How the City of Chester ship sank in the SF Bay in 1888 – and was discovered in 2014

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How the City of Chester steamship sank in the SF Bay in 1888 – and was found in 2014
Credit: San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park

Under the waves: Great disaster near the Golden Gate (1888)

Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, California) August 23, 1888

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

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.

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.

Old City of Chester steamship-gigapixel-width-1000px

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.

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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.”

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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.

Credit: San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park SAFR 3753
Credit: San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park SAFR 3753
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.

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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.

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)


Modern view of the Golden Gate Channel City of Chester

Found: 19th century shipwreck by Golden Gate Bridge (2014)

NOAA Coast Survey vessel finds 19th century shipwreck off Golden Gate Bridge — again

Predecessor agency first located ship in 1890, two years after it sank

NOAA announced it has found the underwater wreck of the passenger steamer City of Chester, which sank in 1888 in a collision in dense fog near where the Golden Gate Bridge stands today. The announcement was made during a press event at Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary’s San Francisco headquarters at Crissy Field.

The story of City of Chester will be shared with the public in a future waterfront exhibit NOAA will place at the sanctuary office at Crissy Field. The office is the former US life saving service station built in 1890 in response to the City of Chester incident.

The 202-foot long steamship City of Chester had just left San Francisco and was headed up the California coast to Eureka with 90 passengers on August 22, 1888, when around 10 am, it was struck by the steamer Oceanic. Impaled on Oceanic, which was arriving from Asia, City of Chester remained afloat for six minutes before sinking. Sixteen people died in the accident.

The rediscovery of the wreck restores an important historical link to San Francisco’s early Chinese-American community. Reports at the time initially criticized Oceanic’s Chinese crew in the racially charged atmosphere of the times. Criticisms turned to praise, however, when the bravery of the crew in rescuing many of City of Chester’s passengers was revealed. The wreck was then largely forgotten.

“Discoveries like this remind us that the waters off our shores are museums that speak to powerful events, in this case not only that tragic wreck, but to a time when racism and anger were set aside by the heroism of a crew who acted in the best traditions of the sea,” said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, whose past work has included documenting historic wrecks in California.

2013 Multi-beam sonar profile view city of chester

In May 2013, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey Navigational Response Team 6 (NRT6), in a 28-foot boat equipped with sonar, rediscovered what they thought was the City of Chester while surveying another nearby shipwreck, the freighter Fernstream, which sank after a collision in 1952. Delgado asked the NRT6 team to extend their survey to try and find the sunken steamer.

After working with historic data provided by NOAA historians, the Coast Survey team conducted a multi-beam sonar survey and a sonar target the right size and shape was found.

The team spent nearly nine months sorting through the data. A follow-up side-scan sonar survey confirmed that the target was City of Chester, sitting upright, shrouded in mud, 216 feet deep at the edge of a small undersea shoal. High-resolution sonar imagery clearly defined the hull, rising some 18 feet from the seabed, and the fatal gash on the vessel’s port side.

This NOAA team was not the first to find the shipwreck. It was 125 years earlier that the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, NOAA’s predecessor agency which was charged with responsibility for charting the nation’s coasts and harbors, believed it had located the City of Chester in early September 1888 by dragging a wire from the tugboat Redmond to snag the hulk.

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A veteran salvage diver of the time, Capt. Robert Whitelaw, also claimed to have relocated the wreck, sending a hard-hat diver down more than 200 feet in 1890 to report City of Chester nearly cut in two, with the tide running through the cut “like a millrace.” No attempt was made to raise the wreck then and there are no plans to do so today.

“Connecting to the history of the Chester is sad in one way, but we were also connecting to scientific history on a different level,” said NOAA NRT6 team leader Laura Pagano. “Using our high-tech multibeam echo sounder to re-discover a wreck originally found over a century ago — by Coast Surveyors dragging a wire across the seafloor — is immensely fulfilling. We are equally proud to have provided information on an important link to the rich heritage of the San Francisco Chinese American community.”

Today, it is a protected site and a grave belonging to the state of California. “Whether we see them or not, wrecks like City of Chester should be remembered today and in future generations,” said NOAA’s Delgado.

Illustration 1: Modern view of the Golden Gate Channel and approximate location of the SS City of Chester (Credit: Robert V. Schwemmer, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries); Illustration 2: 2013 Multi-beam sonar profile view of the shipwreck SS City of Chester (Credit: NOAA Office of Coast Survey NRT6)

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