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San Francisco occupies the tip of a narrow peninsula that forms the west side of San Francisco Bay. This location made the city a major port in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But when the modern container ship took over the freighter trade in the 1960s, there just wasn’t room to build the large mechanized facility those ships need. So the commercial port moved across the bay to Oakland, leaving the piers that festoon San Francisco’s waterfront to handle ferry boats and tourist-oriented traffic.
Fisherman’s Wharf is probably the biggest tourist lodestone in a city packed with places to visit. It could best be described as a nautically-themed shopping mall with tchotchke shops, restaurants, and kid-friendly amusement park attractions. The wharf was originally the home port for 19th century Italian fishermen. Amazingly, a small but active fishing fleet is still based there, along with a seafood market that sells the catch. It’s worth spending a few hours walking around the wharf to experience the “atmosphere,” and just because it’s so famous.
Visiting a tourist hot spot like Fisherman’s Wharf always sets my Cynic Alert Level to Orange (“high risk of cynicism”). But walking east on the Embarcadero that runs along the waterfront, I heard something that set off a Red Cynic Alert. I had read that sea lions were fond of a particular dock of Pier 39 at the east end of Fisherman’s Wharf. But the barking and bellowing was so loud that it just had to be a recording the merchants were playing, at a volume high enough to loosen wallets. Turning onto Pier 39, it became clear that the din was “unplugged” and entirely natural.
Hundreds of sea lions crowded floating platforms, tussling over favorite spots, posing with their noses pointing skyward, or just catching some rays on a sunny morning. The pier is a nearly ideal place for them. It has easy access to tasty fish for marine mammals to dine on, but it’s inaccessible to the sharks and orcas (“killer whales”) that dine on tasty marine mammals. The sea lions began to invade Pier 39’s K Dock in 1989, soon after the big Loma Prieta earthquake. Many of the slips for small boats on this dock were reserved for overnight use, so there was plenty of open space to “haul out” during the day. The growing horde of sea lions soon angered not only the boat owners, but also nearby residents who complained about the noise. But eventually the authorities decided it would be in the best interests of both species to relocate all the boats and leave the dock to the sea lions. The merchants at Pier 39 were undoubtedly pleased with this decision. The sea lions have become a popular attraction in their own right, offering opportunities to sell plenty of pinniped-themed souvenirs!
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is just west of Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s an aquatic park with a beach and an enclosed lagoon. Overlooking the lagoon is the Maritime Museum, in a building that appropriately resembles a 1930s “Streamline Moderne” Art Deco ocean liner. Built in 1939 as a Works Progress Administration project, it was originally a bathhouse. (Ships and nautical accoutrements were a common motif in Streamline Moderne buildings. The entrance to Crossroads of the World, a travel-themed outdoor mall in Hollywood that opened in 1936, is also ship-shaped.)
The Hyde Street Pier at the east end of the lagoon was the terminal for automobile ferries to Marin County before the Golden Gate Bridge was built. Today it’s home to a fleet of six historic ships and some 100 small boats.
The park’s historic flotilla includes the 1886 square-rigged sailing ship Balclutha; the 1895 schooner C. A. Thayer; the 1907 steam tugboat Hercules; the 1891 schooner Alma; the 1890 steam ferry boat Eureka; and the 1914 English paddle-wheel tugboat Eppleton Hall, which looks like a tin toy boat that Hogwarts students used for practicing Engorgement Charms.
Stranded on the dock is the “Lewis Ark,” a late 19th century houseboat—
called an “ark” in those days— that most visitors probably would never
recognize as a vessel. Interspersed among the historic ships is a
diverse collection of boats, oars, and related paraphernalia in an
assortment of colors.
Ghirardelli Square takes up a full city block across the street
from the Maritime Museum. Completed in 1899, the square was originally
the headquarters and factory of the Ghirardelli (“gear-are-deli”)
Chocolate Company, founded by Italian-born Domenico Ghirardelli. When
the Ghirardelli company was bought for the first time in 1960, chocolate
production moved to a new modern factory across the bay. The old square
became a de facto annex of Fisherman’s Wharf, with a collection of
tourist shops and restaurants. More recently, the square has been given
an upscale makeover as a swanky private condominium complex. But the
Ghirardelli chocolate shop remains open to the public, offering eager
tourists a full range of very unhealthy confections and sundaes.
The Embarcadero is the road and walkway that follows the
waterfront from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Financial District. Just east
of Fisherman’s Wharf along the Embarcadero are Pier 33, from which ferry
boats to Alcatraz operate, and Pier 35, the cruise terminal. No cruise
ships were in port when I walked by, but docked at Pier 35 was the
world’s largest private sailboat, the 88-meter Maltese Falcon.
The computerized riggings are a sight out of science fiction when the
sails are furled inside the masts. At the time it was visiting San
Francisco, the Maltese Falcon was up for sale at an asking price
of € 115,000,000. In the little dockside park near Pier 35, the
closest place for tourists and passersby to admire this sleek high-tech
luxury yacht, a homeless veteran had set up shop. He patiently sat under
an umbrella, reading his Bible while waiting for donations.
Near the south end of the Embarcadero, Pier 7 offers a nice view of the Financial District and the San Francisco skyline. It’s often called the Broadway Pier, since it’s at the foot of Broadway. Although this 275-meter wooden boardwalk looks like a Victorian or early 20th century pier, it was completed in 1990. It replaced an actual Victorian pier (from 1901) that was in deteriorating condition before the 1989 earthquake administered its coup de grâce. The new Broadway Pier is a popular (and often productive) place for fishermen of diverse ethnicities to cast their lines. It’s also a favorite lunchtime gathering place for suit-clad managers and workers from the adjacent Financial District.
On the bay side of the Embarcardero south of the Broadway Pier are
the ferry terminals and the Bay Bridge, both of which carry passengers
to points across the bay. On the inland side is Embarcadero Center, a
accretion of real estate developments that include seven Financial
District skyscrapers and a large shopping mall.
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