A sunken steamship involved in one of San Francisco’s worst maritime disasters was discovered at the bottom of San Francisco Bay, a silent reminder of a historic calamity that rocked a city steeped in xenophobia and racial hatred.
The wreckage of the 202-foot long passenger ship, the City of Chester, was found sitting upright in the shipping channel near the Golden Gate Bridge, a giant gash still visible in its port-side bow, scientists and historians with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday.
The Chester sank after being hit by the ocean liner Oceanic in 1888, taking 16 people down with her, the second-deadliest maritime disaster in San Francisco history.
The wreckage was found in May at a depth of 217 feet using a high tech eco-sound sonar system. Scientists have spent the months since then analyzing the data, gathering facts and putting together high-definition maps of the wreck.
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“It was sad in a way because of the loss of life, but to be able to connect with maritime history was amazingly fulfilling and to find a wreck of such significance was also extremely exciting,” said Laura Pagano, a physical science tech with NOAA’s navigation response team.
The calamity was notorious not just because of the deaths, but because the ship that hit the City of Chester had 74 Chinese crewmen and 1,062 Chinese steerage passengers. The accident happened at a time when xenophobic fears of a “yellow peril” were at a peak in San Francisco, and five years after U.S. President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The disaster occurred on a foggy September morning. The Chester, with 106 aboard, was heading out on its usual run to Eureka just as the Oceanic was arriving in San Francisco after 25 days at sea from Hong Kong.
Robert Schwemmer, the regional coordinator of NOAA’s maritime heritage program, said the two ships spotted each other about a half mile before impact, signaled and prepared to pass. The problem, he said, was that the incoming current and a rip tide bouncing off Fort Point pushed the Chester off course and the captain couldn’t correct.
Contemporary newspaper accounts and court documents described a frenzy on board the Chester before impact. “She’s running us down!” someone cried. “Hard to a-starboard! Hard to a-starboard!” yelled the wild-eyed captain.
The sharp prow of the Oceanic cut through the doomed ship as though “she were made of cheese,” according to news accounts at the time. Schwemmer said it penetrated the hull 10 feet, nearly cutting the steamer in half.
Men, women and children were trapped below deck as the rest of the passengers scrambled toward the bow.
“Save yourselves,” yelled the captain of the Chester, according to the book “Ocean of Bitter Dreams,” by Robert Schwendinger. “Everyone who can!”
It took only six minutes for the steamer to sink, but passengers and crew on the Oceana pulled dozens of survivors out of the water and Chinese sailors jumped into the water to rescue others. One sailor, named Ah Lung, dived into the water and heroically saved the life of a young boy, wrote Schwendinger in his book, which details America’s troubled maritime relations with the Chinese.
The dead included three members of the Chester’s crew and 13 men, women and children.
“When this happened, it happened in an atmosphere in which the population was dead set against the Chinese,” said James Delgado, the director of NOAA’s maritime heritage program. “They accused the Chinese of standing there impassively and watching these white people drown.”
Subsequent reports of heroism among the Chinese crew not only proved the accusations wrong, but may have helped change some people’s racist attitudes, Delgado said.
“What this shipwreck reminds us of,” he said, “is that you don’t need to make assumptions based on color, language, religion or nationality.”
Pagano said her team was charting a 1952 shipwreck known as the Fernstream, when representatives of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary asked them to see if they could find the Chester.
Historians provided her team with an 1888 geodetic survey in which the position of the steamer was charted using a wire dragged across the bay floor. She said it took the team two days in a 28-foot boat equipped with multi-beam sonar to locate the wreckage, only 400 feet from where surveyors estimated it sat 125 years earlier.
“We thought we may have found it, but we weren’t sure until we brought the information back to the office,” Pagano said. “We were very excited when it turned out to be the exact dimensions as what they were looking for.”
Subsequent images showed the gaping hole that sank the steamer.
Delgado said NOAA plans to put the information on its website and solicit members of the Chinese community for their perspectives. There are no plans to salvage the wreckage, he said.