The City of Chester steamship sinks just inside the Golden Gate (1888)

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Under the waves: Great disaster near the Golden Gate

The City of Chester sunk — Run down in a fog by the Oceanic. Thirteen lives known to be lost.

San Francisco, August 22 — One of the most terrible disasters that ever occurred on the Pacific Coast happened in the Bay of San Francisco, a short distance from the Golden Gate about 10 o’clock this morning. The steamer City of Chester left her dock here at 9:30 and started on her regular trip to Eureka on the northern coast of California.

An unusually large number of passengers stood on her decks and waved adieu to the friends who had gathered on the wharfs. The Chester steamed slowly down the bay, and when within two miles of the heads encountered a thick fog bank, so familiar in that vicinity. Captain Wallace began blowing his steamer’s whistle to warn all vessels of his approach. The Chester proceeded cautiously on her course until off Fort Point, when the hoarse sound of another whistle floated across the water.

Captain Wallace answered the signal and gave the proper warning to the stranger to pass on the port side. This was evidently not understood, for in a moment those on board the Chester saw the huge prow of the Occidental and Oriental steamer Oceanic emerge from the fog bank and bear down upon them. The Oceanic had just arrived from Hong Kong and Yokohama and was moving up the bay to her dock.

The huge steamer was so close to the Chester that there was no possibility for the latter to escape. The cabin passengers were nearly all on deck, and the Captain, seeing the danger, called them to prepare for the shock.

A panic ensued at once, particularly among the women and children, of whom there were a large number on board. The Oceanic struck the Chester on the port side at the gangway, and the shock was terrific. The prow cut into the Chester’s upper works and then crushed on down to the bulwarks, tearing the great timbers and iron deck plates and breaking down into the staterooms and cabins. The wildest confusion prevailed among those on the ill-fated vessel. The passengers crowded together, some shrieking with fear and others praying for help.

>> Find out about the ship’s rediscovery! Found: 19th century shipwreck off the Golden Gate Bridge (2014)

The bow of the Oceanic crushed into the middle section of the City of Chester, cutting her almost in halves, and causing her to reel under the terrific blow. While the vessels were locked together, a number of the City of Chester’s passengers were passed up over the Oceanic’s bow and rescued in this way; but as soon as the large steamer could clear herself she swung around and immediately began to lower her boats.

At the moment of the shock, most of the officers and crew of the City of Chester seemed to lose possession of their senses, and several of the passengers stated afterwards that some of the crew took the opportunity to climb aboard the Oceanic and left the passengers to cut away the boats.


One of these was lowered as soon as possible and a number of passengers taken off in it. Others provided themselves with life-preservers and jumped overboard. The greater portion, however, were counselled to remain on the steamer, which began to settle immediately after the collision. Torrents of waters rushed into her hold and in five or ten minutes after the collision the Chester disappeared and sank in fifty fathoms of water.

Those of the passengers and crew who came to the surface were picked up by the Oceanic’s boats. The greater number were drawn down by the rushing water and never appeared again. As soon as it was known around the bay that a collision had occurred a number of tugs and other boats of all descriptions went to the rescue and rendered what service they could in picking up the living or the dead who were floating among the wreckage.

The greatest loss of life is believed to have occurred among the steerage passengers, of whom there were twenty-three. Only two of these were accounted for late this afternoon and it is believed that all the others are lost. They were either in the hold or the lower decks of the steamer at the time of the collision, and there was no opportunity to warn them of any danger or to render them any assistance afterwards. The cabin passengers numbered seventy and of these ten are lost. Three of the crew are also lost.

Names of the lost

The names of the cabin passengers lost are as follows: GW Anderson, Oakland; Mrs SE Prather, San Diego; Mrs CH Haney, Eureka; MC Hampton and wife, Virginia City, Nev; CT Davis, Springville, and Miss Davis, his niece; M Greer, Napa; Mrs Meech and Mrs Porter.

The following members of the crew are lost: ER Chambers, steward; Robert Fulton and Adam Richmond, waiters.

None of the survivors were landed until after 1 o’clock this afternoon, and at a late hour this afternoon there was still much doubt as to the exact number of those lost.

A sorrowful sight was witnessed upon the arrival of the tug, with the Misses Prather, of San Diego, who had experienced very rough handling. Miss Emma, just as the steamer was sinking, was struck with a heavy rope and knocked overboard, but was soon dragged aboard the Oceanic by some passengers. She suffered both bodily and mentally, and had, like her sister, to be supported while awaiting the arrival of a carriage. Her sister was in the water for over an hour, and was taken aboard just in time to hear of the death of her mother.

