“The Niantic...

No Longer a Buoyant Ship”

1999 -- created for the San Francisco Maritime Museum
Size: 48 in. deep x 48 in. wide
Scale: 1/4 in. = 1 ft. (1/48th scale or O gauge)
Figures: 60 at 1 1/2 in. tall
Features: The Niantic plus
(2) "lighters" (small barges) and a Whitehall rowboat; a set of piers built on over 200 pilings; horses; wagons; carts; barrels; crates; sacks; a fisherman (with a ‘bamboo’ pole made from a cat’s whisker); rats; dogs; seagulls; a derrick at work and piles of discarded goods worth less than the cost of storage.



The Problem: The San Francisco Maritime Museum wanted a diorama as part of a new permanent exhibit celebrating a sailing vessel, the Niantic, which had played an interesting role during the early months of the California Gold Rush, circa 1850. One of over 700 ships left abandoned in the San Francisco Bay when the crews opted for life in the gold fields over life at sea, the Niantic was the first of several ships to be dragged up onto the mud at the shore of Yerba Buena cove and converted to land-based uses. Quickly surrounded by piers, she was converted into warehouse space forward and below. In the stern and in the newly-added top floor there was a rooming house, a printing business, and bank business offices. (The exploding population overwhelmed all available space and building materials.) The Niantic burned to the waterline in 1851 during one of six major fires to ravage San Francisco in 2 year period, and her resting place had been covered by fill, eventually stretching seven blocks into the bay. Although the remains of the ship were discovered during 1978 excavations for new construction, and some artifacts were recovered, no one had a clear understanding of what such a diorama should include. The two etchings below were relied upon heavily as guides with some basis in truth as they date from the period.

The Challenge: Research the story of the Niantic and her surroundings, both physical and cultural, during the 18 months between her land-based conversion to her demise at the hands of arsonists, then design and create a diorama that would dynamically show museum visitors a moment during that time.



The Solution: Several days of research at the San Francisco Maritime Museum archives and other resources in San Francisco, including first-hand examination of actual artifacts from the excavated hull of the Niantic, identified a wonderfully rich palette of details that helped us develop a robust story about a typical morning around the Niantic, with the commerce of the day in full swing. We were able to employ Tom Fordham, ship modeler of merit from Pacific Grove, CA, to create the ship, configured as she was, without masts and with the main deck covered completely by the enclosed and roofed structure that was added to increase the warehouse area - a wonderful centerpiece for the scene.

  The incoming tide brings commerce and more people...    
the outgoing tide takes the debris and the excess. Fires were common, many set by looters.
  Many auctions happen daily near the waterfront as newly arrived goods are saught by newly arrived people.    
A pick-pocket makes off up the pier after grabbing the purse of a new arrival who has been engrossed in a sharpy's shell game. Warehouseman at right yells a warning.
The piers are supported upon 200 pilings, sunk through the “water” which covers 90% of the 4’x4’ base.
Two lighters (30’ long barges) ride on the gentle swells, after transporting cargo from ships moored in deeper water. One offloads freight and the other new citizens, each dressed in the telltale garb of their cultural origins.


The water is created with a technique that we have developed, and the results are, frankly, stunning.

  An industrious one-armed "Fresh Water" vendor buys a fill-up for his cart from the artisian well water supplier on the end of the pier, one of several enterprises of the Niantic's owners. The well was discovered quite by accident when they were driving the pilings to stabilize the Niantic's hull upon the mud.  
A shipping agent in a rowboat carries on negotiations with two different warehouse agents on the pier and the banker on the top level balcony as he seeks his best deal on a load of goods he wants to buy.

At left, a San Fransisco merchant has come to the Niantic Storehouse to pick up a wagon load of merchandise he has stored there so he can replenish his shelves in town.


At right, the sign over the door says "STORAGE FOR TRUNKS". The new arrival in the white ethnic tunic has decided to lighten his load in anticipation of his first day of exploration of this unique city.


The backdrop painting (acrylic, by MIT) depicts buildings of the period identified through the few photos available from 1850. The pier is depicted as continuing on to the shore to become Clay Street as it rises (to this day) up the hill.
The dumping of dirt and sand from hand excavation of new building sights up the hill eventually extended the shore 7 blocks east into the bay.

Mr. Jim Delgado, director of the Vancouver, BC Maritime Museum, was with the San Francisco Maritime Museum during the excavation in ‘78. He became a champion of her story and remains one today. He agreed to provide the final word when historical evidence of a detail was contradictory, an agreement that the client enthusiastically endorsed.

return to top of page

Website designed by Moments In Time Exhibits
Contact webmaster with comments/questions.