SS City of Chester
April 24, 2014

NOAA Team Discovers 19th Century Shipwreck Off The California Coast

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The underwater wreckage of a 202-foot long steamship that sank shortly after departing from San Francisco on August 22, 1888 has been located, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Wednesday.

The passenger steamer City of Chester went down as the result of a collision in dense fog in the region close to where the Golden Gate Bridge currently stands, NOAA said during a press event at the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary’s San Francisco headquarters at Crissy Field.

The boat was carrying 90 passengers up the California coast to Eureka when it was hit by the steamer Oceanic at approximately 10 am. The City of Chester was impaled in the collision and managed to remain afloat for about six minutes before it went under. Sixteen people were killed in the incident, according to the agency.

“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 the NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

The shipwreck was originally discovered 125 years ago by the NOAA’s predecessor, the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. That agency located the City of Chester in September 1888 by dragging a wire from a tugboat in order to snag it. Around the same time, a veteran salvage diver named Capt. Robert Whitelaw also claimed to have discovered it, but no attempt was made to lift the wreckage out of the water.

“The rediscovery of the wreck restores an important historical link to San Francisco’s early Chinese-American community,” the NOAA said. “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.”

Last May, the NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey Navigational Response Team 6 (NRT6) rediscovered what they believed was the City of Chester while surveying the Fernstream, a freighter that sank in the same general area following a 1952 collision. Delgado asked the survey team, who was using a 28-foot vessel equipped with sonar, to extend their survey efforts in an attempt to locate the sunken steamship.

“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 agency reported. “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.”

They were able to clearly identify the ship’s hull, including the damaged area of its port side, using high-resolution sonar imagery. NOAA NRT6 team leader Laura Pagano said that it was “immensely fulfilling” to discover the ship’s remains, and that she and her colleagues were “proud to have provided information on an important link to the rich heritage of the San Francisco Chinese American community.”