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1888 shipwreck found: But what did racism have to do with disaster?

2013 Multi-beam sonar profile view of the shipwreck SS City of Chester.
2013 Multi-beam sonar profile view of the shipwreck SS City of Chester.
(Credit: NOAA Office of Coast Survey NRT6)

An 1888 shipwreck has been discovered near the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday. New interest in the maritime disaster is shedding light on the tenor of anti-Chinese racism at the time.

The wreckage of the 202-foot long passenger steamship named the“City of Chester" was discovered upright in the shipping channel near the Golden Gate. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said a huge gash is visible on the Chester's port-side bow.

Ship sank in 1888

The City of Chester sank after it collided with the ocean liner “Oceanic.” A total of 16 people on the Chester were killed. It was the second-deadliest maritime disaster in the history of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Wreckage found last May

The wreckage was found nearly a year ago 217 feet below the surface. NOAA scientists found it using a high-tech eco-sound sonar system. The researchers have kept the discovery quiet until now while they made high-definition maps of the 1888 wreck.

"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," explained Laura Pagano, a physical science tech with NOAA's navigation response team.

Foggy morning

The disaster happened during a fogging morning in September. The Chester had 106 people aboard was heading out of the bay for a run up to Eureka, in the far northern end of the state. The Oceanic was arriving back to San Francisco after spending nearly a month at sea en route from Hong Kong.

Researchers said the two ships saw each other but strong rip tides eventually forced them to collide. At the time, newspaper accounts and court documents described the chaotic scene on board the Chester before impact.

"She's running us down!" someone cried. "Hard to a-starboard! Hard to a-starboard!" the captain is quoted as saying.

“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.

After the crash, some erroneous stories surfaced that the Oceanic's Chinese crew and passengers did nothing to save people on the Chester. The shipwreck was emblematic of the anti-Chinese racism that was rampant at the time.

The Oceanic cut through the Chester.

It took only six minutes for the Chester to go down. Oceanic’s passengers and crew on the Oceanic rescued dozens of survivors out of the water and Chinese sailors jumped into the water to rescue others but 16 passengers of the Chester were lost.

The 1888 shipwreck discovery is helping to revive some of the San Francisco gold rush history that most residents here never learned.

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