Audio Tour Introduction

What's Buried & Why

About 65 ships lay buried deep below the streets of downtown San Francisco. All have their own secrets and stories you’re about to discover. But why are they there? The shape of the city holds a clue. 

Audio file


Chapter 1


Embark on a tour of San Francisco's buried history.


What's beneath your feet? Sailing ships from the Gold Rush, underground creeks and sand dunes, sacred Indigenous shellmounds, rock formations shaped over millions of years. You're about to embark on a tour of San Francisco's buried history. Through audio stories, images, maps, and augmented reality, we'll look beneath the surface to discover Gold Rush history, natural history, and the history and continued presence of native peoples.

We'll tour 12 different locations across the area between Telegraph Hill and the foot of the Bay Bridge where the city sprang up in 1848 after the discovery of gold. Most of this area was previously underwater, a shallow inlet called Yerba Buena Cove. Today, it's the downtown and South of Market neighborhoods.

When shiploads of Gold Rush immigrants began pouring in from Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia, they didn't just build a city, they transformed the landscape. Within 10 years, they cut roadways through hills, leveled giant sand dunes, filled in the waters of the cove, and dynamited solid rock. Some stories of these transformations are well documented, while other details have only emerged through extensive research and archaeological excavations.

But San Francisco's history began long before the Gold Rush for many thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Indigenous peoples made their home in San Francisco's hills, valleys, shorelines, and marshes. Before the 1770s, diverse groups of Ohlone people lived throughout the area in small villages, often relocating seasonally to the Bay shores for fishing and gathering shellfish, or farther inland to hunt. They visited and traded with other native groups in northern California. The Ramaytush Ohlone people have survived for thousands of years without damaging or destroying their natural environment, because they hold knowledge, traditions, values, and beliefs about how to take care of the environment and live closely with nature. Their traditional practices helped plant and animal populations to thrive in ways they would not if they were simply left alone.

When the Spanish arrived in the 1770s, the Ohlone suffered enslavement, genocide, and the devastating destruction of their culture by the missionaries and soldiers of the Spanish Empire. Ramaytush Ohlone continue to honor their ancestors and uphold their responsibilities as caretakers of this place.

San Francisco's long history has also been shaped by the cycles and dynamic changes of nature, which its residents have always had to learn about and live with, and sometimes struggle against. Winds blew sand into dunes that once spanned the entire peninsula. The movements of the earth created the city's many hills, rock formations, and earthquake faults. Creeks that once flowed down valleys now percolate through soils beneath the sidewalk. Tides in the Bay Estuary continually rise and fall, and longer term changes in sea level created the Bay itself.

Join us as we discover many ways of thinking about this place, beginning with the evidence that lies beneath our feet as we traverse it streets, hills, valleys, and shorelines.