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Memories, And Mended Reputation, Reclaimed From Century-Old Wreckage


Ocean scientists in California have solved the mystery of the San Francisco Bay. More than a century ago, two ships collided, 16 people were killed. One ship sank and it remained on the bottom of the bay. It's exact location was unknown until now. And as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it was an accident that reignited racial divisions of that era.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The waters were calm, not far from where the Golden Gate Bridge is today. But on the morning of August 22, 1888, a dense fog blanketed the strait. A 202 foot-long cargo steamship, the City of Chester, was heading out of the bay on its way north to Eureka. At the same time, another steamer called the Oceanic, was coming into the bay.

The crews of the two ships spotted each other from about a half mile apart, but powerful tides kept the City of Chester from maneuvering away. Then, it was too late.

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: The lighthouse keeper recalled hearing timber crashing and then mournful cries in the distance.

GONZALES: Robert Schwemmer is a maritime historian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He's standing near the bay shore.

SCHWEMMER: And he knew that it had been a marine disaster, but he couldn't see it because of the fog. And then, he said it went silent and there was no sound.

GONZALES: Ironically, researchers at NOAA were using sound or sonar to find another wreckage in the bay last year when they got instructions to look for the City of Chester, too. They used multibeam sonar, a high-tech echo sounder. Laura Pagano is a physical science tech with NOAA.

LAURA PAGANO: And we can cover a very large area now with one path of our sonar. It essentially paints a picture.

GONZALES: That picture, a ship sitting upright and covered in mud in 216 feet of water. James Delgado directs NOAA's maritime heritage program. He says the discovery is humbling.

JAMES DELGADO: Particularly when you realize what you're seeing and connecting to are real events and real people caught up in something bigger than themselves and sometimes with very bad results.

GONZALES: The images show the point of impact where the Oceanic cut 10 feet into the sunken ship's port side bow killing 13 passengers and three crew members. The story of the long lost wreckage is enmeshed with the temper of the times. The Oceanic with a Chinese crew and carrying over 1,000 Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong was largely undamaged.

Yet, with xenophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment running like a fever in San Francisco, initial news reports laid all the blame on the foreigners. James Delgado.

DELGADO: They accused the Chinese crew of the Oceanic of standing there impassively and watching these white people drown, and nothing could be farther from the truth.

GONZALES: Later reports, Delgado says, would cite the heroism of the Chinese crew.

DELGADO: What's happened here is these people acted in the best traditions of the sea. They rush forward. They're pulling people off the decks of the City of Chester.


And one Chinese sailor dove into the water to save a drowning child. Ultimately, the official investigation blamed the accident on the American captain of the sunken ship. Delgado says NOAA and the park service plan to put up a webpage and build a waterfront exhibit near the site to tell the story of the City of Chester. There are no plans to raise or disturb the wreckage. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.