Coast Survey finds historic City of Chester wreck, again

NOAA announced that one of Coast Survey’s navigation response teams found the underwater wreck of the passenger steamer City of Chester, which sank in 1888 in a collision in dense fog near where the Golden Gate Bridge stands today. City of Chester had just left San Francisco and was headed up the California coast to Eureka with 90 passengers on August 22, 1888, when it was struck by the steamer Oceanic. Impaled on Oceanic, which was arriving from Asia, City of Chester remained afloat for six minutes before sinking. Sixteen people died in the accident.

Navigation Response Team 6 (NRT6) found the wreck in May 2013 while they were conducting regular survey duties for safe navigation, assessing a potential pollution threat from the S.S. Fernstream, a wreck from 1952. Sonar images confirmed that the target was the 202-foot steamship City of Chester, sitting upright, shrouded in mud, 216 feet deep at the edge of a small undersea shoal, rising 18 feet from the seabed.

The City of Chester is shown in NRT6's multibeam image.
The City of Chester is shown in NRT6’s multibeam image.

This NOAA team is not the first to find the shipwreck. Last year, John Cloud (NOAA Library) discovered an unpublished manuscript chart, showing that in 1888 a U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey team used a drag survey from the tugboat Redmond to successfully locate the City of Chester after it sank. Tony Reyer (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries) geo-rectified that manuscript chart onto the modern seascape, and was able to provide NRT6 with the lat/lon coordinates.

The U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey created this chart of the wreck in 1888.
The U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey created this chart of the wreck in 1888.

“Connecting to the history of the Chester is sad in one way, but we were also connecting to scientific history on a different level,” said NRT6 team leader Laura Pagano. “Using our high-tech multibeam echo sounder to re-discover a wreck originally found over a century ago – by Coast Surveyors dragging a wire across the seafloor – is immensely fulfilling.”

“We are equally proud to have provided information on an important link to the rich heritage of the San Francisco Chinese-American community,” Pagano explained.

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

“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.

In addition to Pagano, NRT6 is crewed by Edmund Wernicke and Ian Colvert. Vitad Pradith also assisted on the project.

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