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San Francisco Yards / Potrero Point

San Francisco Yards is located Potrero Point on the San Francisco Peninsula, a northward extension of the Santa Cruz Mountains that separates San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Potrero Hill rises to an elevation of approximately 300 feet above sea level.

The earliest documented occupation of the area between San Francisco and Monterey bays dates to about 8,000 years before present (BP). Prior to about 2,000 BP, archaeological evidence suggests that this area was occupied by small groups of hunter-gatherers that exploited both terrestrial and marine resources (mostly shellfish). Approximately 2,500 BP, large shellmound sites began to be occupied around San Francisco Bay. These sites were likely habitation sites with dense shell midden, flaked and ground stone tools, bone tools, beads, ornaments, charmstones, and burials. The shellmounds were occupied until the arrival of the Spanish.

The territory was occupied by the Native American group (known to the Spanish and 20th century ethnographers) as the Costanoan. The Costanoan group occupied the coast of California from San Francisco to Monterey and inland to include the coastal mountains from the southern side of the Carquinez Straits to the eastern side of the Salinas River south of Chalone Creek. Costanoan refers to a language family consisting of eight related languages. Each language was spoken by different ethnic groups within their established geographical area. The political units within each ethnic group were tribelets; each tribelet varied from 50 to 500 people with the average being about 200. Each tribelet had one or more permanent villages and several temporary camps within its territory. Hunting and gathering groups lived in temporary camps when securing resources within the tribelet territory away from the village.

Spanish explorers intent on settling the Pacific Coast first reached the San Francisco Bay in 1769, and by 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza, Jose Joaquin Moraga and Fathers Francisco Palou and Pedro Cambon established the Mission Dolores (San Francisco) and the San Francisco Presidio. The Spanish era ended when Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The missions were secularized by the mid-1830s, and former mission lands were granted to soldiers and other Mexican citizens for use as cattle ranches.

American success in the Mexican-American War in 1848, followed by the Gold Rush of 1849, brought large numbers of Anglo-Americans to San Francisco. As a result, the city experienced many significant changes because it was the seaport nearest the gold fields. San Francisco quickly developed into a shipping and transportation center for a state that was remote and isolated from the rest of the country. Starting in 1848, the Gold Rush was like a spark that set off a wild rush of development and speculation. Fortune-seekers arrived from all parts of the globe. Sailors abandoned ship to head off for the gold fields.

The Potrero Point area was first occupied by industry about 1854, when the E.I. duPont deNemours Company constructed a black powder magazine. At this time, Potrero Point was a rocky peninsula located between Mission Bay to the north and the Islais Creek Cove to the south. One year later, the Hazard Powder Company constructed a similar facility along what was that time the southern shore of Potrero Point (near what is now 23rd Street). Powder was in great demand for mining and general construction uses. Later both companies constructed wharves for loading the powder onto ships. By 1881, both companies had sold their interests to the Claus Spreckels sugar company, due to the increasing encroachment of residential areas.

Another early industry in the Potrero Point area was the San Francisco Cordage Manufactory, later called Tubbs Cordage Company. Established in 1857, the company made ropes, largely for marine and mining purposes. For many years, Tubbs Cordage was a major area employer, though the company gradually declined before closure in 1962. One very interesting feature of the Tubbs operation was the Tubbs Cordage rope walk, as depicted in the Sanborn Insurance Maps for 1899. The rope walk was a long (at first, 1,000 feet, later 1,500 feet), covered walkway that extended out into the Bay on piers. It was used by the cordage workers as they twisted fiber strands together to make long ropes.

Union Iron Works

Union Iron and Brass Works was founded in 1849 by San Francisco's three Donahue brothers, known as the "iron men." The brothers started out small, but soon expanded their blacksmith shop into a machine shop and boiler works, and then added a foundry. Donahue's Union Iron and Brass Works was popularly known as Union Iron Works. In the 1850's, Peter Donahue saw that San Francisco Bay would facilitate the population growth that he knew was coming. He moved into transportation, from ship repair and shipbuilding, and repair, maintenance and eventual construction of locomotives. Donahue sold the Union Iron Works in 1864, and with the profits he founded San Francisco's first gas works, later to become Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), and developed local railroad lines.

