India Basin is the easternmost neighborhood of San Francisco, California. The name India Basin first appeared on a map in 1868, but theories as to its origin remain murky. The best guess is that India Basin is named for the ships from the India Rice Mill Company, which docked there in the 19th century. A more creative explanation has it that it was so named because water from the nearby spring would stay fresh until a ship reached India.
While it is assumed that the sunny weather, Bay access, and nearby fresh-water spring made India Basin an ideal location for native encampments, no specific tribal evidence has been preserved. Part of the Mexican land grant made to Jose Cornelio de Bernal in 1839, much of the peninsula and tidal flats around India Basin remained uninhabited until the 1860s when proximity to a booming San Francisco made the area a strategic location.
The Albion Castle
In 1870, John Hamlin Burnell purchased property adjacent to India Basin to obtain rights to the natural springs that run underneath. He built the Albion Ale and Porter Brewing Company in a traditional Norman style using stones that may have been recycled from ships’ ballast or may have been quarried locally. That building, known as the Albion Castle, 881 Innes Avenue, is San Francisco Landmark #60. Later he built the Albion Water Co. next door to sell bottled spring water.
After the death of John Burnell in 1890, his widow, brother and surviving nephews ran the brewery until 1919 at the time of Mrs. Burnell’s death. With her death and with the advent of prohibition, the brewery ceased operation altogether. The site continued to deteriorate until 1938 when Adrien Voisin, a sculptor, bought the property. Using old photographs and drawings, Voisin restored the main building’s stonework to its original quality and used the premises as a residence and studio. Later, the S.F. Mountain Springs Water Co. purchased the water rights from Voisin and in 1964 the company purchased the brewery itself, allowing Mr. Voisin to retain life tenancy. That company, renamed the Albion Water Company, survived into the 1990s. The Albion Castle became a private home, and is currently an event space.
Boat Building and the Shipwrights’ Cottage
Construction of the California Dry Dock Company at the southern tip of India Basin in 1866 began the growth of maritime manufacturing and commerce. Around the same time, San Francisco’s bay scow schooner building industry began relocating to India Basin from Potrero Point and Islais Creek. Attracted by the availability of inexpensive land with deep water access, a dozen boat builders lined India Basin with boatyards alongside several Chinese shrimp camps.
In the days before trucks and bridges, shallow-draft wooden boats called scow schooners built at India Basin were an important part of California’s economy and the centerpiece of union boat building called shipwrighting. Traveling around the Bay and up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, hundreds of these versatile boats brought manufactured goods to people in the Central Valley and returned with hay for the City’s horses and crops for shipping around the world.
At that time, dozens of families lived and worked in this thriving maritime community making beer at nearby Albion Brewery, fishing, shrimping, and boat building. Among boats built here at India Basin were the scow schooner Alma (built in 1891), now a National Historic Landmark moored at the National Maritime Historical Park at Fisherman’s Wharf, Jack London’s adventure boat the Snark, and WWII Victory launches.
The families of India Basin created a community somewhat removed from more central areas of San Francisco. By the 1920s there were enough families with children that Hunters Point School, a public school serving boys and girls, opened on Innes Avenue near Griffith Street.
Two homes remain from India Basin’s boat-building glory days. The Watchhouse at 911 Innes was built by William F. Stone in 1874. Old sailors say it served as a lighthouse or “watchhouse” when boats were entering India Basin at night. It has been a private family home throughout its history. The Shipwright’s Cottage at 900 Innes was built circa 1875 by carpenter Jan Dirks, with design influenced by Italianate and Carpenter Gothic architectural styles. It originally featured intricate trim and was flanked by a windmill and water storage tank. Jan Janse Dirks was born in 1825 in Amsterdam (some accounts list his name as John Dircks). He came to San Francisco in 1850, where in 1854 he married Gesa Dammann, born in 1831 in Hamburg, Germany. Jan died in 1917 in San Francisco and the couple are buried at Greenlawn cemetery in Colma.
Both homes were featured in the 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Over the years boat-building families the Dirks, Jorgensons, and Siemers resided in the Shipwright’s Cottage and ran the 900 Innes boatyard. From 1926 to 1961 it was the Anderson & Cristofani Boatyard office. After changing hands several times, in the 1990s the boatyard owners were convicted by the Environmental Protection Agency of the federal crime of illegally dredging India Basin and the boatyard closed.
During two decades of neglect by absentee owners, the historic boatyard served as a homeless encampment, illegal drug lab, construction storage yard, and showpiece of neighborhood blight.
Through it all, the Shipwright’s Cottage, several outbuildings, the marine ways, and docks survived. Most amazingly, the boatyard features perhaps the only natural Bay shoreline remaining in the city.
Thanks to advocacy by the India Basin Neighborhood Association and others, the Shipwright’s Cottage was named San Francisco Landmark #250 in 2008 and in 2014 the City and County of San Francisco acquired the cottage and boatyard via the voter-approved open space fund. Once environmental cleanup and rebuild is complete, the Historic Boatyard will become a Recreation and Park Department education and recreation facility.
