1906 San Francisco Earthquake Dump Detecting
By: Bruce Cash
It started back in the fall of 2003, with a public works project by the river in one of the oldest sections of town- a great area to detect, considering that it was occupied in the mid 1800s. We approached the contractor doing the work and were able to get permission to detect as long as we checked in with him first, and only after they were done working for the day.
We had been hitting the site after work for a few weeks, getting a few old coins, bottles, and other items from the late 1800s, when one evening my hunting partner Dave and I checked in with the contractor and were told to check behind his trailer, as they had opened up a new area. We decided to leave our detectors in the car and look the site over first. In back of the trailer we found a scraped area about 100 yards long and 15 yards wide. We walked along the scrape, not finding any age indicators or signs of encouragement until about halfway down I spotted an orange plastic fence up ahead. We decided to check it out.
We couldn't believe our eyes when we got to the end of the scrape. About 20 yards past the scrape they had uncovered an old dump. The tractors had dug down about 3' and piled the dirt in big mounds off to the side. The dump area was half the size of a football field. There were marbles, old silverware, porcelain doll parts, broken pottery, and lots of old bottles just lying on the ground. We jumped in and started picking stuff up. Dave would stop and say, "Look a 'V' nickel!" and pick it up. "Hey, another Indian Head!" (I finally had to tell him to stop it, as it seemed every five minutes he had found another coin.)
It was too good to be true. We called our other hunting partner, Larry, and while still standing in "The Pit," as it would become to be known, we described what we had found. He was as excited as we were, and we agreed to meet after work the next day and detect the site. Our pockets were full, and we each had an armful of bottles as we walked out that night.
It turned out to be a difficult site to detect, due to large amounts of decomposed iron. We would detect, then switch to digging and sifting, and then go back to detecting. I almost forgot about the piles next to the dump area. All the dirt removed was put in these big mounds. You could walk around them and find jugs, bottles, marbles, plates, silverware, beer bottle stoppers, and all kinds of old stuff. Some days we just detected or dug in the piles. Dave found a very nice 1905-S Barber quarter and an 1848 large cent while digging one day. Luckily for us, it would be three to four months before the construction would start in this area again. In the meantime, the three of us had our own private dump... a detectorist's dream!
We speculated as to why we were finding so much good stuff. There were lots of things that you wouldn't typically find in a turn-of-the-century dump, things that you could not believe someone would actually throw away, and 'way too many marbles, coins, tokens, doll parts, sterling silverware, and household items for a typical dump. We had not found any items that we could date after 1905, and none of the coins we found were dated later than 1905, either. There was also a tremendous amount of burned and melted items. Dave decided that we had an earthquake dump on our hands. However, Larry wasn't sure, and I was very skeptical. There were a few earthquake dumps around that we had hunted, but I was not convinced we'd found another.
This would require some research. It took a while, but I found enough information to confirm that the site was indeed a 1906 San Francisco earthquake dump. After we'd had the site to ourselves for about three months, some of the other local treasure hunters also discovered it, and we had some welcome company. Now there were five or six of us, but there was still plenty to go around.
After a few months of working the site, Dave, Larry, and I took our finds for show & tell at our metal detecting club, the Treasure Hunters Society of Santa Clara Valley. We each filled a 6' table with the hundreds of items we had found.
Now let's move forward in time to January/February of 2005. I was driving by the river project, now completed, and noticed that on the other side of the river there was some new construction work going on. We always felt that there was more dump on the other side. The area was a Southern Pacific Railroad switchyard that had closed down years ago, and now they had torn down the old buildings.
I called my detecting partners, and we met to investigate this new area. Just as we thought, the dump continued on this side of the river as well- not only more of the 1906 earthquake dump, but 37 acres of earthquake dump. The construction crew had dug some deep pits (everyone still referred to it as "The Pit"); some were 200' long by 15' wide and 8-10' deep.
To process the dump material to prepare the site, they would dig a huge trench and then, using dirt and dump material from another trench along with fill dirt, fill in the first trench. Then they would compact the dirt and dump material. They would repeat this process for the entire site, all along the way digging up and exposing areas for us to detect.
It was unbelievable to search trenches this big and find nothing but earthquake dump material, 37 acres and 10' deep. We were beside ourselves. There was stuff everywhere. This side seemed to have ten times more old items than the other side of the river. If we thought the spot we were detecting two years ago was good, this was Christmas! We detected in the evenings and on weekends.
It can be overwhelming, but on a site such as this you just start swinging your coil and hit as much as you can, knowing that the tractors will change everything the next day. Sometimes the construction workers would dig for bottles at the end of the day or on the weekends. This area was just as difficult to detect as the other side of the river, with lots of decomposed iron in the soil. To detect effectively, a 5.3" or 3.5" coil with discrimination- low enough to detect nails- worked best. At first there were only a few of us hunting the site, but as time passed and the word got out, more and more detectorists and bottle diggers came.
On any given day we might find four or five tokens, a few coins, half a dozen to a dozen bottles, beer and soda water bottle stoppers, marbles, more spoons, forks, and knives than we wanted, and miscellaneous items such as watch fobs, pocket watches, porcelain doll arms or legs, medallions, suspender clips, buckles... you name it. Remember, these were all things lost in the earthquake.
One day after work I had just started detecting at the foot of a large pile and was getting a choppy signal. I moved the dirt around with my pick, and out popped a gold engagement ring with a 1/3 carat stone. Sweet! It was next to a chunk of pipe. This was the second gold item to come out. My detecting buddy Dave had gotten a gold band a week earlier.
On another occasion when Larry and I hit the site, he was detecting while I was walking around picking up surface finds. He called me over to see his find, a very nice 1896 Barber half dollar in VF condition (most of the coins were in pretty bad shape, either melted or heavily corroded). Then, as if that wasn't cool enough, about 15 minutes later he uncovered a small mesh change purse, fragile but intact, and there was something inside. Larry decided to work on it later so as to not damage it. As it turned out, there were two Indian head cents in the purse.
Among my favorite finds were a brass belt buckle commemorating Christopher Columbus and a rare Central Pacific Railroad baggage tag dated 1867, which I took to a railroad collectors' show and ended up selling for $400.
All in all, it was a fantastic site- a rare opportunity with many great finds, especially with this being the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco 1906 earthquake. The Great Earthquake of San Francisco occurred on April 18, 1906 at 5:13 a.m. We'll be talking about this one for a long time.
BRUCE CASH says, "I detect mostly for relics, and I'm the newsletter editor for our local metal detecting club, the Treasure Hunters Society of Santa Clara Valley.