On August 22, 1888, the passenger steam ship The City of Chester sunk in San Francisco Bay. This week — 126 years after it hit the ocean floor — researchers discovered its remains.
How did that happen? Let's back up a bit.
On that day in August 1888, the 202-foot-long The City of Chester left San Francisco harbour en route to Eureka, California, just up the coast. It was carrying 106 people. The day was foggy, and not long after pulling out of dock The Chester collided with an incoming steam ship, The Oceanic. The Chester was cut wide open, breaking almost in half before sinking in just six minutes, taking 16 people down with it. The wreck remains the second-deadliest maritime disaster in the city's history.
A month later, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey reported that they'd found the ship's remains, and in 1980 a diver claimed to have found them too. Turns out both reports were a little off.
Last year, a team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was surveying a freighter that sunk in 1952 when the sonar they were using revealed something unexpected: The Chester. Over the course of the year, they were able to confirm that the mysterious remains were indeed The City of Chester, which was lodged 216 feet (about 65 metres) below the water's surface — and within view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The ship won't be raised, but there will be an exhibition at the National Maritime Sanctuary's headquarters, which looks out at the bay.
“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.
So why's this discovery so important? Well, in addition to the 16 deaths, the wreck of The City of Chester has a not-so-pretty place in San Francisco's history.
The wreck is remembered mostly for its role in fuelling xenophobic attitudes against Chinese people in California. It occurred just as the so-called "yellow peril" was at its height. Five years earlier, President Chester Arthur had signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. And the Oceanic, which was coming into San Francisco from Hong Kong, had 74 Chinese crew and 1,062 Chinese passengers on board when it hit The City of Chester.
"When this happened, it happened in an atmosphere in which the population was dead set against the Chinese," Delgado told SF Gate. "They accused the Chinese of standing there impassively and watching these white people drown."
In fact, witness reports have proven those accusations to be false. Many of the Chinese crew dived into the water to try to save drowning passengers. Details like that are part of the reason the ship holds special historical significance.
“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,” Delgado told the Los Angeles Times.