The Captain’s story

Captain Wallace, of the Chester, describes the fog as having been so thick that it was impossible to see more than a few yards. He said he was standing on the bridge of the Chester and she was feeling her way along and blowing her whistle all the time. He heard the Oceanic’s whistle, which he answered and supposed they would clear each other, but suddenly he saw her hull come out of the fog and there was no possibility of getting out of the way.

The bow of the Oceanic struck the Chester on the port side and the crash was terrible. Wreckage was scattered about in every conceivable way. The captain says the people seemed unmanageable, but every effort was made to get the passengers on the Oceanic. The Chester filled so rapidly that she sank in ten minutes and it was impossible to get all the passengers off.

The captain was among those who went down with the steamer. He said people were in the water on every side of him and he thinks very few of them were saved. The Oceanic’s boats did rapid and effective work in picking up the people. Captain Wallace was rescued and went at once to the steamship company’s office.

The purser’s story

CS Arthur, the purser of the Oceanic, was writing in his cabin when he was aroused by sharp blasts on the whistle, and sprang on the deck just as the collision took place. He says the scenes upon the deck of the Chester were perfectly heartrending. The greatest confusion prevailed and undoubtedly many lives were lost from this cause. The boats of the Oceanic were in the water within a couple of minutes, while the life-buoys were thrown overboard to those already struggling in the water. Scarcely five minutes elapsed from the time of the collision until the Chester turned over like a box and sank. The boilers exploded when the water reached the fires.

A passenger’s experience

SP Davis, a cabin passenger on the City of Chester, whose brother and five-year-old niece, Josie Bruen, were drowned, says in their death he witnessed something so horrible that he could never forget it if he lived a thousand years.

“When I reached the upper deck,” he said, “with my sister, I saw my brother and little Josie struggling forward on the bows. I shouted to him to get into one of the small boats with myself and sister. Whether or not he heard me I do not know. A few seconds later I saw that little Josie had her arms clasped tightly around his neck and he could not free himself from her embrace. The next instant I saw my brother and niece drawn under the waves in a mass of wreckage.”

Pilot Meyer’s statement

Pilot Captain Louis Meyer, who was on the bridge when the collision occurred, and who piloted the Oceanic in, states: “I boarded the Oceanic just outside the heads at 8 o’clock. There was a dense fog at the time and it was still rolling in, when we passed Bonita Point.

We were just off Time Point when we sighted the Chester. We heard her whistling and I responded with two whistles which meant that I wanted to pass her on the starboard side. We were then about a quarter of a mile apart and the pilot of the Chester answered with a whistle. After blowing two whistles, I saw the Chester coming for u,s and we were getting into close quarters and we reversed our engines.

In two minutes, she showed us her port side right ahead. Then I saw that we must collide if she didn’t sheer off to the port; instead of this she sheered off at an angle and though we tried to turn so as to escape her, we hadn’t time, and the first thing we knew the vessels collided. That is all there is to the affair. It was an accident pure and simple and would not have happened had it not been for the fog.

Who was to blame?

Ex-Governor Perkins, one of the agents of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, says he can lay blame on no particular person, but he thinks the officers of the Chester were in the right. The accident was the result of a combination of unforeseen circumstances. From the best information obtainable tonight from the steamship officials and outsiders, it is thought all the passengers and crew have been accounted for with the exception of the thirteen whose names have been previously given.

The steerage passengers

Following is a list of the steerage passengers on the Chester, nearly all of whom are reported to have gone down with the vessel: Eugene Fair, George Atkinson, F Sanguist, P Brense, JT Thompson, John F Heckman, WK Brown, E Warneke, JE Riley, FW Cook, RB Mosby, BM Clan, H Smith and wife, Miss Noe, JF Jordan, M Lomo, WH Knowlton, HM Billings, MM Haswell, JH Garner, J Johnson.

Description of the vessel

The City of Chester was a staunch iron steamer, which had been in the Coast trade for many years. She was built at Chester, Penn, in 1875, and was the property of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, and formerly ran to Portland, Ore. Her length was 202 feet; beam, 33 feet; depth, 16 feet 9 inches. Her net tonnage was 785, and her gross tonnage was 1,106 tons. She was valued at $150,000, and was insured in San Francisco and Easter companies for about half that sum.

>> Find out about the ship’s rediscovery! Found: 19th century shipwreck off the Golden Gate Bridge (2014)

Top image: SS City of Chester (Credit: San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park K01.2.571PL); Image 2: Newspaper illustration of the collision between RMS Oceanic and SS City of Chester. (Credit: Illustration: San Francisco Chronicle)

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