Archive for January 2017

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Unbeknownst to most of my friends and family, I’m really an action hero. Several times each month, I go on dangerous assignments to exotic locations, where I narrowly escape death, rescue the hostages, recover the stolen chip, round up the bad guys, and generally keep civilization safe from evil. Admirers call me “Indiana Joe.” Of course, it’s no big deal, thanks to my super powers that enable me to dodge bullets, read minds, and fly off into the sunset. When I return from one of my adventures, I can almost hear the fanfare…no, wait, that’s my alarm clock. Sometimes I awake from one of my dreams uncertain of whether it really happened or not, and with a nagging sense that a vital piece of information has been lost—that the dream was trying to tell me something important. When I need to get to the bottom of a dream, I take it to Dreams Group, a small circle of friends that meets monthly for a unique kind of dream analysis.

The Woman of My Dreams
I first became aware of dream groups a number of years ago, when someone made an announcement after a church service that such a group was going to form. At first, I wasn’t even sure what they meant by “dreams”—I thought it might have been dreams in the sense of aspirations, rather than the visions that occur while we sleep. Either way, I had plenty to work with, but I had no idea what I’d be getting myself into if I joined. A week later, the group’s leader asked all interested parties to gather for more information. I was still wavering when I saw a very attractive young woman join the group. At that point I immediately determined that I was interested. (I thought the group might be worthwhile too.)

The idea for this group and many others like it came from a book by Jeremy Taylor called Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill. Taylor, a respected author and teacher, has been working with dreams and dream groups for decades. His central principle is that all dreams come in the service of health and wholeness. Whatever else you may believe about dreams, the assumption our group starts with is that they are a good and useful thing, that they exist in some respect to benefit the dreamer.

Perchance to Dream
It may be helpful to clarify what group dream work is not. First and foremost, it is not simply a matter of guessing or looking up things in dream dictionaries. At the other extreme, it’s also not formal psychoanalysis. Participants in dream groups are simply laypeople who have learned some basic skills—not professional therapists. Finally, it’s not a religious exercise. Someone may, of course, experience religious symbols in dreams, but dream work as such does not presuppose any religious framework for interpretation.

Members are encouraged to write down any dreams they remember as soon as they wake up, then bring them to share in the meetings. Dream work can be very intimate, so all members agree to treat each other’s dreams with respect and discretion—and never to share the content of a meeting outside the group. As a member recounts a dream, the others listen quietly; when the dream is finished, we ask questions only if needed for clarification. Then we begin sharing our thoughts. Although someone may have a strong opinion about what another person’s dream means, only the dreamer can ultimately determine its meaning. In addition, because dreams are abstract and richly suggestive, there’s a strong tendency to read one’s own issues into someone else’s dream. For these reasons, we avoid saying, “This is what your dream means.” If someone has an insight or observation, the language we use is, “If it were my dream…” That way each person can put him or herself in the shoes of the dreamer with impunity, and the person sharing the dream can look at it more objectively too.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of
Taylor discusses numerous principles of dream work at length in his book, but a couple of notions come up with great regularity. For one thing, we assume that a given dream may have many different meanings, which may or may not be deep and profound. My action-adventure dream could mean both that I really enjoyed that James Bond film I just saw, and that I feel some situation in my life needs rescuing. Another postulate is that many or all of the different characters in a dream may represent the dreamer. So if I save the damsel in distress from the evil prince, it could be that my dream is about situations in which I feel helpless, or conversely, cause pain to others—not necessarily my role as the hero.

These ideas, and many more, come into play as we discuss each other’s dreams. Often the person who shared the dream will have an “aha” moment—a sudden realization of the significance of a dream symbol that would not have occurred outside the group setting. Of course, it also sometimes happens that a dream remains entirely inscrutable even after an hour of intense discussion. Even so, the process of sharing and discussing dreams can have a very therapeutic effect.

