San Francisco, CA

San Francisco's most seaworthy museum tells the story of America's maritime merchant history

Built in the Bay
(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Nestled quietly between the retail and restaurants of Fisherman's Warf sits San Francisco's Maritime National Historic Park. The park, which includes a number of cultural centers and landmarks, houses six iconic and historic ships that each represent a phase in America's maritime merchant history.

Beyond just the ships, the national park at the Hyde Street Pier features a maritime musuem, a maritime research facility and the Aquatic Park Historic District, which is itself a national landmark.

The Maritime Museum building itself was built as a bathhouse in 1936 by the WPA, a New Deal agency that helped create hundreds of thousands of new jobs through a variety of make-work projects amid the horrifying economic downturn. The interior of the building features ornate and thematic murals.
(Courtesy of Alamy)

In front of the Maritime Museum is the man-made lagoon at the spot of the former Black Point Cove, which was filled by mining and logging companies in the late 1850s to make more room for the industrial warehouses needed to process raw materials.

The Aquatic Park District was officially declared a national landmark in 1987 and the Maritime Museum followed suit the next year.

The Hyde Street Pier features six historic ships that give any visitor a look into the American past of seaworthy merchants: Balclutha, C. A. Thayer, Eureka, Alma, Hercules and Eppleton Hall.

This article won't address each ship directly but rather use three of these historic ships to discuss the changing nature of American shipping interests during this period.


Balclutha, also called the Star of Alaska, was built in 1886 and was initially said to be named after a New Zealand town of the same name. Her name also refers to her first homeport, Glasgow, Scotland. Glasgow, which is the City on the Clyde, being her first port, her name stems from the Gaelic Baile Chluaidh which literally translates to Clyde Town.

She was built by Charles Connel and Company, a Scottish ship-building company based out of, you guessed it, Glasgow. She was designed as a general trading ship and made a remarkable 17 trips around Cape Horn in just 13 years, an astounding feat at the time.
(Courtesy of National Parks Service)

While the majority of her trips were carrying wine, case oil and coal from Europe to American ports on the East Coast, she did make a number of stops at other ports for more specialty items. She stopped in Chile for nitrates, Australia and New Zealand for wool, Burma for rice, San Francisco for grain and the Pacific Northwest for timber.

In 1902 she was chartered to the Alaska Packers' Association, a San Francisco-based salmon and fish packaging company despite the name. After striking a reef off Kodiak Island in 1904, the Balclutha was renamed the Star of Alaska.

After her rename, she was sequestered to solely salmon fishing trips, sailing north from San Francisco in April and south from Chignik Bay in Alaska every September. Typically the crew for these voyages was around 200 crew and passengers. Her last voyage for trade was in 1930 and in 1933 she was featured in the Clark Gable movie Mutiny on the Bounty.

In 1954, Star of Alaska was purchased and renamed by the San Francisco Maritime Museum and in 1985 she was designated a national landmark.

Balclutha serves as a good example of this transitional era of maritime shipping as the industrial revolution took hold across the globe. The old ways of wealth and trade were dying out, making room for an entirely new breed of capital and an entirely new breed of ship with it: the steam engine.


Eureka is a side-paddled steamboat built in 1890 by the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad Company at their yard in Tiburon. She was originally named Ukiah to commemorate the extension of the railway into the city of the same name around the same time. She is the largest wooden ship in the world.
(Courtesy of National Parks Service)

With the advent of a transnational railway system, tourism became a bigger industry than ever before and this shift in the economy was exemplified in part by Ukiah and her versatile voyages. During the day, she served to ferry passengers over to San Francisco from Tiburon since construction on the Golden Gate wasn't even started until 1933. At night, she moved railroad freight cars across the bay to yards in the north to then be put on railways and shipped north.

The lower deck was later retro-fitted to hold vehicles with the increasing popularity of automobiles in the early 20th century.

Ukiah carried munitions filled rail cars during World War I and overloading of the ship's hull eventually led to a government subsidized rebuild of the ship. The rebuild, which took place at the Southern Pacific yard took more than two years and replaced everything above the waterline.

After the rebuild, she was christened the Eureka and transitioned to a commuter and passenger ferry.

From 1922 to 1941 she was run as a commuter ferry but, as you might expect, the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge spelled the end for the Eureka.

During the war years, she was mostly used to transport troops and in the years immediately following World War II she was used for industrial transportation, serving as a link between the Oakland and San Francisco ports for shipping and railway companies.

In 1958 Eureka joined the historic fleet of ships at San Francisco's maritime museum.

Eureka is an example of the changing nature of the American economy at the time it was built. As the industrial revolution literally revolutionized everything from transportation to cultivation, industries like shipping underwent massive changes. She changed with the times as best she could but eventually was as outdated as the horse and carriage.

Eppleton Hall

Eppleton Hall is a paddlewheel tugboat built in England in 1914 for Lambton and Hetton Colleries Ltd, a British mining company. Unlike the ships listed above, she was not designed for transport herself but rather to transport existing freighter vessels along the River Wear and River Tyne in the northwest of England.

She is one of the last remaining steam-powered paddleboats as most were outdated by the time of Eppleton Hall's production in the early 20th century. She operated with minimal issues until the mid-1960s when she was sold to Seaham Harbour Dock Company in 1964.
(Courtesy of National Parks Service)

She was sold for scrap in 1967 and, with a burned-out deck and other severe damage, that is where she sat until Karl Kortum, then director of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, and Scott Newhall began negotiations with the British National Maritime Museum. The British were very resistant to any negotiations and, according to a book written by Newhall, were "fatuous, uncooperative or downright insulting" when Newhall broached the idea of steaming both ships, Eppleton Hall and the similar Reliant, from north England to San Francisco.

In late March of 1970, roughly six months after setting sail and after more than a year of negotiations, a restored Eppleton Hall sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Newhall's book details the treacherous voyage with a number of intriguing and funny anecdotes.

She was donated to the National Park Service in 1979.

All three of these ships represent a distinct time in the global shipping economy whether it was the early days of a merchant vessel clinging to shipping power before the true upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, a steamboat that eventually was outdated by cars or a tugboat that saw new life halfway around the world, all of these ships served a distinct economic purpose before they became the historical artifacts they are today.

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