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San Francisco West Approach

Unearthing San Francisco’s Accidental 19th Century Time Capsules


West ApproachNeither the stifling heat of summer nor the bogged down wet and slippery mud of winter kept ASC archaeologists from completing work on the largest excavation undertaken in San Francisco. It was all part of the Caltrans seismic retrofit of the West Approach to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The result of a long planned research effort that targeted six city blocks, it started back in May 2001 and lasted into January 2003.

Specific excavation sites were chosen based on several years’ historical research. West Approach Downtown commuters were kicked out of their parking lots under the elevated section of Freeway 80 which probably didn’t endear us, Caltrans, or Balfour Beatty, the international construction firm we worked with, to the hapless drivers. Large areas, and sometimes all, of a city block were fenced off. Security guards were employed to keep the bad guys from looting features as we dug. Archaeologically Sensitive Areas (ASAs) were marked out and the homeless drunks lying paralytic on the asphalt politely escorted off the block. Sticking their heads over the fence the homeless were to be our most frequent spectators, advising the odd passerby (they can be very odd in San Francisco) on the progress of the excavation. We were later to be thankful to them when the field director drove off the site with his laptop sitting on the lowered tailgate of his truck. A group of homeless people recovered it after a following car had run over it. They were camped on the sidewalk discussing the potential impact on the hard drive that had miraculously survived when the hapless field director stumbled upon them. He had been roaming the streets, looking for his lost computer. Data rescued and the finders rewarded, he bade farewell to his benefactors thinking unemployed Silicon Valley dot-commers had to wind up somewhere and wasn’t it lucky for him they wound up where they did.

West Approach

A hardy and dedicated crew then set out to uncover and explore the inadvertent time capsules left behind by the earliest and often forgotten inhabitants of this city. These were the pits, privies, and wells in residential, commercial and institutional back yards. When no longer needed, after water and sewer lines were hooked up, they became convenient receptacles for all sorts of unwanted household materials, not counting objects accidentally dropped. And even back then, no-one wanted open pits in their backyards for children or older family members to fall into, so these features would be rapidly filled and usually sealed with a clean layer of sand, turning them into the time capsules they were never meant to be. When combined with census and city directory data, which often enabled the residents to be identified across a time spectrum, the excavation opened a window into San Francisco’s past with a view from an angle quite different from that provided by written documents alone. West Approach

There were fourteen city blocks included in the project area to start with. But detailed research and the expectation that modern construction would have destroyed remnants of old San Francisco saw that number narrowed to six. As for the other eight blocks that didn’t make the cut (almost literally), pre-field study indicated there was nothing left in the impact areas due to modern construction or else there wasn’t enough of a project impact to warrant investigation. Strolling through the city you could have walked past the sites a few blocks from Market Street and the financial district and not known what was going on behind the chain-linked fence that was covered with black plastic sheeting to keep the dust in. To the world outside, it must have looked like any other downtown construction job.