The Union Iron Works was managed by Irving M. Scott and his brother, Henry Tiffany Scott. They saw that the development of the railroads would soon lead to the need for large-scale local shipbuilding. In 1883 Union Iron moved to the shoreline of San Francisco around Potrero Point on bay land that had been recently created by filling in the bay. It used steel and iron from the nearby Pacific Rolling Mills, but imported armor plate from eastern mills. The USS Charleston was the first government shipbuilding contract, and many of the ships of the Spanish-American War, including Admiral Dewey's flagship, the USS Olympia, were built here.

The first decades of the 20th century were a period of rapid expansion in the Bay Area. In the Potrero area, industrialists filled the shallows in the Bay to the south of Potrero Point between 1899 and 1914, and constructed a wharf along the south end of Potrero Point. During the same period the San Francisco Shipyard was constructed on the north end of Potrero Point. The area underwent a period of reconstruction and further expansion after the devastating 1906 earthquake that destroyed many 19th century buildings and structures in San Francisco.

Bethlehem Steel Company

Charles Michael Schwab [no relation to discount stockbroker Charles R. Schwab] had become the President of the Carnegie Steel Company in 1897, and in 1901 he became the first President of the US Steel Corporation, which he made arrangements with J.P. Morgan to create. On 17 April 1899, the directors of the Bethlehem Iron Co. formed the Bethlehem Steel Company, a holding company, which immediately leased the properties of the Bethlehem Iron Company. In 1901 an offer to purchase control of Bethlehem Steel Company was made by a British conglomerate. The offer was countered by Charles Schwab, president of United States Steel Corporation his offer was accepted by the shareholders. On 15 August 1901 the Bethlehem Iron Company ceased to exist and Bethlehem Steel Company took its place. In 1903 Schwab resigned from the U.S. Steel Corp. and took over the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Bethlehem Steel had been a small, specialty producer; within a decade after Schwab took control he had made it into the second largest and most diversified steel company in America. Schwab developed the Bethlehem Steel Company into the largest independent producer in the field.

The holding company idea had germinated in New Jersey in 1888. It was a device for enabling a few men to control majority interests in several or many large corporations. Under the deliberately created devices of the New Jersey Corporation Act, a minority, perhaps a very small minority, of the stockholders of that corporation can control the latter. The holders of the paper become the company, and all that this company has to do thereafter is to purchase with its own stock the stock of other companies, collect dividends therefrom, and divide the proceeds. This was almost exactly the way in which, to use the descriptive language of Receiver Smith, that "artistic swindle," the United States Shipbuilding Company (Shipbuilding Trust), was organized.

Schwab merged the Bethlehem Steel Company with the newly formed (1902) United States Shipbuilding Company, a trust headed by Lewis Nixon and Charles Schwab. In 1902 the United States Shipbuilding Company, acquired Union Iron Works, as well as seven other major shipyards in the nation. The shipbuilding company failed and Sehwab's bonds, received in part payment for the Bethlehem Works, were held to be a fraud on the creditors of the Shipbuilding Company. Schwab was widely believed to have engineered the demise of the U.S. Shipbuilding Corp., and he certainly benefitted from its collapse. After many lawsuits and a congressional investigation, Schwab reorganized the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in New Jersey in 1904, to succeed the United States Shipbuilding Company.

