A 19th-century shipwreck near the Golden Gate Bridge was just discovered (again)


A look at the approximate location of the SS City of Chester near the Golden Gate Bridge. (Robert V. Schwemmer/NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries)

A century after a passenger steamer sank in the San Francisco Bay, killing more than a dozen people, the shipwreck’s remains have been located. Again.

Here’s what happened: The City of Chester — a passenger steamer built in 1875, according to the California State Lands Commission’s shipwreck database — departed San Francisco in a dense fog on the morning of Aug. 22, 1888. The ship was heading for Eureka, Calif., a town about 270 miles up the state’s coast, when it collided with the Oceanic, a much larger steamer.

“Collided” may be too gentle a term for this, actually. The Chester “was rammed in mid-channel” by the Oceanic, a ship about twice as long as the Chester, according to Michael D. White’s book “Shipwrecks of the California Coast.”

“The City of Chester was cut almost into halves and reeled under the terrible blow,” The Day (of New London, Conn.) wrote in its evening edition the following day, noting that the Chester sunk in a matter of minutes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Wednesday that it had located the Chester’s underwater remains not far from the location of the Golden Gate Bridge (which was constructed 45 years after the Chester went down).

Of course, as NOAA noted, this is not the first time the Chester’s remains have been found. A month after the wreck, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (an agency that functioned as NOAA’s predecessor) thought it had found the remains. And a salvage diver also said in 1890 that another diver had found the remains.

Last year, a NOAA team surveying a different sunken ship (the Fernstream, a freighter that went down in 1952) with sonar thought they located the Chester, so they were asked to try and confirm its location.

This team was eventually able to confirm that 126 years after the ship went down, they had found the remains of the Chester. Caked in mud, a deep gash on the vessel’s port side, it was sitting upright on the seabed more than 200 feet below the water’s surface:


Sonar imagery showing the City of Chester. (NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey Navigational Response Team 6)

The Chester won’t be raised, according to NOAA, but the ship’s story will be told in an exhibition at the National Marine Sanctuary’s Crissy Field headquarters. This facility sits on the bay, looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge and the area where the Chester sank.

“Whether we see them or not, wrecks like City of Chester should be remembered today and in future generations,” James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for the National Maritime Sanctuaries office, said in a statement announcing the find.

In particular, the wreck’s rediscovery is important because of how early reactions to the sinking harshly criticized the ship’s Chinese crew “in the racially charged atmosphere of the times,” NOAA said. (The Day wrote that most of the Chester’s crew “seemed to lose possession of their senses,” abandoning passengers when the ship was sinking.) Eventually, word got out that crew members worked to rescue passengers, after which the wreck was seemingly forgotten, according to NOAA.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.

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Mark Berman · April 22, 2014