I Have a Dream Today
Dream groups can have many different forms, and their structure can vary depending on how many people are involved, where the meetings take place, and how well the members know each other. The members of my group are quite comfortable with each other, and we have chosen to meet monthly, in a different person’s home each time. We begin with a potluck meal, and while we’re eating we take turns talking about the significant events in our lives. This is quite important, as it gives us a context to evaluate the significance of dream images. We also usually spend a short time discussing “meta-dream” issues—things like methods for improving dream recall, the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, or insights from a book one of us has read.

Next we take a moment to center ourselves and mark the transition from ordinary discussion into dream work. Each person then very briefly shares a recent dream, and we determine who has a dream they’d like to examine in detail. Time permitting, we discuss two or three of these dreams using the principles from Taylor’s book and the “if it were my dream…” language. We finish with another simple centering exercise to mark the end of our dream discussion.

Don’t Dream It’s Over
Our meetings are not uniformly successful in revealing the inner workings of our minds, but more often than not, we all leave feeling we’ve learned a great deal more about ourselves and each other. During my first year in a dream group, I developed deep relationships with the other members—including that attractive young woman, whom I later married. And I acquired not only valuable introspective skills, but also some very good habits of deferential and attentive listening. But leaving aside all the touchy-feely stuff, the bottom line is that it is seriously fun. There are very few things I’d rather do than attend a Dreams Group meeting.

Some scientists believe dreams are nothing more than residue from the brain’s “garbage collection” process as information is transferred into long-term memory. Others hold, somewhat more charitably, that dreams are the mechanism the brain uses to unconsciously work through issues that could not be dealt with in waking life. And then, of course, some people have a more mystical take on dreams, declaring that they are a direct communication channel to God, the collective unconscious, a “higher wisdom,” or whatever. Unlike my biblical namesake, I don’t pretend to any supernatural gifts when it comes to interpreting dreams, and I don’t have much of an opinion about either their neurological or metaphysical basis. All I can say is that after working on my dreams in groups, I feel I understand myself better. That dreams can accomplish this is enough for me. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Dream Groups…

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The canonical book about working on dreams in groups is Jeremy Taylor’s Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill: Using Dreams to Tap the Wisdom of the Unconscious (1992). Taylor also has an earlier book, Dream Work: Techniques for Discovering the Creative Power in Dreams (1984), and a newer book, The Living Labyrinth: Exploring Universal Themes in Myths, Dreams, and the Symbolism of Waking Life (1998), which includes an updated discussion of the nature of dreams and a much more in-depth discussion of dream symbolism—but only a brief section about group dream work.

For more information on Jeremy Taylor, visit his Web site.

If you’re interested in Carl Jung’s theories of dream interpretation, an excellent guide is Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice by James A. Hall. To learn more about Jung himself, read Deirdre Bair’s Jung: A Biography—or go straight to the source: Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

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And if you dream about being an action hero, as I do, you’re sure to appreciate The Action Hero’s Handbook by David Borgenicht and Joe Borgenicht or The Action Heroine’s Handbook by Jennifer Worick and Joe Borgenicht.

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by Morgen Jahnke


There are some things in the natural world I tend to take for granted, but that reveal true surprises when I look at them more closely. Such is the case with lichens. I’ve known about lichens since childhood, but it turns out I never really knew anything about them at all. I always assumed they were like mosses, vegetable-like things that grew on the ground, rocks, and trees. In fact, lichens are not even one organism; they are a delicate balance of fungi and algae (and in some cases, cyanobacteria) that coexist in the form of what we see as a lichen growth.

More than this astonishing fact, a study of lichens reveals many other surprises, including examples of their extreme hardiness, the myriad of uses to which they are often put, and the fascination they once inspired in a beloved literary figure. I’ve learned that there is much more to lichens than meets the eye.

