Shipwreck discovery sheds light on Chinese history in SF 

The recent discovery of a ship that sank more than a century ago near where the Golden Gate Bridge now stands has dug up memories of The City’s tumultuous relationship with the Chinese immigrant community in the late 19th century.

Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society, said Wednesday the discovery brings to light an important piece of local history for the Chinese community.

“We’re hoping that the story will inspire students and researchers to delve into the story more and so we can begin to broaden the understanding of what was going on during that era,” Lee said.

On Aug. 22, 1888, the Oceanic steamer arriving from Asia collided with the 202-foot-long steamship City of Chester, which had just left San Francisco. The Oceanic contained more than 1,000 Chinese passengers stuffed into steerage.

Initial reports fueled the portrayal of villains within the Chinese immigrant community, already blacklisted in the U.S. through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, according to James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a leader in the shipwreck’s discovery.

click to enlarge shipwreck
  • Mike Koozmin/the S.F. Examiner
  • Wreckage from an 1888 shipwreck involving a steamer arriving in San Francisco from Asia and a vessel just leaving The City was discovered by NOAA recently.

“When these ships wrecked, papers said the Chinese let white people drown,” Delgado said.

In reality, while the two ships were pinned together after the Oceanic struck the Chester in dense fog — “like a knife through butter,” according to the account of the Chester’s captain printed in the Daily Alta California — the Chinese crew saved 90 lives before the ship sank into the Bay. Sixteen people died in the wreck.

One account even includes a Chinese sailor who “reached into the water and saved a drowning boy,” Delgado said.

Researchers plan to establish a website on the shipwreck that “pulls all the different angles of the story together,” Delgado said. A wayside exhibit will also be set up at Crissy Field overlooking the spot where the Chester sank.

click to enlarge City of Chester
  • AP Photo/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • This 2013 image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows a multi-beam sonar profile view of the shipwreck of the iron and wood steamship City of Chester.

The Chinese population in The City was about 25,000 in 1888. San Francisco served as the primary port of entry for Chinese coming to the U.S., but ordinances restricting them in The City tightened severely in the 1870s. Additionally, employment of Chinese was prohibited by corporations and state, municipal or county governments per California’s second Constitution, adopted in 1879.

And that’s why, as the more than 1,000 Chinese immigrants were attempting to enter the U.S. on the Oceanic, the shipwreck ignited such controversy at the time, according to Lee.

“The tragedy unfortunately played into people’s worst instincts, blaming the accident on the ship that was carrying Chinese passengers and having a Chinese crew as well,” Lee said.

The Chester remains the second-worst disaster at the Golden Gate, following an immigrant steamer that struck rocks in the fog outside the gate in 1901, killing more than 120 people, according to Delgado.

Maritime officials plan to leave the Chester where it is, 217 feet below the surface and mostly buried in mud.

“It’s the tomb of many of the lost,” Delgado said. “Bringing it up wouldn’t really serve any purpose.”


Statements from the captains of the City of Chester and the Oceanic were published Aug. 23, 1888, in the Daily Alta California newspaper, providing graphic details of the shipwreck.

City of Chester Capt. Thomas Wallace’s story:

“I was, as usual, on the bridge, and we were feeling our way very carefully through the fog. I had the whistle blowing regularly. Soon after rounding Fort Point, I heard the Oceanic's whistle. We answered her. I thought by the sound of her whistle she was on our port side, and answered accordingly. I took the proper steps to clear her. I thought I was clear, when suddenly her great black hull loomed up in the fog to port as large as a mountain. It was impossible to get out of her way. The passengers on deck, once having perceived the terrible danger, were paralyzed by fright. We had not long to wait. The two vessels came together with a horrible crash, the bow of the Oceanic striking us on the port side, near the fore-hatch. I ordered the engines to be kept going, but after the shock occurred I hardly know what did happen. I noticed the upper works, along the port side of my vessel, were carried away and the cabins broken into splinters. I do not know how far the Oceanic pierced us. I believe she almost cut the Chester in two. The passengers became quite unmanageable from fright, but I did all that a man can do to save them. I have no complaint to make of the officers of the Oceanic.

click to enlarge City of Chester
  • AP Photo/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park
  • This undated image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park shows the iron and wood steamship City of Chester.
They did splendid work picking up the survivors—a difficult job, as there was so much wreckage floating about. I do not think the whole time from the moment of the collision to the sinking of the steamer was more than four minutes. She filled very rapidly and at the last went down with a rush. I went down with her along with several others. I went ever so far down and came up under a heavy piece of wreck, which I afterwards found out to be the pilot-house. I had to sink again before I regained the surface. It was a close call, I can assure you. On every side people were struggling in the water. I think most of them were saved, I do not think there were many more than ten lost. The Oceanic’s boats did excellent work in picking up the drowning persons. I was picked up by a whitehall and transferred to the Etna. The accident was, I think, unavoidable. The vessels came together in the thickest kind of fog. The Oceanic was coming in on the usual course for inward-bound vessels. She was not badly damaged. She was so heavily laden that, with her momentum, she went through the Chester like a knife through butter.”

Oceanic Capt. John Metcalf’s story:

“We were entering port this morning about 9 o'clock, with the weather misty and foggy, the ship in charge of Pilot Meyer. I was on deck myself, as is customary in entering and leaving port. We had passed Bonita Point all right, and were steering a mid-channel course between Lime Point and the Fort, a little nearer to Lime Point. I then first observed a steamer about two points on the starboard bow, whose whistle we had heard some time previous. She was going apparently at a high rate of speed, while we were slowed down. I immediately gave orders to starboard the helm, and gave two blasts of the whistle, which was responded to by the steamer. But through some mismanagement or mistake she ported instead of starboarded, and the collision occurred, the Oceanic going dead slow at the time. The steamer, which we then recognized as the City of Chester, had in some manner turned broadside and we struck her on the port side, abaft the fore rigging. The passengers on board immediately made a rush for the stern, and many clambered on board of us at that point, we in the meantime throwing over life buoys and lowering our boats. By this means we rescued about fifty or sixty persons who were floating in the wreckage. In about five minutes after the collision the Chester went down, taking one of our boats down in the whirlpool. The third officer, in command, and the crew, came up and were picked up. But a lady, whom they had previously rescued, never came up to the surface again. We remained around the spot for some time, and finally drifted up the harbor among the wreckage of the flood tide.”

click to enlarge Daily Alta California
  • A page from the Daily Alta California includes witness accounts of the ship's sinking.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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