High and Dry

Frank Marryat was an Englishman from a wealthy, educated middle class family who was trained as a draftsman. His father, Captain Frederick Marryat, was a well known English naval officer, traveller and hero of the Napoleonic wars, whose novels became very popular in the first half of the 19th century. He wrote, among others,  A Diary in America (1839) after a two-year stay in Canada and the US, and a novel for children, Narrative of the travels and adventures of Monsieur Violet in California, Sonora and Western Texas (1843). Frank Marryatt's taste for travel, as well as his desire to write, must have been influenced by his father (who had died shortly before his journey to California).

Frank, like thousands of other recent graduates in both Europe and throughout the Americas, not yet committed to either a family or a career, chose to take a chance at getting rich - while having the adventure of a lifetime - in the gold fields on the far edge of the world, which was what the US territory of California was in 1849 and 1850.

His travel journal, most of his possessions and the remains of the Niantic, the landlocked ship (a two-story building with a "sailing ship foundation" in the picture above) were all destroyed in the fire of May 3-4, 1851. Marryat returned to California in late 1852 with his recent bride, to whom he'd promised a trip to California. On the return trip home to England he contracted yellow fever on the Isthmus. With difficulty, he was able to complete his book, Mountains and Molehills, or Memoirs of a Burnt Journal, but the young author/illustrator died shortly before its publication in 1855. He was only twenty eight years old.

While Marryat intended his account to be a light and humorous popular entertainment, his book is also unguardedly factual, closer to modern journalism in style than the more common "high literary" language of most mid-19th century memoirs. Mountains and Molehills...  reads more more like a letter written to a friend. He wrote about, and drew pictures of, his impressions the California Gold Rush - and this picture shows several things that an American correspondent possibly wouldn't/couldn't report for publication.

This book, with its drawings, is Frank Marryat's consolidated memory of some of the extraordinary things he witnessed in gold rush California.

The landlocked ships shown are only two examples of the unusual. He also considered the people to be unique, proto-San Franciscans if you will, whom he remembered as an interesting admixture of races, nationalities and cultures. Shown on the San Francisco street in are two Chinese, a character who, upon closer inspection is clearly of African descent (arm raised, red shirt, behind the horse and cart), a horse mounted Mexican (or native Californio) in serape and, wearing a poncho, a Chilean or Peruvian. In his book Marryat also wrote about members of these nationality and "racial" groups, whose accounts are often missing, or written as stereotypical, in American diaries and travel accounts, but who nonetheless took part in - and contributed to the lore of - the gold rush.

Marryat also helps explain the "wide open" culture of the gold rush with icons juxtaposed in a way that would be, at the time, considered preposterous. In the building at the right, two doors lead to enterprises in philosophical (and, as considered in the 19th century, moral) opposition. At mid-century, when the temperance movement burned brightly in the better ordered eastern United States, a liquor store and a biblical tract society would never share the same roof!

Significantly, as well, all the characters are all male, underscoring the fact that the gold rush was largely a migration of men, called by some historians "the greatest movement of humanity since the Crusades."

The Nianticsite is an especially interesting one to examine. The ship itself was what we would consider "recycled." Originally a whaler, her owners sent her to the Isthmus to be refitted for carrying argonauts to San Francisco where it was abandoned, its economic life at sea over. The hulk was reclaimed from abandonment for a secondary use. It was pulled onto the mud flats of Yerba Buena Cove to serve as a warehouse and on its deck a hotel was built to accommodate San Francisco's housing shortage of 1849/50. As the Clay Street Wharf was extended past its "front door" the mud flats were filled with sand scraped from the mountainous dunes where downtown San Francisco now stands until, finally, the Nianticsat "High and Dry" at the corner of Clay and Sansome. Its significance is that among all of the ships known to be buried under today's financial district, the Nianticlies closest to the original shoreline of the long-filled Yerba Buena Cove.

Malcolm E. Barker, whose three volume series San Francisco Memoirs (a collection of eyewitness accounts of San Francisco from 1835 to 1906 that forms a triptych portrait of early San Francisco) includes a story of how the Niantic came to its resting place. Future newspaperman James J. Ayers (later to be a founder and first editor of the San Francisco Morning Call) remembered:

Fronting the city, from Rincon Hill to Clark's Point, was a mud flat upon which the tide rose and fell. The ships anchored well out in the stream, and all the goods landed had to be brought over this marsh in lighters. The tide came up to Clay and Montgomery streets, and that point seemed to be the general dumping place for the business part of the city.

Whilst I was standing at this point musing upon my situation and wondering what part I should take in the activities now opening before me, I heard my name called out, and was warmly greeted by a couple of sailors I had befriended in Realejo... they were working for Captain Noyes, who had taken the contract to float the old whaling bark Niantic over the mud flat and place her on a corner water lot...

A temporary foot-bridge had been laid from Montgomery street to the vessel, and, passing over it, we climbed on board the Niantic. The hulk was securely in place, at the northeast* corner of Clay and Sansome streets. My friends told me how they had floated the Niantic over the shallow flat. They lashed the empty (whale) oil casks,with which she was abundantly supplied, to her bottom, and thus floated her by slow stages when the tide was high into the berth she was destined to occupy.
The Niantic was destroyed by fire in May, 1851 and on the site were raised a succession of low rise structures. The remains of the ship were discovered in the early 1870s when a cellar was dug for the the third building to occupy the site and, apparently, while many artifacts were discovered, others were left in place underground to be discovered in future years.

The restored remains are to be found today on the left of the entrance lobby of the San Francisco Maritime Museum.

* It was near that spot - though the northwest corner - where the remains of the ship Niantic were found again in 1978 as excavation began on the site for the high rise office building which stands there today. 

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