An 1888 Gold Rush-era steamship was discovered recently by a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sonar survey team that was scouring the bottom of San Francisco Bay.
The City of Chester, sailing in a dense fog from San Francisco to British Columbia, was struck on its port side by another Bay area steamship that was twice its size. The bow of the Oceanic—transporting immigrants from Asia to California—sliced deeply into the 200-foot vessel, but the captain continued a forward thrust to plug the hole in an attempt to save the passengers and crew. Sixteen people aboard the City of Chester died in the disaster. The Oceanic sent out a double whistle signal, indicating the vessels should pass on the starboard side and the Chesterconfirmed it with the same double blast. But somehow the doomed ship’s captain either misunderstood the alerts or the tides drove him off course. Somehow his ship crossed the path of the Oceanic and that was the end of the maneuvering. The vessels were only half a mile apart when the captains realized their positions…leaving no time to abort the collision.
James Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage for NOAA’s maritime sanctuaries, said his team was scanning the bottom in preparation for the America’s Cup Race when the shipwreck was discovered. High resolution sonar images reveal the deep gash in the side of the vessel as it sits upright in the mud in 200 feet of water about half a mile from the Golden Gate Bridge. In his research, Delgado uncovered a startling anti-Semite attitude in the August 23, 1888, San Francisco newspapers. Reporters took the Chinese crew of the Oceanic to task for not doing enough to save the victims of the Chester.
Delgado says maritime records show that the crew did help the survivors pulling many into lifeboats and transferring them to the Oceanic. “The newspaper stories were a case of Chinese bigotry of that era,” Delgado says, “and the discovery establishes a tangible link to another time.”
Laua Pagano, a physical science technician with NOAA’s Navigation Response Team added, “The sinking was sad due to the loss of life, but we were able to delve deeper into maritime history. This shipwreck has so much significance for that time period. We helped set the record straight so the City of Chester could gain prominence and validity in maritime annals.
The Pacific Coast Steamship Company vessel, built in Chester, Pennsylvania, was the second worse ship mishap in the history of San Francisco Bay. In 1901, 128 lives were lost when the SS City of Rio de Janeiro struck a reef just inside the Bay and sank quickly.
The City of Chester will be designated a national historical landmark and remain untouched. There are no plans to salvage it. An exhibit is planned at nearby Crissy Field, Presidio Park, honoring those lost in the tragedy and recognizing a significant maritime saga in San Francisco Bay.