Underground History

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History buried for more than a century is regularly discovered during construction projects in San Francisco.  Earlier this spring, foreman Mike Handyside led a team removing tons of old bricks to make way for the foundation of a development underway at 16th and Carolina streets. One brick caught Handyside’s eye. Crisply imprinted on it was the mark of the Heathery Knowe Colliery & Fire Clay Works, which operated in Glasgow, Scotland – the ancestral hometown of the Handysides – during the 19th Century.

Fifty red brick manufacturers operated in California in 1880 but much of the harder, paler, more expensive fire brick came to San Francisco as ballast in Scottish, English and Australian ships. An 1876 advertisement in the San Francisco Daily Alta California announced “Fire Brick, ‘Heathery Knowe’ Brand, The Best Imported, For Sale in Lots to Suit, Inquire at No. 19 First Street” just off Market Street.

Handysides’s construction site was once on Mission Bay’s southern shore. The Bay and its salt marshes covered more than 500 acres, teeming with wildlife that sustained local Native American tribelets for thousands of years. An 1860 to 1880 building boom expanded San Francisco in all directions; Mission Bay became the City’s dump, hosting a shantytown of homeless people, Dumpville, near today’s AT&T Park. Nicknamed “Poverty Lake,” Mission Bay was gradually filled-in with industrial and human waste and debris, a process completed with rubble from the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Real estate auctions of ‘water lots’ in the late 19th century anticipated this filling-in. As late as 1910, “wagon loads of rock taken from Kentucky Street are being dumped into the swampy soil of Jackson Park to obtain a solid foundation on which to place earth”. Today, excavations in or near Mission Bay and along Dogpatch’s shoreline reveal layers of historic debris. Amateur archaeologists find antique garbage: ceramic beer bottles, horse shoes, Victorian and Asian pottery shards, patent medicine and liquor bottles, oyster shells, enameled business signs, porcelain doll parts, fragments of architectural marble, and lots of brick, which brings local history alive.

– Peter Linenthal, Potrero Hill Archives Project