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Steel, steam and sails: Exploring San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park

Visit square-rigged traders, movie-star schooners, the largest wooden ferry and more at this amazing museum.


The magnificent Balclutha at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Once upon a time, sailing ships were a common sight in San Francisco bay. Big multimasted barques, brigs and schooners plied their trade up and down the West Coast and across the Pacific.

Today these wind-powered wooden wonders are a far rarer sight, except in one place. Sitting on the north side of the city, with a great view of both the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, the Hyde Street Pier is now home to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Here floats the largest surviving wooden ship, a steam-powered ocean-going tug, a big schooner and an even bigger steel-hulled full-rigged cargo hauler.

I decided to take a step back into history and have a look on board.

Wind and steam

While the many masts are the first thing you notice from a distance, when you enter the museum it's the huge wooden ferry that draws the eye. The Eureka is the largest all-wood ferry and largest all-wood ship still afloat. Its beckoning maw leads to a collection of period cars, while climbing up provides a view down on the other ships at the museum.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

They include the C.A. Thayer, which started life in Northern California and carried lumber for its first few decades. Later it hauled salt and materials up to Alaska and returned with salted salmon.

Across the pier and slightly down is the friendly red and black shape of the steam-powered, ocean-going tugboat Hercules. Her crew of up to 15 would tow barges around San Francisco and up and down the West Coast, and help other ships as far as Hawaii and Panama.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Then there's the impressive Balclutha. With three main masts and a length of over 300 feet (92 meters), she's one of the larger ships of this era you can tour. Steel-hulled, she dates from the time when many new ships were powered by steam, but for trading ships like the Balclutha, wind was still an inexpensive option. 

We took a look inside and around these ships and several more. Check out the gallery above for all the pictures.

Timbers of time

Hyde Street Pier is basically in front of the Ghirardelli chocolate factory, one of San Francisco's most famous tourist spots. Whether you get a hot chocolate here before your tour of these ships, after or both is entirely up to you. A short walk away are two other historically important ships you can check out, the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, and the USS Pampanito, both of which I've toured.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

As historical ship museums go, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park has plenty of variety, and is a wonderful look back at local history. 

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.