One is the Hungriest Number
On the most basic level, lichens exist to fill a need for certain types of fungus. Because fungi are unable to produce food for themselves, they have adapted to take advantage of whatever opportunities they find to gather it, either becoming parasites on other organisms or gaining nutrients from decomposing matter. In the case of lichens, fungi use the photosynthesis abilities of algae and/or cyanobacteria to access nourishment. The fungus makes up most of the bulk of a lichen, with the algae or cyanobacteria cells interspersed amongst so-called “fungal filaments.” Because these cells contain chlorophyll, they are able to convert water and carbon dioxide into fuel for the lichen. In return, the fungus acts as a protective covering for the algae and cyanobacteria. In this way, the two (or more) organisms have a symbiotic relationship.

It is estimated that lichens cover about eight percent of the world’s land, and can be found pretty much everywhere there is a stable surface and adequate sunlight. They often grow on surfaces that other organisms would find inhospitable, such as desert sand, bare rock, and arctic tundra. Their four basic forms are: crustose (flat, scaly growths); squamulose (pebble-like growths); foliose (resembling leaves); and fructicose (tube-like branches). Lichens grow extremely slowly, sometimes less than one millimeter per year, and for this reason are helpful to scientists trying to date glacial retreats and other disturbances in the geological record.

Lichens serve as a major food source for many types of animals, including deer, caribou, and reindeer (hence the lichen that’s misleadingly called “reindeer moss”). In addition, some bird and squirrel species use lichens not only as material for building their nests and burrows, but as food (handy in the winter when nothing else is available). Lichens have sometimes been eaten or brewed as tea in some cultures, but the use of lichens for their decorative and medicinal purposes has been much more common in human history. Their unique usefulness is a result of their adaptive abilities; in response to environmental challenges or to deter predators, lichens of different kinds have created more than 500 biochemical compounds. Dyes made from lichens were once commonly used in coloring textiles and continue to be used for preparing litmus paper. Some lichens have been found to have antibiotic properties, and are used as medicinal remedies in various parts of the world. Since they can be extremely sensitive to environmental conditions, lichens have even been used to detect levels of air pollution in Europe and North America.

A Perfect Licheness
An interesting footnote in the story is the involvement of the famous children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter in the early study of lichens. Best known for beloved works such as Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Two Bad Mice, earlier on in her career Potter was commissioned to create scientific drawings of biological specimens, including fungi and lichens. She became so interested in these organisms that she wrote her own scientific treatises on them, and in fact was the first to propose that lichens function as a symbiosis between fungi and algae cells. While she enjoyed her study of lichens, the success of her literary works eventually overshadowed this pursuit.

Lichen Strikes Again
Out of all the interesting facts about lichens, I think the most impressive is their extreme hardiness in harsh conditions. For example, lichens can dry out entirely, but then be restored to their original condition once they take on water again. This ability has served them well in regions where water can be scarce, such as deserts and polar regions.

Putting lichens to the ultimate test, the European Space Agency ran an experiment in 2005 that is mind-boggling in its implications. Researchers directly exposed specimens of two different species of lichen to open space for 14.6 days before returning them to Earth (the lichens were shielded during re-entry). Despite their exposure to the vacuum of space, cosmic radiation, full-spectrum UV light, and intense temperatures, the lichens survived and were able to undergo photosynthesis as before. The success of this experiment may one day help researchers discover the viability of transferring a form of life to other planets such as Mars.

Lichens truly are amazing; with their incredible adaptive abilities, they have managed to thrive in the most barren of settings on Earth, and can even endure the severe conditions of outer space. The unique partnership of fungus with algae (or cyanobacteria) has benefited both organisms; in the case of lichens, two really is better than one. —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about Lichens…

Thanks to reader John Allie for suggesting today’s topic!

The Lichens of North America Web site has a lot of information about lichens, including photos of 80 different species of lichen.

The University of California Museum of Paleontology has a good Introduction to Lichens.

