Project–designed to connect the existing Embarcadero station with the planned expansion of the subway terminus in the Embarcadero BART station, eastward underground toward the foot of Market Street. Beneath Justin Herman Plaza the alignment curves south and continues beneath the Embarcadero, returning to the surface at Folsom and Steuart Streets. The new tunnel had to cut through what was the historic fill of what was Yerba Buena Cove. The fill consisted of rubble, dune sand, and everything else that was simply dumped in the bay.

As the city of San Francisco grew in its early days, and as the population exploded during the Gold Rush, there was an unprecedented demand for buildings, structures, homes, and warehouses.

The quickest way to acquire a building was to dismast one of the many abandoned ships in the harbor and relocate the vessel to the shallow waters of the bay. These ships became hotels, warehouses, and saloons. The fill material that surrounded these floating buildings made them landlocked.

Gradually, the converted ships were incorporated into the bay fill and entombed beneath the city streets. Looking at a map of buried ships along the waterfront you can see the locations of 47 ships, of which the names of 44 are known. According to one account, the ship Rome (above) was sunk at the southwest corner of Market and East (Embarcadero) in 1852 by a Captain Fred Lawson. As with many other ships coming to San Francisco in early Gold Rush days, the Rome’s final voyage ended here, on February 28, 1850— 210 days after leaving from New York City.

On December 2, 1994, as work on the north tunnel for the Metro system was progressing at 30 feet beneath Justin Herman Plaza, the contractor’s onsite engineer, a Russian emigrant whose English is highly accented, radioed a message to the surface which was recorded in the radio log as, “Tell Guy we have a ‘sheep’ in the tunnel.”

The ship lay right in the way of where the tunnel was headed. And the location closely coincided with Lawson’ s account of the sinking of the Rome.

Prior to encountering the ship, tunnel progress was measured at roughly 12-15 feet per day. After hitting the ship, progress was measured in inches per day. Pieces of the ship were removed; archaeologists entered the tunnel to examine the ship to try to confirm that this discovery was indeed the Rome. Research revealed that the threemasted sailing ship was built in 1829 in Salem, MA. Wood analysis indicated that much of the wood came from a species of white oak native to the areas near Salem.

In order for the tunnel to continue as originally outlined, a hole had to be made through the hull of the ship. This large hole precluded any idea of bringing the ship to the surface for some sort of public viewing. So now, when traveling back from a Giants game at the ballpark, Metro trains with you on board go right through the Rome giving a direct connection, albeit one not seen, between 20th-century transportation and 19thcentury transportation.


“Sheep in the Tunnel,” A Gold Rush-Era Ship Beneath Your Feet, James M. Allan, William Self Associates Map by Ron Filion, 2000 (updated 2014)

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the August, 2015 issue of Guidelines, a publication of SF City Guides.