The big dig for San Francisco’s multibillion dollar transportation terminal has unearthed 70 artifacts from during and after the city’s heady Gold Rush days, including opium pipes from a Chinese laundry and a chipped chamber pot found in a backyard outhouse.
The artifacts have archeologists eager for more and residents pondering the ground beneath their feet.
“It’s not often that you get a chance to stop for a moment and have a window into what used to be,” said James Allan, an archeologist with William Self Associates, the firm ensuring the items are unearthed and preserved.
The US$4 billion Transbay Transit Center under construction in the South of Market financial district is billed as the “Grand Central Station of the West.” The 90,000m2 bus and train station will serve as the northern end of California’s planned high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles; the West Coast’s tallest skyscraper is slated to rise above the center.
It’s sleek and modern — and on the same blocks once inhabited by working-class Irish immigrants and Chinese laborers who lived back to back on the sand dunes of the busy Gold Rush port known as Yerba Buena Cove.
They were Donahues, Dollivers, Wings and Lings, and the accoutrements of their lives are being unearthed: clay opium pipes and ceramic teapots from China; French perfume bottles; dainty English serving dishes, apothecary jars and the heads of hand-painted porcelain dolls, as well as animal bone toothbrushes and abandoned chamber pots.
They date back to the mid-to-late 1880s, when the cove was reclaimed and clapboard houses went up on Mission, Natoma and Minna streets. They were filled with Irish, Swedish, German and Italian immigrants, as well as the Chinese who had come during the Gold Rush and stayed on to help build railroads and bridges.
Today’s residents and workers can see the exhibit in the lobby of the building that houses the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
“The neighborhood has changed so much in a relatively short period of time. It’s a big evolution and [the exhibit] gives you a glimpse into how the world has changed in those years,” investment adviser Tom Pagel said.
The artifacts are accompanied by photographs and documents, including an 1885 article from the San Francisco Chronicle in which Irish landlords JS and Mary Dolliver were seeking US$500 in damages from Ah Wing and 11 Chinese tenants for the “offensive smells from the laundry that have injured the rental value of the plaintiff’s premises.”
Ming Ng is a Chinese engineer at the exhibit.
“It’s very interesting to see the pottery compared to the metal things that are all rusted and ruined,” the engineer said, looking at a pristine blue-and-white Chinese teapot, then pointing toward a rope pulley and iron chisel found in the back yard of a brick mason. “The pottery looks almost new.”
He smiled and noted: “That’s the Chinese character for longevity.”
Allan said the artifacts were not necessarily unique and that they expect to unearth hundreds more.
“What is unusual is that we were able to identify the people and occupations of the early Gold Rush,” he said. “When the Gold Rush started in the 1850s, the miners came here and there was no place for them to live, so they lived in the sand dunes and then tent camps. We found the evidence: a wooden floor and a lot of bottles, barrels, a privy, leather shoes and boots.”
They would have worked in the Risdon Iron Works — which built pipes for Hawaiian plantations — the Selby Smelting Works, Miners Foundry or the San Francisco Gas and Light Co.
Allan said his favorite find was an oblong, earthen storage jar found fully intact. The unglazed pot with a thin neck and bulbous belly was used to store grain, olives or water.
“It’s the equivalent of today’s plastic water bottle in that they were used, and used, and then thrown away,” Allan said.
Ellen Joslin Johnck, an archeologist who ducked in to see the exhibit, said the items should give San Franciscans “pride and ownership” of their city.
“To me, this lends more understanding and a greater appreciation for what it took to build this great city,” she said.
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