Learn some Fun Facts About Fungi on the Utah State University Intermountain Herbarium Web site.

Further details about the European Space Agency’s lichen experiment can be found on the ESA Web site.

To learn more about Beatrix Potter’s interest in lichens, read the excellent article “Of Rabbits and Mycology” at the Antibiotics in Action Web site or go to the official Beatrix Potter Web site.

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For more general information about the life of Beatrix Potter, see her profile on the Literary Traveler Web site, or watch the recent movie about her life, Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

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Paris Catacombs

Paris is a shockingly large city. There are many fine vantage points from which to view the panorama, including the Montparnasse Tower, Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, or the bell towers of Notre Dame. I’m sure everyone who looks out over the vast expanse of Paris has a different impression; mine has been, overwhelmingly, “Gosh, that’s a lot of limestone.” With very few exceptions, the buildings of Paris are uniformly beige, limestone being the preferred building material—and not just for the buildings either, but for bridges, sidewalks, and monuments. As far as the eye can see in every direction, the earth is covered with stone. A splash of green, like a park, or gray, like the Seine, seems strangely out of place. All that stone had to come from somewhere, but it never occurs to most people to wonder where that might have been. Most of it was quarried locally, and what’s particularly interesting about this is that the empty spaces left when the limestone was removed—mind-bogglingly huge volumes of space—are largely still vacant, hidden beneath the city streets.

The Other French Empire
On visits to France, I’ve spent a good bit of time underground in Paris. There have been countless trips on the Paris Métro, of course, and last spring I spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the public portion of the vast Paris sewer system, not to mention visiting the archeological crypts near Notre Dame. But these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath Paris the real action—so to speak—is in the hundreds of kilometers of abandoned limestone quarries, part of which have been turned into a depository for the bones of millions of former citizens. As with all the underground attractions in Paris, only a portion of the catacombs is officially open to the public; this visitor-friendly section is known as the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, or simply the Catacombs.

Unlike the many lavish museums, cathedrals, and tombs in Paris, the entrance to the catacombs is a simple black door in a small building that you could easily miss if you blinked while walking by it. The clerk pretended not to understand my request for “deux billets” (two tickets) in order to reinforce the well-known meme that no foreigner can possibly speak French properly, but she eventually consented to take my money and let us in. We passed a sign reminding visitors that flash photography is strictly forbidden, then descended a long spiral staircase and entered a small gallery of photographs and drawings. Leaving the gallery, we began walking through long, dark, damp tunnels whose only significant features were signs at intervals stating when they had been built. Tourists zipped past us, talking loudly and snapping flash photos. I began to feel like the day would have been better spent sitting in a café drinking coffee and eating croissants. But then we passed through a larger chamber with a sign over the entrance to a dark hallway that said: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” (“Stop! This is the empire of death.”).

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones
Beyond that sign was another world—and one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. What at first appeared to be walls built of small stones were in fact huge, orderly piles of human bones. Tibias and femurs by the thousands were stacked neatly, interspersed with rows of skulls, which were sometimes arranged very artistically in a cross or other pattern. There were no intact skeletons; the goal of the arrangement had clearly been maximum compactness. I could only assume that the ribs, spines, and other bones filled in the spaces behind the walls of large leg bones. Most of the stacks of bones rose to a height of about 5 ft. (1.5m), and while some were just a couple of yards deep, there was at least one area where the bones stretched back for a good 20 yards (18m), as you could see from the narrow gap left on top. The tunnels of bones stretched on and on; many side passages were blocked with locked gates, but even the path designated for tourists was about a mile (1.5km) long.

The bones began accumulating in the catacombs in 1786, just as momentum for the Revolution was building in Paris. Real estate was scarce while the cemeteries were becoming severely overcrowded. The government decided to reclaim the large swaths of land used for cemeteries by relocating the remains of the departed citizens to the empty limestone quarries, whose tunnels were at that time on the outskirts of town. The process of disinterring the bones from the cemeteries, moving them solemnly into the quarries, and arranging them there took several decades. No attempt was made to identify or separate individual bodies, but each set of bones was marked with a plaque signifying the cemetery they came from and the year in which they were moved. By the time the relocation was finished in 1860, an estimated five to six million skeletons had been moved to the catacombs.

The Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone
Even so, the bones filled only a tiny percentage of the empty quarries. Although no exhaustive modern map is known to exist, explorers have estimated that there are at least 185 miles (300km) of tunnels in the entire network of catacombs—that’s in addition to the 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels and 124 miles (199km) of subway tracks in the Métro system, though the three systems crisscross and interconnect at various points. Among a certain Paris subculture, exploring these forgotten tunnels is considered a sport. Despite the best efforts of maintenance workers to seal off illicit entrances and police patrols that slap heavy fines on trespassers, the maze of tunnels is so extensive that it is simply not possible to keep ahead of the so-called cataphiles.

The catacombs are eerie—quiet (except for the sounds of water dripping from the ceiling and tourists chatting), dark (except for the dim floodlights and camera flashes), and in many ways, downright depressing. It’s hard not to notice that the bones of these millions of people are all pretty much the same. The skull of a revolutionary may be resting on the leg of an aristocrat; noble and corrupt, young and old, wealthy and poor, all are indistinguishable now. It can give you an entirely new perspective on the concept of human equality. It also, needless to say, gives visitors a very keen sense of their own mortality. It made me wonder fleetingly whether, centuries from now, someone might walk by my bones among millions of others and think, “Gosh, that’s a lot of calcium.” —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Paris Catacombs…

This article was featured in Travel Carnival: 3rd Edition.

I was not able to locate anything that appeared to be an official home page for the catacombs, but you can find a very nice virtual tour of the catacombs, with lots of photographs and descriptions, at Underground Paris: A Virtual Tour. Also have a look at The Catacombs, which has a good bit of history and detailed information.

For stories about the exploration of the nonpublic portions of the Paris catacombs, see Spelunking the empire of death by Christopher Ketcham on or Paris Underground at Infiltration.

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Planning a trip to Paris? You might want to check out Rick Steves’ Paris 2004, which gives details on all the best attractions in town—including off-the-beaten-path sites such as the Catacombs and the Paris Sewers. For even more information (and links to Rick’s many other books), visit his Web site at

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Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there may be an elegant solution on the horizon to the gigantic problem of garbage—and not just the kind that gets dumped in landfills, but sewage, too, along with agricultural wastes, used tires, and just about everything else. More good news: we might get to reduce dependence on foreign oil and pay less for gasoline in the process. The bad news? Forget about those electric cars or increased fuel efficiency; abandon hope of seeing your city skyline again—this solution, if it works, will keep internal combustion engines running forever.

What many investors are hoping will be the Next Big Thing is a technology called the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP for short. This patented process is being developed by Changing World Technologies of West Hempstead, New York, with its first full-scale plant already in operation in Carthage, Missouri. The idea behind TDP is not new—in fact, it’s millions of years old. Take organic matter, subject it to heat and pressure, and eventually you get oil. Of course in nature, “eventually” is usually an inconvenient number of millennia; TDP shortens that time to hours, if you can believe that.

A Well-Oiled Machine
TDP is a surprisingly straightforward five-step process. First, raw materials are fed into an industrial-grade grinder where they’re chopped up into extremely small bits and mixed with water. The mixture is then subjected to heat and pressure, breaking molecular bonds and reducing the material to simpler components in as little as 15 minutes. The next step is reducing the pressure dramatically to drive off the water; in the process, some useful minerals such as calcium and magnesium settle out as a valuable byproduct. The remaining slurry is sent into a second reactor, which uses even higher temperatures to produce a hydrocarbon mixture. Finally, a distillation step divides the hydrocarbons into vaporous gas (a mixture of methane, propane, and butane), liquid oil (similar to a mixture of gasoline and motor oil), and powdered carbon.