Cowboys herding cattle into slaughterhouses was a common site at Third and Evans from the 1870s to the 1970s.
As San Francisco grew after the Gold Rush, the activities of slaughtering animals were ordered out of the more populated areas north of Market Street. In 1868 a group of butchers purchased land between Islais Creek and India Basin, in what would come to be called Butchertown. By 1877 all 18 of San Francisco’s slaughterhouses had located to the community bounded by First Avenue South to the north (now Arthur Avenue), I Street to the east (now Ingalls Street), Railroad Avenue to the west (now Third Street), and Bayshore to the south.
Transportation via the railroad that ran along Railroad Avenue (now Third Street) and by the docks at India Basin and South Basin brought cows and sheep to Butchertown from grazing areas on the Peninsula and East Bay and then product from Butchertown to customers downtown and throughout the region. A number of businesses associated with slaughterhouses developed in the area including tanneries processing hides, saddlers making leather goods, wool pulleries, glue factories, and tallow houses producing candles. At one point over 3,500 people worked as butchers, cowboys, and in associated Butchertown businesses near India Basin. According to Found SF, the relative isolation from the rest of San Francisco and mixed industrial and agrarian workforce led to a ethnically diverse, religiously mixed, self-sufficient community unlike most of the rest of the city at the time. The main ethnic groups in Butchertown were French, Italian, Maltese, and Irish Americans. Unlike other sections of San Francisco, different ethnic groups lived side by side with little geographical concentration in housing and without much conflict.
Butcher businesses thrived for many years, fading as the community became more residential after the 1906 earthquake and ending when the area was “redeveloped” beginning in the 1970s. The last Butchertown slaughterhouse closed in 1971.
Chinese Shrimp Village
Beginning around 1869 Chinese immigrants, possibly just after their service building the transcontinental railroad ended, began camping on the south end of India Basin and harvesting shrimp from the Bay.
The shrimp fishermen sailed the Bay in small redwood boats, slinging their triangle-shaped nets along the mudflats. As the tides shifted the shrimp washed into the nets.
Each day the fishermen collected their haul from the nets onto the shores of India Basin.
Shrimp purchased from the Chinese Shrimp Village became a popular menu item in local restaurants and enjoyed by home cooks.
For about 70 years businesses in the Chinese Shrimp Village supported dozens of families. Then on April 20, 1939, the San Francisco Health Department burned the village to the ground under eminent domain to make way for the Hunters Point Shipyard. It is not clear that the Chinese fishermen were compensated for their losses.
Shrimping did not completely disappear with the destruction of the Chinese Shrimp Village. The Hunters Point Shrimp Company and other seafood restaurants thrived at India Basin from the 1940s until the 1970s. Old-time San Francisco families tell tales of traveling to the southeast corner of the city for the then somewhat exotic seafood and always stunning views. Military families stationed at the Hunters Point Shipyard enjoying a night off base helped support these businesses.
The Hunters Point Shipyard
The United States Navy built the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in 1940. The Shipyard was closed in 1974 and then leased to private businesses. The shipyard has become the most contaminated portion of San Francisco, and the only federal Superfund site in the city. In 1991, the shipyard was placed on the list of military bases to be sold.
The Great Migration
“I left my home in Georgia. Headed for the Frisco bay”Otis Redding lyric about the Black community’s migration to the bay area.
With America’s involvement in the Second World War and the opening of the Naval shipyard, Hunters Point quickly transformed into an engine of military manufacturing, generating well-paying jobs. African American families came to San Francisco seeking economic opportunities that the shipyard would provide. This wave of new workers came to be known as the “Second Great Migration,” and it brought whole communities out of the Southern states not only to California, but to Washington and Oregon too. Thousands of emigrants from the Jim Crow South came west looking to build the boats and guns that won World War II.
This mass migration founded the African American community in the Bayview and Hunters Point.
The Power Plant
Built on 30 acres along the shore of India Basin in 1929, the Pacific Gas & Electric Hunters Point Power Plant was originally coal-fueled and later converted to gas. It provided electrical power to much of San Francisco. Neighbors and environmental groups worked for many years to close this source of visual, water, air, and noise pollution. By the time it was finally decommissioned in 2007 it was the most polluting plant in the country.
A 21st Century Recreation Destination
Today India Basin is one of the few natural areas within San Francisco adjacent to the Bay. Because of that, it is a unique natural resource with recreational values that include a segment of the Bay Trail; shoreline access to the Bay for fishing, kayaking, and other water-dependent recreation; one of only a few tidal salt marsh wetlands in the City; suitable habitat for a variety of shore birds and foraging habitat for raptors; and stunning views of the San Francisco Bay from downtown across the East Bay to Mt. Diablo.