Wreckage from an 1878 clipper ship peeks through on Ocean Beach

RichmondSFBlog reader Rob sent me these photos he took at Ocean Beach on Wednesday. They show wreckage from an old clipper ship freighter that ran aground way back in 1878.

When the tide is low, you can sometimes see a foot or so of the wood wreckage poking out above the sand near Noriega Street. But this is the first time I’ve seen a picture with so much of it exposed.

Seeing ruins like this conjure up all kinds of questions. Is there buried treasure or ship cargo down there somewhere? What happened to the people that were on the ship? How did it end up running aground?

We don’t have the ship’s logs to refer to but we do have Wikipedia in this day and age. The ship, which was a three-masted clipper ship called King Philip, was built in Maine in 1856.

The ship originally carried cargo, including guano which was used for manure, along a route that required going around Cape Horn. The ship was in service for 22 years and its history included at least two mutinies or sailors’ rebellions, with the ship surviving being set on fire on both of those occasions.

The King Philip met its demise on January 25, 1878 as it left San Francisco Bay, carrying no cargo:

A steam-powered tugboat had towed her out of the Bay, in order to help her maneuver in the dangerous waters. At that exact moment, an accident caused the death of the captain of a ship that was nearby, and the tugboat crew was called upon to help out with that emergency. Left on her own without the tugboat to steer her, the King Philip dropped an anchor, but the anchor did not hold fast, and the clipper drifted with the current towards the breakers of the beach and ran aground in heavy surf, which caused the ship to break apart.

The local Daily Alta California newspaper described the scene: “the gallant craft strikes and strikes the sand as if in anger, but powerless, as the hard, cold beach starts her timbers, tears her rudder out, crushes her keel and mashes her stout timbers in matchwood…”

So what happened to the crew? They all survived the wreck but the clipper ship was deemed a total loss. The ship remnants were bought by a San Francisco businessman for $1,050, who was able to salvage its metal fittings and sails. The rest of the wreck was blown up and abandoned.

So the bit of wood hull we see on Ocean Beach during these low tides is really all that’s left. Sorry all you treasure hunters. You can go put your metal detectors back in the basement.

Sightings of the wreckage are becoming more frequent. It was seen back in 1985, then not again for another 22 years in May, 2007. But then it was seen again in November 2010, and again this week.

Special thanks to Richmond District historian John Freeman for sending me the great old photos from the SFPL.

Sarah B.

UPDATE – This story previously included an old photo from the SFPL archives that was believed to be the King Philip. It was later identified as the vessel the Reporter, which ran aground on Ocean Beach and wrecked on March 13, 1902.

Photograph of the 1878 oil on canvas painting: “Wreck of the King Philip” by
San Francisco artist Gideon Jacques Denny. Courtesy of the SFPL.


  1. Cool shipwreck!The metal detector might bring unwanted Police attention. It’s not legal in national parks to treasure hunt. I have seen folks looking for coins on the beach during daytime hours getting the friendly but firm no from Park Service Police.

  2. Seriously — the effects in those reader-contributed shots are awful.

  3. Thanks for the details about the shipwreck. I saw a photo in the Chronicle but there was almost no historical info. Thanks for the info. That’s why I love the blog.

  4. It seems to be much more exposed than it was 4 years ago. Here’s a shot I took back then : http://www.flickr.com/photos/anythreewords/490493730/

    The book, “Shipwrecks of the Golden Gate” says that the King Philip was exposed for years but was buried when dunes were flattened to build the Great Highway.

    You can find a great account of the early 1980’s exposure of the King Phillip in James Delgado’s book, Adventures of a Sea Hunter.

    books.google.com/books?id=4rVtqI4-_vQC&pg =PA129&l…

  5. Guano IS manure, it was not used as “manure” but as fertilizer and that is why it was so valuable. Guano was imported from Peru among other places.

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