After the United States Shipbuilding Company went into receivership, in 1905 Charles M. Schwab successfully bid $1,000,000 at a public auction for the Union Iron Works on behalf of Bethlehem Steel. Schwab appointed Joseph J. Tynan as the new superintendent of Bethlehem Steel's San Francisco Yard, as Union Iron Works was renamed. The reorganlzers of the defunct United States Shipbuilding Company speedily found that the most economical way to handle those ship-yards which were worth keeping up was to let each yard do a specific work. In 1908, Bethlehem bought the Hunters Point drydocks, and eight years later purchased the 90 acre Alameda shipyard, formerly United Engineering Works. In 1910, major improvements began on the Potrero yard that continued until World War I.

It was sold to Bethlehem Steel in 1906 but it continued to use the Union Iron Works name until 1917, after Bethlehem acquired Quincy, Sparrows Point and a number of smaller yards. The San Francisco plant was expanded by the acquisition of the adjoining Risdon Iron Works, which had built locomotives, and this facility was used for destroyer construction.

The San Francisco Bay Area's major contribution to victory during World War II was shipbuilding. Over 30 shipyards, large and small, and scores of machine shops, and metal and wood fabricators joined together to create the world's largest combined shipbuilding complex. Unlike major shipyards on the east coast that were concentrated in compact urban areas, Bay Area shipbuilding consisted of components sprawled across hundreds of square miles, from Napa in the north, Sacramento and Stockton in the east, to San Jose in the south.

In the decade prior to 1940, America's shipyards launched only 23 ships. In the five years after 1940, American shipyards launched 4,600 ships. San Francisco Bay Area shipbuilders produced almost 45 percent of all the cargo shipping tonnage and 20 percent of warship tonnage built in the entire country during World War II. The war lasted 1,365 days. In that span of time Bay Area shipyards built 1,400 vessels--a ship a day, on average.

The Bay Area was fortunate in one respect; two major local shipyards, Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation and Moore Dry Dock Company, had gained valuable experience in large-scale rapid production during World War I, and had on hand core management and labor groups when needed for World War II. Lessons learned during the first wartime shipbuilding program (1917-1922) had demonstrated to management what to do and what not to do. These two yards had long histories in steel shipbuilding and had managed to survive the depression years of the 1930s, a period when American shipbuilding all but ceased.

During the war, Bethlehem's Potrero yard produced 72 vessels (52 for combat) and repaired over 2500 navy and commercial craft. Bethlehem Shipyards at Pier 70 (along with Alameda and Hunters Point, both also managed by Bethlehem) was one of several major yards that made the San Francisco Bay Area the most productive shipbuilding area in the US during World War II.

After World War II seventeen ships were built at the yard, including several tankers, freighters, and four frigates for the U.S. Navy. The last ship built was the frigate USS Bradley, delivered on 11 May 1965. The Potrero yard continued to build large barges well into the 1970s.

City of San Francisco Potrero Yard

On November 1, 1982, the City of San Francisco became owner of the Potrero yard property, paying Bethlehem one dollar.

The San Francisco yard continues today as San Francisco Drydock. Because of its strategic location and technical characteristics, its qualified staff and modern management, San Francisco Drydock is an attractive selection for inspection, maintenance, repair work and conversion. The yard offers the largest floating drydock on the West Coast, capable of docking the largest of vessels entering San Francisco Bay. The drydock is certified by the United States Government (NAVSEA). The yard has all required certificates and permits in place, including American Bureau of Shipping- approved processes for all types of welding, such as major tailshaft welding and repair.

BAE Systems San Francisco Ship Repair

BAE Systems San Francisco Ship Repair annually hosts cruise liners from their Alaska and Mexico trade routes, Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) tankers, foreign and domestic bulk carriers and container ships, military vessels and local bay traffic for maintenance, alterations and repairs. As the premier yard in the Bay Area, San Francisco Ship Repair fields a large, highly qualified work force with outstanding management and supporting facilities to produce a quality work product, while maintaining the highest standards of worker safety and environmental protection.

Berths For Repair
Location Length Depth Facilities
Pier 3 East
Pier 3 West
Pier 4

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:55:43 ZULU