by Arnold Woods
San Francisco is the final resting place of many ships. Besides the gold rush ships that were simply abandoned here, our notorious fog has caused shipping lane collisions or caused ships to run aground. The remnants of some of these shipwrecks can still be seen along our shorelines from time to time. One of those visible wrecks can be seen from the Lands End Coastal Trail and came to its tragic end 85 years ago.
The Frank H. Buck was an oil tanker built at San Francisco’s Union Iron Works plant at Potrero Point. It was named after a vice president for the Associated Oil Company, for whom the tanker was made. Construction took just five months and the Frank H. Buck launched on February 11, 1914.1 The tanker was 426 feet long and could hold 67,000 barrels of oil.
A few years later, the Frank H. Buck was conscripted into the United States Navy for duty in World War I and even saw battle engaging in a firefight with a German submarine.2 After the war ended, she was returned to Associated Oil for tanker duties. Over the next five years, the Frank H. Buck developed a reputation for running aground, doing so three times, once at Point Montara, another time at Astoria in Oregon, and then at Point Pinos in Monterey Bay. However, they kept patching her up and sending her back out.
On March 6, 1937, the Frank H. Buck was under the command of Captain Robert W. Kelly and was headed into the Golden Gate from Ventura with a load of oil for the refineries in Martinez.3 As the Frank H. Buck came in, a huge passenger liner, the SS President Coolidge was leaving the Bay with 678 passengers and 350 crew members headed for Honolulu and then Yokohama, Japan. As happens all too often here, a heavy fog had descended upon the Golden Gate.
The SS President Coolidge had just sailed under the soon-to-open Golden Gate Bridge. About a quarter-mile west of the bridge, it collided head on with the Frank H. Buck. The passenger liner, which was bigger than the oil tanker, punched a hole in the Frank H. Buck and the ships stuck together. Before the SS President Coolidge backed away, its captain waited for the crew of the Frank H. Buck to evacuate to his ship leaving just a skeleton crew behind. When the SS President Coolidge separated, the bow of the Frank H. Buck began to sink.
Even with the bow section under water, the stern section refused to sink and the Frank H. Buck began drifting back to the ocean. A Coast Guard cutter, The Tahoe, arrived, fastened a line, and evacuated Captain Kelly and the remaining crew. However, the towing of the Frank H. Buck went awry. The tow line broke and further rescue efforts were abandoned. Finally, the Frank H. Buck broke in half with the bow sinking and the stern drifting onto the rocks at Lands End.
In a tragic irony, the stern of the Frank H. Buck came to rest near the remains of the Lyman Stewart shipwreck, a sister ship also built at the Union Iron Works immediately after the Frank H. Buck was constructed. The Lyman Stewart had wrecked there fifteen years earlier in another fog-induced collision with another ship.
Where the Frank H. Buck came aground was also close to where the SS Ohioan had wrecked only five months before on October 6, 1936. A photograph that was taken of the two ships for the San Francisco Chronicle4 on the day after the Frank H. Buck wrecked would later be etched onto mirrored glass that was attached to a ship’s wheel that is allegedly from one of the ships. That ship’s wheel was displayed in the Cliff House for years before the Western Neighborhoods Project bought it at the Cliff House auction last year. It is now displayed at our office. Although most of the Frank H. Buck wreck was removed or detonated, parts of it can still be seen today along the Lands End Coastal Trail, which has signage about it.
1. “Huge Tanker Takes to the Water, Thousands of People Witness Affair,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 12, 1914, p. 18.
3. “Coolidge, Tanker Crash, 35 Escape Wrecked Ship,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 7, 1937, p. 1.
4. “Where Ships Go When They Die,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 8, 1937, p. 8.