Many ships were abandoned in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush as their crews and passengers headed straight for the gold areas. Some became semi-permanent buildings and some became landfill. Their local value was less than their value in other ports, presumably because of the lack of available labor to sail anywhere else. This would have been terrible for the sellers of ships, and great for anyone interested in buying ships.

During this period, how much did the price of sailing ships drop in San Francisco?

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  • I suspect there basically wasn't anyone trying to sell. I am coincidentally in the middle of the chapter of General Sherman's memoirs describing California at this exact time, and will add an answer if it mentions anything specific. It talks explicitly about crews abandoning ships, so the bigger problem may have been an inability to crew a ship once purchased. Apr 14, 2017 at 0:40
  • Any specific sources for the information included in the question?
    – Brian Z
    Apr 14, 2017 at 13:44
  • 2
    @BrianZ sfgate.com/news/article/… & theguardian.com/artanddesign/picture/2013/aug/19/… may be of interest. Apr 16, 2017 at 1:46

1 Answer 1


Two ships, the Inez and Bethel were purchased together at San Francisco for the modest total sum of $450. By comparison the price of passage on a ship to San Francisco from New York around that time could be in the range of $100-$300 per ticket.

To put this in context, a story from KQED radio outlines several historical reasons for the practice of abandoning ships amid the Gold Rush.

  1. There was indeed a shortage of labor as suggested in the question. Even captains deserted ships in search of gold.
  2. Many of the ships were decrepit to begin with and knowingly sent to San Francisco on their final voyage.

  3. Wood was in short supply and expensive to mill, as evidenced by the prevalence of canvas tents as the primary form of shelter. This added to the incentive to use a ship for scrap.

  4. Scuttling a ship was the easiest way to make a claim of land on shore, a practice known as "hulk undertaking". The ships for which prices were quoted above were purchased for this purpose, which the source describes in detail.

  • The reasons for abandonment that you cite are great, thank you. As for the $450, I would need an idea what the same ships cost elsewhere to know what discount was applied. Were they even seaworthy? Apr 17, 2017 at 3:17
  • I am always puzzled by this. I know few people became rich in the gold fields and I wonder if the problem was people did not understand the odds of finding nuggets? Or did people who got there early actually do pretty well all by themselves with just pick and shovel?
    – Jeff
    Apr 18, 2017 at 8:21
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    The first people who showed up did pretty well, from what I understand. Also, there was tons of money in building all the services required. Cities like San Francisco sprouted up incredibly quickly, and with massive labor shortages, just random day labor is going to be well reworded. In his memoirs W. T. Sherman talks about difficulties trying to keep army units together when people could easily make in a day what the military paid in a month. Apr 22, 2017 at 20:34

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