San Francisco Drydock has the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously operating civilian shipyards in the United States. Built at its current location in 1881 by Union Iron Works, San Francisco Drydock also holds the distinction of building the first steel ship on the West Coast in 1885.
In 1905, Bethlehem Steel Company bought out Union Irons Works interest in the dry dock. Like its competitor across the bay, Moore Dry Dock Company, Bethlehem Steel's shipbuilding division used the Francisco Dry Dock to build more than ships in the years prior to World War I. The company also built bridges, mining machinery and weapons that were used in developing the pre-World War I West.
During World War I, the shipyard produced 66 destroyers and 18 submarines. During the 2nd World War, the drydock facilities saw 36 destroyers, 5 "liberty ships", 4 cruisers, 12 destroyer escorts, 4 transport barges and 11 self-propelled barges leave the docks. Submarines came in for repairs there as well.
After the close of the war, Bethlehem Steel continued to build war ships for the Navy. The last warship left the San Francisco Shipyard in 1965. The yard continued building barges into the 1970s and built the steel tubes used in the tunnel that goes under the San Francisco Bay, connecting Oakland and San Francisco.
Bethlehem Steel sold the site to United States Marine Repair, a defense contractor, which now operates under the name of BAE Systems Ship Repair. Their work today consists of maintenance checks on naval vessels.
Over the years, the San Francisco Drydock site used many toxic substances common to ship building and repair. Lead paint, industrial strength cleaners and asbestos were the most common, with asbestos leading the list of the most dangerous. Lead poisoning is apparent in a very short time. The symptoms of asbestos exposure take years to develop. Some cases are so subtle that it takes 50 years to show up.
This delayed development of symptoms contributed to the general lack of awareness that risks were involved in breathing asbestos particles. As early as the mid 1930s, government sources were suggesting that asbestos posed a risk, but President Roosevelt feared panic if the information was released. As a result, thousands of innocent individuals have died unnecessarily from mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer.
The symptoms of asbestos damage can be very similar to other illnesses. The dry cough may be mistaken for bronchitis, fluid in the lungs to pneumonia. The chest pains are often mistaken for a heart problem. Other symptoms such as loss of appetite, weight loss, and insomnia can also be difficult to diagnose unless the doctor is aware of the asbestos exposure in a patient's past.
Anyone who worked in the San Francisco Drydock should inform their physician of their asbestos exposure. This will help the doctor develop an evaluation schedule that will reduce the risk of missing the mesothelioma cancer in its early stages. This, of course, improves the prognosis for a quality life.