What Do Pokemon Go and San Francisco Have In Common?

If you've played Pokemon Go, the Niantic, Inc. logo was the first thing you saw. And you probably didn't think much of it. Niantic sounds like a made-up word and the logo features a non-descript sailboat/hot air balloon/atom combo. So who cares?

But this story goes so much deeper. Literally. Deep under the streets of San Francisco. Now you're curious, right?

Niantic, Inc. was originally an internal startup at Google, lead by John Hanke. Hanke had extensive experience with mapping technology, co-founding the company Keyhole in 2001 which was acquired by Google in 2004 and became Google Earth and Google Maps. The Google project known as Niantic Labs split off on its own in 2015. The project's name came from a ship, actually, which is where things get really interesting.

The ships of the 49ers

The Niantic was one of many, many ships that brought people to the San Francisco area during the California Gold Rush in 1849. In that single year, San Francisco went from a population of 1,000 to 25,000, and these folks became known as the 49ers. Ships were abandoned by the hundreds as their crew took for the hills looking for their fortunes in the mountains, and the Niantic was no exception to this fate.

But it gets weirder. San Francisco shoreline wasn't always where it is now. The original shoreline was further inland and the bay included a large, shallow, marshy tidal zone. With its steep sandy hills that were hard to develop on, the city was desperate for space to house these newcomers. So San Francisco awarded ownership of land parcels within these marshes to those who built permanent structures in them, therefore promoting the creation of land where none existed before.

And that's when people got creative.

How to build on marshland, according to a 49er

People built houses on pillars. They made islands out of sand, trash, sunken ships, or whatever they could find. They used wood from abandoned ships to build new structures, or beached the ships into shallower water and repurposed them into permanent structures.

For example, the Niantic was repurposed into a hotel.

 Image credit: Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

Image credit: Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

Unfortunately, dense cities built out of wood have proven time and time again throughout history to have one major weakness: fire. Moreover, a land built out of trash, sand, and rotting wood isn't the most structurally sound.

San Francisco suffered two major catastrophes that reshaped the landscape of the city: a major fire in 1851 and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The destroyed/burnt/rotted ship hulls were covered with layers of sand and dirt imported by the city from the nearby hills, burying a thick layer of history for future generations to find, and the city was built anew on top of it all.

(And not to be the bearer of doom, but if another major earthquake were to hit San Francisco again, this area built on top of trash and sand then more trash and more sand may not fair as well as other areas, as evidenced by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.)

Where are the buried boats today?

This rich history lays under the financial district in downtown San Francisco today. These boats are frequently rediscovered during new construction projects. There isn't always much left to salvage or restore.

The Niantic, for example, was rediscovered in 1978 during construction next to the iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Some parts of the ship were discarded, some were left buried, and some ended up in the San Francisco Maritime Museum. The location of the Niantic was declared a Calfornia Historical Landmark.

The below map shows where ships have been found, and where the original shoreline used to be. Probably many more ships remain under the streets of San Francisco, just waiting to be discovered.

 Image credit: Ron S. Filion, SFGenealogy.com

Image credit: Ron S. Filion, SFGenealogy.com

So next time you open up your Pokemon Go app and see the Niantic, Inc. logo, think about how we're all connected to history!

References and further reading:

Buried Ships. SFGeneralogy.

Remains of Gold Rush-Era Ship Found Under San Francisco Bar. Curbed.

Why Are There Ships Buried Under San Francisco? KQED News.

What Parts of San Francisco Are Built On Land Fill? Priceonomics.

Making Up Ground. 99% Invisible.