To San Francisco and the Balclutha

Today we’re all taking a break and a trip on a San Francisco Bay Ferry to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park where we will visit the Balclutha.  Oola is awake annoyingly early, and eager to go.  The One who would be Mysterious is always up early.  Her royal highness the cat never deigns to be annoyed, but she would never get on a ship.  So that just leaves me to be annoyed.

But the day is beautiful, not even really cold.  So we all head over to Jack London Square to catch the ferry.  This is a very busy harbor, and we watch the modern loading of container cargo on a huge cargo ship.

Loading Cargo, a truckload at a time.
Loading Cargo, a truckload at a time.

It leads one  to think about the basic shape of a ship and give thanks that the whole thing does not usually tip over and sink.

The ferry boat ride is a smoothey. The Mysterious One likes the boat’s indoor accommodations while Oola and I want to ride outside.

Oola waves to Bird Man
Oola and the SF skyline
Oola and the SF skyline

She jumps up on a bench to get a good look at the SF skyline (behind you, Oola).

After disembarking there is a short walk to the Maritime Park along what used to be a rough part of town called the Barbary Coast where able young men used to get – among other things – Shanghaied.

Of course we have to stop in the Musée Mecanique. The mysterious one thinks this stop alone is worth the price of the trip.  It certainly feels a lot cleaner than it did the last time I was here.  And some of the more sinister aspects of the collection seem to be gone.  Oola likes the fortune tellers.  She thinks she will apply for the job.

Musee Mechanique, fortune teller
Musee Mechanique, fortune teller

But I prefer Laughing Sal – something so perverse about her.  In 2003 so much was I fascinated by her that she became the center of one of my  short After Effects projects — back when I was studying such things.

Laughing Lady
Laughing Lady  This link will take you to the animation.

But it is early.  Not many visitors yet,  and the quarters are not exactly flowing into the machines.  It is still and quiet.

Another attraction on the way is the pier with the WWII liberty ship, the Jeremiah O’Brien, and submarine, the USS Pampanito.  Again, too many choices, but Oola wants to be part of the scene.

Oola as Rosie the Riveter
Oola as Rosie the Riveter

Now this is the Fisherman’s Wharf, so there is lots of classy stuff for sale:

Tourist trinkets
Tourist trinkets

But, really! This store must be doing well, it is in such an elite part of town.  Did the owner THINK about the message (Hook, knife, gun, canons)?;  Who wrote the Business plan for this one?

Bay Company
Bay Company

Finally, we walk into the morning sunlight of the Hyde Street Pier, and we are greeted by the sight of Dolphin Club swimmers in the 50° SF Bay water, getting ready for the Polar Bear Swim. Get thee hence, you all-too-vivid imagination.  I am cold just remembering it.  These guys are SERIOUS.

Ahead of us is

the Balclutha
the Balclutha.
Star of Alaska
The Balclutha when she was called the Star of Alaska, sailing the salmon route between SF and Alaska.

She is a three-masted, steel-hulled, square-rigged ship built to carry a variety of cargo all over the world. Launched in 1886 near Glasgow, Scotland, the ship carried goods around Cape Horn 17 times. It took a crew of about 26 men to handle the ship at sea with her complex rigging and 25 sails.  Click here for an entertaining account of life aboard the Sailing Ship.

Click on thumbnails to see larger versions.


Cramped, dark and dangerous.  How would you like to cook in here?  It still smells of ‘ duff like lead, beans like bullets, tea and coffee bewitched, beef kids containing green lumps of salt junk swimming in an evil smelling mass of slush.’  Norman Pearce

Ship's carpenter's bench
Ship’s carpenter’s bench

The mysterious one told us about this work bench.  The ship’s carpenter could repair anything from the big mast to the book matched paneling in the Captain’s quarters.

Captain's Sitting Room
Captain’s Sitting Room

The skylight was covered by this beautiful structure:

skylight over captain's quarters
skylight over captain’s quarters

There was also a children’s room, a zinc lined bathtub, a toilet, a master bedroom.

For everybody else — not so much.

Mid Shipmen's quarters
Mid Shipmen’s quarters

Not as luxurious as the captain’s space, but with windows, skylight, cubbies, and clean. Six men and everything they own in this tiny space!

But this was a hundred times better than the Chinese worker’s quarters — cramped, damp, no natural light, far back in the cargo hold — and they had to do their own cooking.  Their situation was close to desperate. Resentful crewmen would register their frustration by sending bed bugs down the vents to the Captain’s quarters.


As in the Port of Oakland picture at the beginning of this post, it is Important that the cargo doesn’t shift, especially in heavy seas.

NOT like the Port of Oakland:

Much Oofing to load this ship with cargo
Much Oofing to load this ship with cargo

We want to stay but hunger makes the decision.  On the way to find food, a National Park employee with a big chunk of cake on a paper plate tells us there was a big Christmas party on the Eureka, an historic steam-powered Ferry across the pier from the Balclutha and fascinating in its own right.  There might still be a little food left, he says.

Now neither the mysterious one nor I are much enthusiastic about company Christmas parties.  But like Oola, we are hungry and not looking forward to battling the crowds in Fisherman’s wharf.  So we quickly work our way back out on the pier and find:

Eureka, a banquet
Eureka, a banquet

Turkey, ham, and all the trimmings, in copious quantities. Plus a table full of pies, cakes, whipped cream, tea and coffee.  I feel like we are crashing the party (and we are), but the man in the red shirt and white hat with the white beard welcomes us and demands we eat up.

He says his wife, Susan, makes all this, and that she does it every year, and that we had to take a left-over pie home with us.  Not a piece of pie, a whole delicious pumpkin pie.

The only disturbing elements are the guns and tasers on the Park Rangers’ belts.

So we sit on the old wooden benches and eat and eat until it is time to catch the ferry home.

But on the way to the Bay Ferry two memorable things happen.

First, Oola finds a Starling in winter plumage, and converses with him in his own language.  “Three words,” he says.  “Give me three words and I will make a poem for you”.

Oola and Starlingclick on image to see the startling plumage on this starling

The second event unrolls at Pier 42.  The mysterious one is out on the plaza listening to an extraordinary blues player.  Oola and I warm a bench in the sun while waiting for our ferry home.  A tall black man, with an enormous, toothless smile arrives, spots the pie and starts a conversation.  “You got apple pie there?  Apple Pie is my favorite.”  “Pumkin Pie” I say.  “OOOOH, Pumpkin Pie is my best favorite!” says he with his booming voice and a face that is laughter incarnate.  Then he commences to regale me with little known winter facts about the waterfront.  When the mysterious one returns, we give pie to the entrepreneur in our midst.  With an upturned face and two famished bites, he promptly devours it while thanking us loudly through his big toothless grin.

Back in the harbor between Alameda and Oakland we must wait for an enormous cargo ship to be pushed into place by  tiny tug boats.  It is amazing to watch the maneuvering.  It has been a beautiful day.  I do not want it to end.  I am not annoyed.

By jandove



  1. Thanks for taking me on your great trip. Had been to Fisherman’s Wharf, many years ago. Do not think the S.F. Maritime National Historic Park was there then. Did get to hear Jessie Fuller, a one man band, blues musician, born in Georgia, but moved west to S.F.
    during WWII because of the ship building. Same move that many
    blues musicians from the South, especially Texas, made for the same reason. Also, much easier to live as a black man in S.F. than
    Georgia , Mississippi and Texas in early 1940’s.

    Waiting for the next trip.


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