Fisherman’s Wharf is a must for most people who visit San Francisco. Piers full of shops and restaurants and various family attractions — including some very entertaining sea lions lounging blubberously on the docks — bring people of all ages to the strip of city that runs from Ghirardelli Square to Pier 35 along the Bay. A historic district once home to the best Dungeness crab fisherman on the West Coast, this area is full of unique, historic buildings-turned-shops, including The Cannery, home to the best draught beer selection in town: Jack’s. You can also find a collection of restored fishing, sailing and cargo ships on the Hyde Street Pier, part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Tickets to tour the ships are available, but they are pretty neat to see from the dock if you’re on a budget.
Further down the way, tucked behind a warehouse arcade and a more-visible submarine on Pier 45, is the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. One of the lesser-known attractions at the Wharf, it’s definitely one of the better historical sites I’ve visited. Not one for history and endless rows of plaques explaining what happened forever ago, I went for Jonmikel. For $10, you can climb aboard one of only two operational WWII Liberty Ships in the world and a rare survivor of Normandy on D-Day.
The all-volunteer crew fires her up and takes her out a handful of times a year, and it made the trans-Atlantic trip to France for the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994.
But this just isn’t a museum of WWII history.
This ship is fully operational and maintained to support a crew that actually lives on board. Kitchen works, toilets work, cabins have personal computers in them.
You can even crawl down into the 5-story engine room that served as the set for the engine room scenes from Titanic.
We entered the steamy depths, scrambling down slick ladders and across catwalks that looked down into darkness. And we stumbled out onto a group of surly, oil greased men, one with a fiery torch in hand. “Hey! You’ve come to see us start up the engines!”
Pistons began to creak and moan and shift, and steam began to rise from below our feet. The engineers showed us around, pointing out the oil stored beneath the floors, explaining how this tangle of raw machinery can burn its way onto the beaches of Normandy.
One guy opened the boiler and, handing us a plate of green glass, allowed us to glance into the very soul of the ship, watching the fire and oil spin and spin and disintegrate into nothing. It’s not often you get to poke around in the operating engine of a massive chunk of floating steel.
Afterward, we headed back on deck to explore the ship’s bridge and decks, where we found the big guns.
We spend hours on the ship, much longer than we had originally planned. With so much to see and move around and operate, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien is the perfect playground for history buffs.