Arch Rock

Primary Source

from The San Francisco Call, August 16,1901.


Blowing up Arch Rock, August 1901, as seen from Pacific Heights in San Francisco.

Photo: Online Archive of California


Possible image of Arch Rock in the Bay between Alcatraz and the Golden Gate before its destruction.

Image: Online Archive of California

ARCH ROCK, menace to coast mariners and on which many a shipping fortune has split, went skyward yesterday afternoon. Thirty tons of gelatin did the trick. With a low rumble and a sharp subsequent explosion this landmark of the northern bay flew helter-skelter into space. Timbers, rock and sea water beat into a foam spread for a half-mile around the one time jutting rock. A small-sized tidal wave was kicked up. Then all the disturbing elements subsided, and what was left of the danger to incoming ships had sunk beneath the troubled waters or scattered itself on the flood tide, only to be carried away by the current of the swiftly moving stream.

The explosion which took Arch Rock away from the sight of men had been planned for many months. Two hundred and sixty holes had been drilled into the resisting rock, and they were all filled with the putty-like high explosive. The touch of a button 4000 feet from the rock set the destructive force in motion. Along the cable the message of annihilation journeyed. Simultaneously with the pressing of this button the bomb burst. In startling succession a vast body of water, churned into a filmy cloud, rose upward, spreading itself over an area a full half-mile in length and several hundred yards in depth. Like a heavy iceberg in the distance, it floated on the water and gradually melted into the sea. Then the turmoil disappeared and the relict of shattered piles, planks, dead fish and a crust of yellowish foam told the tale of artificial force against a natural obstruction that will be seen no more.

The blowing up of Arch Rock was a success from the engineering viewpoint. Spectacularly it was pretty much of a failure. Thirty tons of gelatin— the nitroglycerin explosive kind— and two acres of hard, impenetrable rock when brought into conjunction, and a terrible force applied, naturally suggest a commotion of some sort. But thirty tons of gelatin placed as this was destroys like a deletive, demoniac agency, without creating a furor or a prolonged tempest in its wake. The rock and the wharf timber surrounding the exposed portion of Arch Rock was erased. The explosion spread over a wide surface. There was no concentration, no towering funnel of water, no long-distance hurling of stones and timber. The work was accomplished in workmanlike fashion, and the spectacle suffered in consequence.

Sf call aug-16-1901-Arch-Rock-blows-up.jpg

from the California Digital Newspaper Archive

While no definite knowledge can be had whether or not the undertaking was a success, the contractors are sanguine that the explosion accomplished all that was required of it. An attempt was made at sounding yesterday afternoon, but the water was too rough to secure any satisfactory results. At slack water this morning the second attempt will be made. R. Axman, the manager of the Coast Contracting Company, which secured the contract from the Government on a $253,500 bid, says that he is perfectly satisfied with what has already been accomplished. The next step in the work will be the dredging away of the 30,000 cubic yards of shattered rock. This, according to Manager Axman, will, take all of ninety days.

The blowing up of Arch Rock represents the labor of of thirty-five men employed steadily for ten months. Six drills have been working for eight months, and three weeks ago the first explosive was placed in the tubes.

Now that Arch Rock is no more the old salts of the bay are telling what they knew of it and its dangers. Here is a bit of entertaining history told by Pilot Frank Boyd:

"When they come to survey that spot they will find every inch of ground in the vicinity of Arch Rock covered with anchors and chains. Coasters and deepwater ships by the hundred have come within an ace of going on the rock and had to slip their anchors in order to get clear. The anchor, chain and hawsepipe picked up by the Sea King on Monday was not that of the Autocrat. It belonged to the old American ship Highlander. The Highlander was making port early in 1861 and drifted down on Arch Rock in a fog. The anchor was let go and it held too well, tearing the hawsepipe out of the ship and nearly all of the bow of the ship with it. The Highlander was afterward got off and her cargo was saved.

"The first vessel that I remember being wrecked on Arch Rock," continued Captain Boyd, "was the pilot boat Sea Witch. That was in 1855. All the pilots had 'boarded off' and the schooner was coming in in charge of the boatkeeper. There was a dense fog and the boatkeeper mistook Arch Rock for a sloop under sail and getting his course accordinglv made the mistake of his life. All hands were saved, but the Sea Witch was a total loss.

"The next wreck was that of the clipper ship Flying Dragon in the winter of 1861-62. She made the fastest run on record from Newcastle, N.S.W., thirty-five days, and anchored off Meiggs wharf. Captain Watson, the well-known marine surveyor, was in command of the vessel, but the pilot was still in charge when the accident happened. A sudden change of wind and a fierce squall drove the Flying Dragon down on the rock and she became a total loss.

"The next vessel lost on the rock was the bark Autocrat in 1869. She was loaded with coal and drifted down to her doom in a dense fog. Since that time numberless vessels have made the acquaintance of Arch Rock and always to their disadvantage. The old ferry-boat Clinton went on one of its ledges in a fog and the steamer Oregon, now running between the Sound and Nome, lost her bilges on it. The old bark Columbia stuck on it for a day and a night and last of all the bark Ceylon drifted down on it a few months ago and was saved by the quarantine steamer Sternberg. As it was the Ceylon lost all her sheathing. It would take a page to give the number of vessels that have just escaped going on Arch Rock by slipping their cables, and when the contractors come to boring I'll guarantee they will find more chain and anchors than rock."

In the old days it was a favorite amusement for the young men of North Beach to wait for a very low tide and then pull a boat through under the arch. Captain Frank Murphy, one of the best known of the pilots, pulled a Whitehall through the arch in 1857. Two of the crew of the pilotboat Golden Gate pulled a yawl through in 1859, and then a couple of years later a couple of men tried to repeat the trick but a heavy swell was rolling in through the Golden Gate and they were crushed against the top of the arch. Since that time rowboats have kept away from Arch Rock.