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San Francisco, California

The Wreck of the King Philip

This partially buried wreck is one of the most complete of its kind but is only revealed when the sea allows. 

Visible only at very low tides, the Wreck of the King Philip on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is the most complete remains of an American medium clipper ship in the world, and given how little is left of the vessel, that’s saying something.

The King Philip was built in 1856 and wrecked in 1878. In her short life span she survived at least two mutinies, and was set on fire on both occasions. After she was shipwrecked and sold for scrap, it took three attempts to demolish her. Over a hundred years later, after having been buried in the sands of time, she still refuses to be forgotten.

On January 25, 1878, the King Philip had just left dry dock with new sails and rigging. She was being towed by a tugboat to guide her through the treacherous waters of the Golden Gate, when a captain of a nearby ship suddenly died, and the towboat was called out to assist. The King Philip dropped anchor, but the anchor did not hold, and the ship ran aground in heavy surf. Luckily, all of the members of the crew survived as they were so close to shore, however, the ship was beyond repair and was sold for scrap.

Valued in 1877 at $20,000, or nearly half a million dollars by today’s standards, the ship was still in good condition when she was wrecked, and was sold at auction the next day for $1050, or about $23,000 today. The new owners of the ship, in order to salvage the 40 tons of iron and thousands of dollars of brass and copper fixings, attempted to blow the shipwreck up with seven boxes of dynamite holding 200 pounds of blasting powder each. The first two attempts failed, much to the disappointment of the spectators who thronged to Ocean Beach to witness the explosion.

The ruins of the King Philip are infrequently visible, and only at low tide. The wreck was partially visible in 1902, when another ship wrecked in the same spot. Both ships were buried in 1910 when the sand dunes were bulldozed to make way for the Great Highway. The first modern appearance of the King Philip was in 1982. She then disappeared beneath the tides and shifting sands and did not reappear until 2007, when construction on the Ocean Beach sewer outfall again buried the ship. Since 2010, she has made several re-appearances, and if you time your visit for low tide (usually early morning) you just might catch a glimpse of this fascinating piece of San Francisco history.