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San Francisco's Old Clam House on the Lost Waterfront

by Susan Saperstein

The Old Clam House, opened in 1861, is one of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco. Located on the corner of Bayshore Boulevard and Oakdale Avenue, it has also been called the Clam House and Oakdale Bar.

When it opened, the restaurant was on the waterfront, sitting on Islais Creek which flowed into San Francisco Bay, and surrounded by a shallow marshy estuary. At that time, the restaurant was connected to downtown San Francisco by two wood-planked roads. Within ten years the marsh was filled in, more than 100 buildings were constructed on piles over the creek, and the area became known as New Butchertown. After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, even more debris was dumped into the marsh.

The area was part of the Bernal grant known as Rincon de las Salinas, translated as “corner of the salt marshes.” Islais Creek was a freshwater stream that meandered southeasterly in a channel that is now Alemany Boulevard and then drained east through the estuary and a half-moon shaped cove into San Francisco Bay. Several sloughs branched from the main channel. Precita Creek, which ran along what is now Cesar Chavez Street, was the longest.

When the Old Clam House opened, the Bay Area was a thriving fishing area─more than one hundred varieties were fished from the bay. Dungeness crab fishermen started here around 1848, the oyster industry began in the 1850's when Gold Rush settlers arrived, and the shrimp industry started in the early 1860’s.

And before the sardines disappeared in the 1950’s, the area east of Islais Creek had the largest sardine cannery in the West.

On the other side of the cove from the Old Clam House was another half-moon shaped cove called Mission Bay. Before the land was filled in on this side, marshes and intersecting sloughs isolated the area extending from the downtown and South of Market areas towards Potrero Hill. The existence of Mission Bay is the reason the streets south of Market and Eleventh Street curve toward the south.

An 1856 land survey noted that the land area was impassable for walking. A toll road using wood planks was built in 1853 starting from Mission Street at First Street and running half a mile across salt-marsh swamps.

In the 1860’s and 1870’s, the Mission Bay Bridge ─ generally known as Long Bridge ─ spanned the cove and provided a road to the Potrero and Bayview districts. The bridge gave access to this area for many industries, including slaughter-houses, glassworks, mills, dry docks – and the Old Clam House.

GuideLines thanks guide Susan Simmons for lending us Sumptuous Dining in Gaslight San Francisco: 1875-1915, which includes the following recipe from the Old Clam House:

Old Clam House Chowder

4 slices of bacon

2 yellow onions, chopped

6 green onions, chopped

1 Tbsp dried parsley

2 small potatoes, peeled and sliced

1 Tbsp chopped chervil

1 cup chopped celery

½ tsp dried thyme

1 cup water

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 8-oz can chopped or minced clams with their juice

¼ cube of butter

1½ cups milk

In a large heavy casserole, sauté the bacon until it is crisp.

Discard all but 2 Tbsp of the drippings, add to this the yellow onions, and cook them until golden. Stir in the green onions, parsley, potatoes, chervil, celery, thyme, water, and some salt and pepper. Add the juice from the clams, reserving the clams. Cover and cook the soup until the potatoes are tender. Add the butter, clams, and milk. Heat the soup until it is steaming. Garnish with the bacon and serve with oyster crackers.

Sources
•Sumptuous Dining in Gaslight San Francisco: 1875-1915, Frances de Talavera Berger and John Parke Custis

•Historical Files in San Francisco History Center, SFPL

•Vanished Waters, Nancy Olmsted

•Vanished Waters of Southeastern San Francisco, The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco - sfmuseum.org


Photos
•Old Clam House photo courtesy of Eric Bennion

•All other historic photos printed with permission, S.F. History Center, S.F. Public Library.


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The Old Clam House, shown here at the intersection of Bayshore and Oakdale

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Southeastern view of San Francisco taken from Jones and California Streets in 1867 shows Mission Bay and Long Bridge. The Old Clam House was located on the other side of the hills in the distance.

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Smelt fishing off of Long Bridge, 1871

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