Since 1962, the Hyde Street Pier has been lined with one of the world’s best collections of rare working boats, maintained by the National Park Service’s San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. They include the Glasgow-built Balclutha, a gorgeous 1886 three-mated sailing ship that, most famously, appeared in the classic Clark Gable movie “Mutiny on the Bounty”; the Eureka, an 1890 paddlewheel ferryboat that was once the largest of its kind on earth; the Hercules, a 1907 tugboat that worked towing logs up the West Coast; and the lumber schooner C.A. Thayer from 1895. The Alma, built in 1891, was once one of many schooners that plied the waterways of the Bay Area, but today, it’s the only one left.
Although it’s free to admire the boats from the dock, $5 will get you aboard the Balclutha, the Eureka, and the Hercules as much as you want for a week (NPS passes work to get you on for free). All of the vessels are designated National Historic Landmarks and it’s worth seeing them, particularly the Balclutha, a 300-foot square-rigger cargo ship that moved goods like grain and coal between San Francisco, England, and New Zealand from 1886 to 1939. Especially interesting are the tiny crew bunk beds up front and the lavish Captain quarters farther back. In 1899, the wife of Balclutha’s Captain Durkee gave birth to a baby girl while aboard the ship; they named the little one India Frances as they were sailing between India and San Francisco at the time. For more tidbits of history, use your cell phone as an audio guide to the ships by calling [tel] 415/294-6754 and entering 1 of the 28 tour codes found at www.nps.gov/safr; click “plan your visit,” “things to do,” and then “cell phone audio tour.”
Before heading to the boats, be sure to pop into the park’s signature Maritime Museum, technically the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building—on Beach Street at Polk Street, shaped like an Art Deco ship, and filled with sea-faring memorabilia; it’s free to enter. Check out the maritime murals and seafaring memorabilia. Next stop is the Visitor Center (also free) at Hyde and Jefferson Streets for a look at “The Waterfront,” a surprisingly impressive, informative, and interactive exhibit about San Francisco’s waterfront history (really, even if you don’t usually like history museums, you’ll find this one compelling and so will your kids; allot a good 40 min. to explore). It provides a terrific “overture” before seeing the boats themselves. One more “floater,” the USS Pampanito, is also well worth a visit.