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January 04, 2023

Let’s peer into the history of SF’s piers, shall we?

A view of the Ferry Building in 1886. The Port of San Francisco has been central to city life for more than a century. (San Francisco Public Library. Behrmans collection)

This question came to us from a listener named Danika: “Why don’t the piers in San Francisco go in chronological order and why are so many missing?” We decided to do a little digging.

One of the not-too-secret dirty little secrets of the Bay Area waterfronts is that all of that firm dirt and land you might find yourself standing on is actually not so firm. In the late-1800s and early-1900s much of the marshland and wetlands around the Bay were drained or filled in to create the geography we see today. (You can see a full map of artificial fill and reclaimed wetlands here.)

A key piece of land that had to be filled in? The Port of San Francisco.

Back in the 1800s, there was little organization along San Francisco’s waterfront. People and companies erected private piers ad hoc, with no oversight, and they often collapsed into the marsh below. “There was no way to build a pier to the shoreline,” said Michael Corbett, author of Port City: The History and Transformation of the Port of San Francisco. As the major shipping port along the West Coast, San Francisco was a vital stop, and the issue had to be fixed. So in 1863, the state legislature created the Board of State Harbor Commissioners to take over the chaos and administer the entire San Francisco port: shoreline, piers, and what is now the Embarcadero. The board developed a uniform plan and one of the first pieces of that plan was to build a new seawall.

“What the seawall did was expand the land of San Francisco,” said Corbett. From Pier 45 (where Musée Mécanique is today) all the way down to China Basin, the seawall created a new shoreline, adding more than 500 acres of new land. The next step then was to build along the waterfront, what’s called the bulkhead wharf, and the piers jutting out from there into the water.

This modern diagram offers a below ground view of San Francisco’s Embarcadero. (Courtesy of the Port of San Francisco.)

The Ferry Building was established as the center. To the north, piers got odd numbers and buildings were designed in a Neoclassical style. Piers to the south got even numbers and featured Mediterranean-inspired architecture. Local ferries came into the Ferry Building (and in the early 1900s, more than 8,500 streetcars turned around in front of it every week). Then, the order extended out so that the farther away the pier the farther away the ship’s origin or destination. Nearly every pier number was built and existed at one point, said Corbett, but they didn’t all survive.

This 1932 photo shows just how many piers once stood south of the Ferry Building. Many were destroyed over the years, by fire or other accidents, and were never rebuilt. At one point there was a pier for nearly every number – whereas today many are missing. (Courtesy of the Port of San Francisco, in the San Francisco Public Library collections.)

Fires took out more than a few piers. Marine worms were also a known scourge of wooden ships and buildings—and they were worse in San Francisco than in other cities. (This is why, when the piers were rebuilt in the early 1900s, they were built with concrete.) And then there were common accidents in the high-traffic port, like boats hitting the dock.

“Piers had to be rebuilt all of the time,” said Corbett. It wasn’t until the 1950s, after the peak of traffic during World War II, that the Port stopped rebuilding piers as they were destroyed. The majority of cargo and shipping had shifted to the Port of Oakland, where there was more room for new larger container ships and easier rail access.

Today, the Embarcadero Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places. And the Port of San Francisco is charged with historical preservation, promoting recreation and access to the public, and managing the long-term leases to keep it all viable.

Want to learn more? Check out this guide to the numbered piers, or learn about the next threat to the historic port, seismic retrofitting and sea level rise.
— Kelly O’Mara