Port History

Port of San Francisco celebrates 150 Years! 1863 – 2013


Throughout the years the waterfront has been San Francisco’s principal link to the Bay Area, the nation, and the world – serving as the City’s “front door.” Through it has passed treasure seekers in search of gold and silver riches, multinational immigrants in search of new lives, cargoes that established San Francisco as a major port and trading center, materials destined for war, and thousands of soldiers. San Francisco’s port has been largely responsible for the City’s ability to become a diverse, cosmopolitan center with significant national and international bonds.

On April 24, 2013 the Port of San Francisco celebrated the 150th anniversary of the creation of the State Harbor Commission. The Port traces its official beginning to this date in 1863, but the Port’s history goes back much further in time.


Sleepy Outpost to Bustling Port

The first recorded ship to enter San Francisco Bay was the Spanish supply ship San Carlos in 1775. Fifty years later, in 1835, Captain W.A. Richardson was designated as the port’s first Harbor Master. At the time San Francisco was a sleepy outpost town called Yerba Buena. As richly described in Henry Dana Jr.’s classic account Two Years Before the Mast, occasional visits by a New Bedford or Nantucket whaler, a barque, or a stray brigantine, calling to pick up hides, tallow and horns made up the total shipping of the port and the West Coast. Between April 1847 and April 1848, only eleven ship dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay: one barque, one brigantine and nine whalers.

All that changed with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1849. In that year alone, over 90,000 passengers arrived in San Francisco Bay aboard some 650 American and foreign vessels. Word spread that San Francisco Bay was “one of the finest natural harbors in the world,” and was surrounded by hills, fed by navigable streams, safe for vessels of any draught and large enough to accommodate ocean–going fleets.

Long Wharf or Central Wharf (now Commercial Street) was the first major pier built in San Francisco (1848–50). It eventually extended 2,000 feet into the Bay over shallow water and mud flats that prevented ships from docking at the shoreline. Other piers quickly followed but construction could not keep up with shipping demand. San Francisco was the focus of oceangoing and river traffic for California, and the center of extensive traffic on the bay. With berthing space at a premium, a syndicate of entrepreneurial wharf builders sought to cash in on the boom by constructing new wharves and collecting hefty fees for passenger and cargo loading and unloading.


Progress and the Port

In 1863, Governor Leland Stanford signed legislation (Senate Bill 90) creating a Board of State Harbor Commissioners for San Francisco to better serve maritime commerce for the entire state and to protect the waterfront from total private control. The Harbor Commission was charged with the construction and upkeep of wharves, piers, and seawalls, the dredging of the harbor, and the collection of all rents, tolls, wharf age, and dockage fees. With this bill, California’s first port – the Port of San Francisco – was established.

The new Commission’s first order of business was to construct a massive seawall to stabilize the shore and organize the waterfront. By 1880, over two and a half miles of seawall were completed from Fisherman’s Wharf in the north to China Basin Channel in the south. More than 800 acres of prime metropolitan land was created behind the new seawall, land which is now San Francisco’s valuable downtown financial and commercial districts.

In 1898, the Ferry Building rose at the foot of Market Street as headquarters for the Harbor Commission and a vast ferry boat fleet that served the entire Bay. Like most of the waterfront, the Ferry Building escaped virtually unscathed in the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed most of downtown San Francisco.


Premier Port of the Pacific

By the turn of the century, the Port of San Francisco had become the international trading center of America’s West Coast. Six million tons of goods from around the world passed through the Port in 1900. The Port had constructed 23 piers along the waterfront by 1908. Maritime commerce flourished and the Port experienced a steady increase in trade after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Tonnage at the Port increased sharply to 14.5 million tons in 1922.

During World War II, San Francisco was the principal point of departure for the Pacific Offensive. From a civilian commercial port, San Francisco was transformed into a port of embarkation that supplied personnel and materials for the military. Following the end of the war in 1945, the Port faced another identity crisis brought on by containerization. This dramatic change in shipping technology required new configurations of ships, terminals, special cranes and acres of storage space. Shipping had an entirely new profile and it was back to “square one” for the Port. The Port remained under State control until it was transferred to the City and County of San Francisco in 1969. It is now managed by the Port Commission, a five-member body that is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Supervisors. San Francisco has redefined the Port’s maritime marketing strategies yet continues to offer the world's shipping fleet major assets such as naturally deep water, hundreds of thousands of square feet of covered storage, on–dock rail, acres of unobstructed laydown space and modern, well maintained cargo terminals.


A People's Port

As the City's downtown continued to grow towards the water's edge, new uses were established in previously industrial areas. Today the Port oversees a myriad of maritime, commercial and public activities. While industrial maritime uses dominated the northern edge of the waterfront at one time, cargo shipping and ship repair have re–located primarily south of China Basin. Cruise ships, excursion boats, passenger ferries, recreational boating, commercial and sport fishing activities, with limited commercial maritime operations, have remained on the northern waterfront. The scenic views and lively mix of activities and uses draw millions of visitors to the Port of San Francisco each year.


"The Port of San Francisco is a marvel of nature and may well be called the harbor of harbors, and I think that if it could be well settled like Europe, there would not be anything more beautiful in all the world — for it has the best advantages for founding in it a most beautiful city with all the conveniences desired by land as well as by sea — with that harbor so remarkable and so spacious in which may be established shipyards, docks and anything that may be wished for." From the diary of Pedro Font, 1776.


Includes excerpts from Port’s Wharfside newsletter, August 1988.