All that to say: garbage in, (black) gold out. The process produces no waste materials, unless you count water, which can be recycled in the system. The gas can be used to produce heat for the machine itself; oil can be sent to refineries to be made into a variety of useful products; carbon can be turned into everything from water filters to toner cartridges; and the remaining minerals can be used as fertilizer.

Virtually any organic material can be fed into a TDP apparatus. By making adjustments to the combinations of temperature, pressure, and cooking times, various input products (referred to as feedstock) can produce a wide range of output products; the proportions of, say, gas to oil to carbon will depend on the composition of the feedstock. The first fully operational TDP system is being used to recycle the waste at a turkey processing plant. All the turkey parts that aren’t used as meat—skin, bones, feathers, and so on—are fed into the machine, thus solving a serious waste problem (up to 200 tons per day) while creating commercially valuable products. But TDP can also process discarded computers, tires (even steel-belted radials), plastic bottles, agricultural waste, municipal garbage…you name it. In fact, the city of Philadelphia is hoping to use TDP to convert the sludge that comes out of its sewage treatment plants into oil, which will later be used to generate electricity.

Nothing is too messy or too scary for TDP to handle. It can make clean, safe materials out of nearly anything. Even medical wastes, dioxins, and other biohazardous materials. Even anthrax, for crying out loud. Apparently the only kind of material this system can’t handle is nuclear waste—I guess you can’t have everything.

Pouring Oil on Troubled Water
Thermal depolymerization is just now coming into commercial use, though similar processes have been known for decades. The problem was that they were always too expensive to operate; it cost more for the fuel to decompose the garbage than the resulting materials were worth. The inventors of TDP claim that it is highly energy-efficient—better than 85% in most cases. If that is true, and if it continues to be true on a large scale, then TDP may eventually be able to produce oil more cheaply than drilling, and get rid of garbage as a convenient side-effect—or vice-versa, if you prefer.

As fantastic as TDP sounds, the process does have its critics. Some engineers have expressed skepticism that the energy efficiency could be even close to what Changing World Technologies claims. Even supposing that it were, the oil needs of the United States are currently so massive that if all the agricultural waste in the country were processed into oil, it would still be just a drop in the bucket (so to speak). In other words, so the argument goes, the process holds more promise as a method of recycling and waste reduction than it does as a source of fuel.

The more optimistic viewpoint is that if TDP comes into widespread use, we won’t run out of oil as long as we have garbage. But that also means there will be less incentive to reduce oil consumption or seek out cleaner alternative power sources. Ah, but I suppose every silver lining must have its cloud. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Oil from Garbage…

This article was featured in the Carnival of Cars on June 2, 2006.

To get even more information straight from the turkey’s mouth, see the Changing World Technologies home page. In May of 2004, Renewable Environmental Solutions (a joint venture of Changing World Technologies and ConAgra Foods) announced that its first commercial plant in Carthage, Missouri is selling 100-200 barrels of oil per day, produced from turkey by-products.

There are hundreds of articles about thermal depolymerization on the Web. Here are some samples:

For an example of skeptical reactions to TDP claims, read Matt Savinar’s article Life After the Oil Crash. Matt points out that TDP alone, even in a best-case scenario, addresses only a tiny fraction of America’s energy needs.

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The Niantic Hotel

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships.

I Left My Ship in San Francisco
In 1847, the small settlement of Yerba Buena, which had just recently been claimed as United States territory, changed its name to San Francisco. At that time, the town consisted of just 79 buildings and a population of less than 800. But the following year, in 1848, gold was discovered nearby, and as the area’s major port, San Francisco rapidly ballooned in size. By the end of 1849, the population had skyrocketed to 100,000, making it the largest city in California. (A few years later, incidentally, the mining town of Bodie—a few hundred miles away in the Sierra Nevada mountains—would become the state’s second-largest city. It’s now the most famous ghost town in the United States.) San Francisco soon averaged 30 new houses built—and two murders committed—each day. And a plot of San Francisco real estate that cost $16 in 1847 sold for $45,000 just 18 months later.

