The Case of the Tilted Clubhouse: A Geographical Detective Story

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aerial photograph. It reminded me of the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), a 2-mile-long structure that passes under Highway 280 west of Palo Alto, but I was fairly sure no one was doing particle physics experiments in the Dogpatch in the early 20th century.

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place a few days later, when I was surfing the Web for information on Pier 70, the historic shipbuilding district in the Dogpatch. Back in 2008, a local community group produced a thorough history of the entire Dogpatch area as part of an effort to persuade San Francisco voters to approve a bond measure to rehabilitate the pier. (The measure passed, but the project is still in the planning stages.)

What caught my eye was the engraving at the top of the history document:

San Francisco's historic Dogpatch neighborhood, circa 1865

See the long, thin building cutting across the Long Bridge at the center of the picture? While the engraving is more of an illustration than an actual map, the shape and the location matched up with my proto-SLAC.

And as I read the document, everything fell into place. One of the maritime-related businesses in the Dogpatch, it turns out, was the Tubbs Cordage Company, which made hemp and abaca fibers into rope. “The first structure on the site was a 35’x1,000’, one-story, wood-frame shed that extended in a southeasterly direction from the present-day intersection of Iowa and 22nd Streets to a wharf in the bay,” wrote the group’s historian, Christopher VerPlanck. “The shed sheltered the rope walk, a 1000’ (later extended another 500’) platform used by skilled workmen to twist strands of yarn into ropes.”

The original shoreline of the Dogpatch-Potrero Hill neighborhood

So there you have it: the Tubbs rope shed and the buildings that grew up around it owe their orientation to that of the wharf, which must have stuck out into the bay in a southeasterly direction, just as the engraving suggests. In fact, as the image at right (from the Pier 70 redevelopment plan) shows, the original shore of the Bay crossed Third Street roughly where the Hells Angels Clubhouse is located today, and the rope shed would have been perpendicular to it.

City directories show that the Tubbs Cordage Company was active from 1857 to 1962, so the facility would still have been churning out rope when the 1938 aerial photo was taken. There’s a final clincher to the story: Most of the present-day site is occupied by the San Francisco MUNI bus yard and repair shop, but cutting right through the middle there’s a one-block street called Tubbs Street. That street name and the tilted buildings are the only remaining signs of San Francisco’s rope industry. [Correction/update: A small Tubbs Cordage Company office building, originally located on Front Street in San Francisco, has been preserved at the Hyde Street Pier at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.]

Case closed. Now, for all I know, there’s a reference librarian at the San Francisco Public Library who could have told me the whole story of Tubbs Cordage and the Hells Angels clubhouse right off the bat. But it was a lot more fun to suss out the story my way, using some of the coolest new digital resources and mapping tools. I’m looking forward to more digital hunting trips in the future. Who knows what secrets lurk beneath the streets of San Francisco?

Coda, August 17, 2012: In the amazing-coincidences department, I just learned that David Rumsey owned two of the buildings in the tilted group from about 1978 to 1988. “I had always wondered about the strange angles and thought perhaps 3rd had been re-aligned at some point,” David writes by e-mail. “You really nailed the wharf as the cause.”

Addendum, August 21, 2012: A Dogpatch resident just sent me a link to the photo below, which is from the website of the Potrery Hill History Archive. It shows the Tubbs rope walk sometime after 1857 — the view is from the south and the hill in the background, once known as Irish Hill, is now mostly gone (carted away for landfill). As with all of the images in this article you can click to see a larger version.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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