Digging for Dumpville
by Hank Chapot Feb 2002
Driving through the Mission Bay detours around the Third street sewer and light rail project on Christmas day 2001, I noticed huge piles of fill and rubble excavated for the Mission Bay UC project.
I knew instantly that I was looking at excavated fill from the 1906 earthquake. I returned the following Sunday and picked through the piles left from the excavation for a set of light poles along Terry Francois boulevard, not thirty feet from the seawall at Pier 54. Research tells me that after the 1906 earthquake, the city had to find dumping grounds for an extraordinary quantity of rubble, scorched brick, concrete, wood, iron and glass left in piles on every street in what was euphemistically called, "the burned district," all of San Francisco east of Van Ness and out into the Mission to twentieth Street.
After the 06' earth quake, San Francisco needed dumping ground for the massive debris in the burned district and contractors were engaged to remove the rubble. In less than a month, the contractors and railroad operators were at odds over hauling charges. The road operators wanted to rate the fees based on the location of the dumps but contractors were fearful that they would be cut out of the project. Railroad owners decided to charge three dollars a carload to dump into SP land below twenty-fourth and beyond Army Street (Cesar Chavez). Into his controversy stepped the Board of State Harbor Commissioners who offered space behind the seawall planned for the north side of Mission Creek but they asked land owners to keep the rubble on their lots until the Seawall construction be gin later that summer.
All over San Francisco there are building facades with occasional inclusions of melted brick as design elements, few understand that these are recycled from the earthquake. I found numerous pieces of this smooth, polished brick, scorched and melted by the raging inferno that followed the earthquake.
After picking through the dislodged earthquake rubble for a few visits, on a Sunday in January I trespassed into UC property and along with a small cadre of bottle diggers, began digging through the blue bay mud and fill piles within the mitigation company's yards, deeper into San Francisco's past, eventually digging into the remains of "Dumpville," a permanent village along the shores of Mission Bay that existed from the 1850's until 1895. Dumpville was San Francisco's refuse site, albeit on southern Pacific land, a loosely structured community of mostly men, not unlike dumpsites across the planet. It was on the shore of Mission Creek, the waters called "poverty lake." When city fathers needed more land and less crime and poverty near town, a murder was all that was needed to instigate a police crackdown. On November 9, 1895, a troop of twenty police from the southern district under the command of Captain John Spillane, marched down sixth street late at night and burned the shanties and evicted the scavengers from the site, which was quickly filled and became a part of the huge southern Pacific railroad yards.
Though much of the material is broken up, I have been finding some remarkable stuff and a few intact items; bottle, old shoes, broken pottery, glass, glass buttons, bits of children's toys, lots of bone, cloth, leather, etc.