Explore the Bay Area's Maritime History at Hyde Street Pier

February 19, 2011

Hyde Stree Pier and EurekaSituated on one of the world's greatest natural harbors, San Francisco and the Bay Area have a rich and storied maritime history. Your family can explore our seafaring heritage by heading over to Hyde Street Pier and its collection of historic ships. Part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, a visit to Hyde Street Pier and its vessels is a fun, educational, and inexpensive family outing.

Located near Aquatic Park and Fisherman's Wharf, Hyde Street Pier is, as its name suggests, a pier extending out into San Francisco Bay from the foot of Hyde Street. You'll probably see the stars of Hyde Street Pier's fleet—the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha and the massive 1890 Eureka ferryboat before you get to the pier itself. In addition to Balclutha and Eureka, the pier is home to four other historic ships: the 1895 lumber schooner C. A. Thayer, the 1891 scow schooner Alma, the 1907 oceangoing steam tug Hercules, and the 1914 paddlewheel tug Eppleton Hall.Best of all, you can actually go on board and explore several of these restored vessels.

Eureka ferryboat at Hyde Street PierIf you just want to walk on the pier and look at the ships, you can do so for free. Boarding the vessels costs $5 for adults, but admission is free for children under 16. The first ship you'll encounter is the ferryboat Eureka. Eureka was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1890 in, of all places, Tiburon (back then it was a dirty rough-and-tumble railroad town, not the enclave of exclusivity that it is now). It was a railroad freight car ferry called Ukiah before it was converted to an automobile ferry and re-christened Eureka in 1923. In this form, Eureka served as a floating portion of Highway 101 connecting Sausalito to San Francisco until 1941, by which time the Golden Gate Bridge had pretty much put an end to the need for car ferries on the Bay.

Eureka now looks much the way it probably did in the 1930s. Head on board and check out the passenger waiting area, complete with period newsstand, and then go below to visit the collection of vintage cars and trucks housed on the automobile deck. You can also check out Eureka's monster four-story-tall walking beam steam engine.

Hyde Street Pier vessels—Balclutha and Eppleton HallNext up is Balclutha, otherwise known as the "pirate ship" for its classic square-rigged appearance. Of couse Balclutha was never a pirate ship, but rather began life in Glasgow, Scotland as a three-masted steel-hulled cargo ship. In its heyday, Balclutha made regular trips from Britain to San Francisco carrying cargoes of grain, pottery, and Scotch whisky, among other things back and forth from California to Europe. She also visited ports of call in Hawai'i, New Zealand, Australia, and India.

Balclutha later was renamed Star of Alaska, and ferried salmon cannery workers and canned salmon from Alaska to San Francisco in the early 20th century. Eventually she was purchased by the San Francisco Maritime Museum and restored to her present condition. On board Balclutha you can explore almost the entire ship, from the cramped fo'c'sle that was home to most of the crew to the comparative luxury of the captain's quarters, to the hold, which is packed with simulated cargo that gives a good impression of the sorts of items Balclutha used to transport. You'll also find a video monitor in the hold showing an informative film about the history of the ship. Kids really have a great time exploring Balclutha, as her square-rigged form conjures up fantasies of pirates and seafaring adventure. If you have only time to visit one ship on the Pier, make sure it's Balclutha.

HerculesAlso take the time to visit Hercules, where you can view the engine room, crew's quarters, and galley. At the time of our visit, these were the only three vessels open to the public, although the scow schooner Alma is often open and even takes visitors on sailing trips on San Francisco Bay—check the park's website for schedule, fee, and reservation information.

Regular tours of Hyde Street Pier's ships are offered by rangers. Offerings vary, so check the website or call the visitor center at (415) 447-5000 to see what's scheduled on the day of your visit. Weekend offerings often include sail-raising demonstrations (where you can join in!), sea-chantey sing-alongs, and more. If you can't join a tour but still want some guidance, consider phoning in to the park's "Maritime Voices" cell phone audio tour. Call (415) 294-6754, then press the pound sign (#) and choose a tour number.

If You Go

Mural inside the Aquatic Park BathhouseThere's plenty to do in the neighborhood around Hyde Street Pier, which is right near the Hyde Street cable car turnaround, Aquatic Park, and Fisherman's Wharf. Hyde Street Pier is open from 9:30 am to 5 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm) from September through May, and 9:30 am to 5:30 pm (last entry 5 pm) from June through August. It's closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. The San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park visitor center is located at 499 Jefferson Street (at Hyde) in the Argonaut Hotel building. It's open the same hours as Hyde Street Pier. Call them for more information at (415) 447-5000 or visit www.nps.gov/safr.

You might want to save some time to play in the sand at Aquatic Park, and to check out the cool Art Deco Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building, which contains additional Maritime Museum exhibits including model ships and the stern section of the Gold Rush-era sailing ship Niantic, as well as some beautiful murals of undersea life. It's free, so wander in if you get the chance.

Bring your lunch and eat at Aquatic Park if the weather's nice. You can also venture down Jefferson Street into Fisherman's Wharf where there are plenty of place to eat, including San Francisco's only In-n-Out Burger.

Getting There

BalcluthaHyde Street Pier is located at Hyde and Jefferson Streets in San Francisco. Parking in the area can be a challenge, but if you're up for a walk, you can do like we did and park near the yacht harbor at the Marina Green and hike over the hill down to Aquatic Park.

From Marin, head over the Golden Gate Bridge and take Doyle Drive to Marina Boulevard. Turn left into the parking lot at Buchanan Street. Make sure you don't park in any of the reserved spaces for the yacht harbor tenants. If you get there early enough, you'll have plenty of parking spaces to choose from.

Otherwise, you can battle it out for street parking or pay for a parking lot or garage, of which there are plenty in the area.

Another transportation option is to take the Larkspur or Sausalito ferry in to San Francisco and then head to Fisherman's Wharf via the historic F Market streetcar line. You can then walk up Jefferson Street to Hyde Street Pier, about three blocks or so.