Ajax Penumbra . . . 1849

This is the climax of a series of San Francisco–oriented, Ajax Penumbra–inspired posts. The archives may be shallow, but they are noble. You can check out the previous posts here for a time-lapse vision of the rise of the Transamerica Pyramid, here to follow us down the rabbit hole with one of the coolest booksellers ever, City Lights's Shig Murao, here for Ajax Underground: a brief history of the BART, and here for Robin Sloan on the introduction of ARPANET.

Much of the plot of AJAX PENUMBRA 1969 revolves around San Francisco’s shifting coastline. When we think of San Francisco history and cartography, we think first and foremost of John Oram, better known by his nom de blog, Burrito Justice. Robin Sloan invited him to chat while perusing a few maps—old, new, and yet-to-be.

ROBIN SLOAN: My editor at FSG, Sean McDonald, refers to you simply as Mr. Justice. “How’s that thing coming with Mr. Justice?” he asked.

BURRITO JUSTICE: He’s so formal! Tell him I also respond to Burrito.

SLOAN: So, I became aware of San Francisco’s old waterline pretty early into my tenure here. My first job in the city was in an office on King Street, just across from AT&T Park. There was a plaque out front, a squiggly line of bronze set into the pavement, and it said, basically, everything beyond this squiggle is landfill. That gave me a slightly squishy, is-this-all-going-to-wash-away-in-an-earthquake feeling, but it didn’t really make sense until I saw this map from 1859. It features Townsend Street—where people from the office would take their smoke breaks—but lacks any sign of King.

1859 Coast Survey

Here, with a little assist Google Earth, you can see all the new stuff. There’s a lot!

Rumsey Google

Here’s my question for you: do you remember how/when you first became aware of San Francisco’s old waterline?

JUSTICE: Oh yeah, it was that same map. And there was another faded one along Embarcadero. I couldn’t stop staring at them. I knew there was fill in the city because of the Marina and Mission Creek, but I had no idea just how much. Never mind removing Rincon Hill and dumping it into the Bay:

Second St Cut

Then I stumbled across David Rumsey’s site and discovered the 1859 Coast Survey map... Oh. My. God.

SLOAN: So, filling in the bay with rubble and junk is one thing… but then I learned about the ships. A character in the short story explains it like this:

The market for real estate in [Gold Rush–era] San Francisco was no saner in his day than ours, and an innovation was sweeping the city. Speculators would acquire so-called water plots—little bits of the bay, you see?—and fill them in. It was alchemy! Instant waterfront property. And one method—oh, it would be funny, if it weren’t so sad—one particularly expeditious method was … to simply sink a ship.

And sure enough, there they are, tracing a shadow coastline:


You can explore an interactive version here.

I find this just totally mesmerizing. Ships beneath the city. I mean, how could you NOT write a story about that? It’s fantastic.

JUSTICE: I don’t know what’s more surprising, carving lots out of water, or San Francisco forgetting the ships were there. And many of the ships simply could not sail away—so many were abandoned by their crews to go look for gold. I don’t think we can really appreciate how quickly the city was growing at the time. I’d love to do an animation of street and building growth, with the shoreline creeping out.

When the foundation for the Transamerica Pyramid was being dug out, they discovered a lost ship, the Niantic. North Beach indeed! And the Niantic was lost and rediscovered several times. I love these lines from its Wikipedia entry:

The converted vessel burned repeatedly in the fires that devastated the new city of San Francisco over the next several years, but was repeatedly rebuilt as the Niantic Hotel, looking less like a ship each time.

Although some of Niantic's remains were removed to a landfill, a portion of the bow remains undisturbed under a parking lot, perhaps to be "rediscovered" yet again in the future.

SLOAN: Now of course, not all the interesting maps of San Francisco are historical. You yourself co-produced this one, which became a bit of a viral sensation. Add 200 feet to the sea level, and you get the Archipelago of San Francisco:


And, I have to ask: how does it make you feel? I realize the map is an exaggeration, but even so, I’ll come clean: it looks exciting to me. Sure, we lose a lot of land. But at the same time, we get a whole new city, with new contours, new neighborhoods, new vistas. What about you, though? Thinking about where we’ve come from and also what’s ahead—whether it’s a 200 foot rise or just 2, maybe 20—how do you feel about this kind of change?

JUSTICE: I picked 200 feet because a) that’s where the islands got interesting, and b) that’s about the maximum sea level rise we’d get if we lost the Greenland and East Antarctic ice sheets.

With the 200 foot map, it would be a pretty boring story if San Francisco flooded and everyone fled. This is after all the city that burned down and rebuilt so many times, they put a phoenix on its flag. So San Francisco obviously adapts, and does so better than any other coastal city. Things are different yet still the same. Muni is a bunch of boats, and is still slow. There are also taco boats (which played a Dunkirk-like role in rescuing people after a very bad flood). The Presidio is a naval base, home port of the NCSS Ed Lee, the first of the Sutro-class algae-diesel attack subs.

I particularly liked the idea of the “Submerged Historic San Francisco Preservation Association”—I hear their historical reenactments of life in the Mission District of the early 21st century along the Bernal and Noe docks have proven particularly popular.

And I love how others have taken the idea and run with it, such as the neighborhood blog for Bernal Heights (aka Bernal Isle).

Bernal Isle

As for what could happen, I think 5 or more feet this century is inevitable. I have a bad feeling that it could accelerate, however, with a relatively small rise upsetting other stable sheets, and I think erosion of formerly stable land and beaches will be worse than we think. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 25 feet in 100 years. And at that level, it looks surprisingly like original coastline of San Francisco, as you can see in this map made by my co-cartographer Brian Stokle.


I’m not buying property in Mission Bay or Treasure Island any time soon.

And a higher seawall along Embarcadero is inevitable. The king tides are already pretty damn high—I seriously worry about the Muni and BART tunnels flooding through the tunnel entrance by the giant arrow.

Imagine the irony if we end up with a seawall higher than the old Embarcadero Freeway?

SLOAN: We could stand on top of it, look out across the surging bay, and watch all the little pods shuttle up and down the Oakland Space Elevator. See what I mean? Exciting.

Thanks for the chat, Mr. Justice.

You can follow John “Burrito Justice” Oram on Twitter and on his eponymous blog.

About the Author
Sloan au photo

Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and its prequel, Ajax Penumbra 1969, an FSG digital original. He splits his time between San Francisco and the internet.