Meanwhile, many of the new arrivals in the port of San Francisco headed directly to the hills to search for gold. In fact, more than 200 ships were completely abandoned and left to rot in the Bay as their crews and passengers went off to seek their fortunes. This both caused and solved a problem. The empty ships were clogging up the harbor, while the rapidly growing downtown business area needed room to expand. So the townsfolk took matters into their own hands and decided to put the ships to good use. Some of the ships were salvaged for their wood, which came in handy as the city had to rebuild itself from no fewer than six major fires that nearly wiped it out between 1849 and 1851. Other ships were towed onto the beach and turned into buildings—a hotel, a jail, a store, or a warehouse. But quite a few of them were sunk intentionally in order to fill in the cove. In the late 1860s, what remained of the cove was enclosed by a seawall, running roughly along the path of what is now known as the Embarcadero.

Over the years, as developers have demolished old buildings and excavated sites for new ones, numerous remains of the Gold Rush ships have been unearthed. In the late 1960s, as San Francisco was building its BART subway system, discoveries of ships and ship fragments occurred regularly. Over the following decades, ships and pieces of ships appeared during several major construction projects along the shore. As recently as 1994, construction workers digging a tunnel found a 200-foot-long (61-meter) ship 35 feet (11 meters) underground. Rather than attempt to remove the ship—which would have been both costly and dangerous—they simply tunneled right through it. When buried ships are found, they’re sometimes looted for bottles, coins, and other valuable antiques frequently found inside. Among the prizes found in the ships have been intact, sealed bottles of champagne and whiskey, nautical equipment, and a variety of personal effects from the passengers and crews.

Every City Has Its Faults
A couple of miles northwest along the city’s shore, the Marina District is also partly built on landfill—of a somewhat different kind. After the massive 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the city, developers needed someplace to dump all the rubble from the downtown area. They used the crumbled remains of buildings to extend yet another portion of the city out into the water, helping to create the site of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915.

Landfill, of course, is not an ideal foundation for buildings in an area with lots of earthquakes—especially if that landfill is saturated with water. An earthquake can cause an effect called liquefaction, in which the ground behaves more like a liquid than a solid. Significant portions of San Francisco are prone to this effect—a major worry in the event of another serious earthquake. Builders minimize the danger when preparing for new construction by driving pilings through the landfill and into the bedrock below, though roads and smaller buildings still risk damage. In this respect, San Francisco stands in the illustrious company of Venice, which is built almost entirely on pilings…and slowly sinking into the Adriatic Sea.

Alas for the forty-niners who flocked to California, many of them searched in vain for the gold that drew them here. But had it not been for them, San Francisco would have been a much smaller city, both in population and in surface area. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about San Francisco’s Terra Infirma…

The illustration above is a detail from an 1855 lithograph by J. Branard showing the Niantic Hotel, built on the beached hull of the Niantic. You can view the full lithograph at the NoeHill Web site, which has more information on this and other landmarks.

The San Francisco Chronicle had a story on September 8, 2005 about a buried ship uncovered during a construction project: Few clues unearthed about mystery ship buried after Gold Rush by Carl Nolte (includes photos!).

Other resources relating to San Francisco’s buried ships:

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The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury (author of The Gangs of New York) was first published in 1933. It details the early history of San Francisco beginning in the days following the Gold Rush, with particular emphasis on the criminal element that sprang from the city’s sudden population growth.

[[][][Jefferson Starship (né Jefferson Airplane) recorded “We Built This City” on their 1985 album Knee Deep in the Hoopla. (You can also find the song at the iTunes Music Store.)

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