Photo: Hand Out / Courtesy San Francisco Maritime
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Just after midnight on Feb. 22, 1901, the passenger steamship City of Rio de Janeiro was anchored in a heavy fog outside the Golden Gate. Sailing into the bay with zero visibility was a perilous undertaking, so the captain was waiting for the fog to lift.
The 345-foot ship had left Hong Kong more than a month before and was already three days behind schedule because of mechanical problems along the way. Now, just four miles from home, it was being delayed yet again.
The steamer’s captain, William Ward, had told a passenger earlier that evening, “The Rio had better be late than on the rocks. If we attempt to enter the harbor in this fog, we will be sure to go onto the rocks.”
But Ward was under pressure to get his ship into port. The City of Rio de Janeiro was carrying an important passenger: Rounseville Wildman, the U.S. consul general in Hong Kong, traveling with his wife, Letitia, and their two young children. The night before, during dinner at the captain’s table, Wildman and his wife had both complained that the delay had already inconvenienced them.
The man actually in charge of guiding the ship into the harbor was pilot Frederick Jordan, who had come aboard the afternoon before. Jordan had 12 years of experience without a mishap. But as Robert B. Belyk notes in “Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast,” “Jordan and his fellow San Francisco pilots were inclined to underestimate the dangers of their job. The thought of a warm meal at home and the comfort of their own bed was a strong inducement to risk the fog.”
At 4 a.m., the fog lifted slightly. Jordan gave orders to heave anchors. But the fog thickened again, and Jordan reversed his orders. He then left the bridge, probably to confer with Ward, who was in bed. When he returned, he ordered the anchors raised and the engines started. The captain appeared a few minutes later in his nightclothes.
At this moment, either Ward or Jordan could have taken a crucial precaution: They could have ordered depth soundings, which would have informed them if the ship was entering dangerously shallow waters. But taking soundings was time consuming and would have further delayed the voyage. Neither man ordered soundings taken.
The ship moved forward at half-speed on a 6-knot ebb tide, into the enveloping mist and toward the jagged rocks off Fort Point.
At 5:30 a.m., lookout Frederick Lindstrom suddenly saw a white-and-red light looming directly ahead. “I felt my heart stand still,” he recalled. “I knew what was coming.”
Moments later, the City of Rio de Janeiro smashed into the reef. The impact ripped a huge gash in its bottom, and seawater poured in. The ship had only two watertight bulkheads, so the below-decks stern section rapidly filled with water.
Yet the vessel remained upright, balanced precariously on the ledge it had struck. There was little panic among the 210 passengers and crew. In fact, many did not think they were in any danger at all.
The crew was ordered to launch the lifeboats. But in contrast to the officers, nearly the entire 84-member crew was Chinese. Few spoke English, and the process was chaotic — only three of the 11 lifeboats ended up being lowered into the water.
Three minutes after the ship ran aground, the electrical lights below the deck went out. For the steerage passengers, many of whom were Chinese, this created additional confusion. Some never made it to the deck.
After about 20 minutes, Consul Wildman was in a lifeboat, waiting for his wife, who was descending a rope ladder. Pilot Jordan was behind her, holding the couple’s 9-year-old son. The Wildmans’ 2-year-old daughter was on the deck, waiting to descend.
Suddenly the ship gave a violent lurch, slipped off the shelf of rock, slid into the deep water and keeled over. That moment spelled doom for more than half the passengers and crew.
When the ship pitched, Letitia Wildman and her son were hurled off the rope ladder to their deaths. An instant later the ship’s rear mast crashed through the lifeboat where Wildman had been waiting for his family, ripping it in half. The impact was so great observers thought the boat had exploded.
Those aboard the lifeboat who were not killed outright were thrown into the icy water. “I think I shall always hear the shouts of those drowning people in my ears,” a survivor recalled.
Within moments, the City of Rio de Janeiro was gone. Gone as well were 128 souls, including the entire Wildman family, 37 of the 46 steerage passengers and Capt. Ward. It was the deadliest shipwreck ever to take place in or near San Francisco Bay.
Most of the 82 survivors, including pilot Jordan, were rescued by Italian fishermen from North Beach, who were the first to arrive on the scene.
Courts later found that both Ward and Jordan had been grossly negligent in trying to enter the Golden Gate in the fog.
Although the ship sank near shore, all efforts to find it failed. The fate of the wreck of the City of Rio de Janeiro remained one of the Bay Area’s great maritime mysteries until 2014, when a submersible discovered the ship half a mile offshore in 287 feet of water. After 114 years, the last chapter of the worst maritime disaster ever to take place in San Francisco waters had finally been closed.
Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco,” awarded the Northern California Book Award in creative nonfiction. All the material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read earlier Portals of the Past, go to sfchronicle.com/portals. For more features from 150 years of The Chronicle’s archives, go to sfchronicle.com/vault. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The previous trivia question: What San Francisco street runs the longest distance without being intersected?
Answer: Either the Upper Great Highway — an expressway that is uninterrupted for almost two miles, but some don’t count as a street — or States Street below Corona Heights, which is uninterrupted for almost half a mile.
This week’s trivia question: Who was the “Walking Peanut”?
Every corner in San Francisco has an astonishing story to tell. Gary Kamiya’s Portals of the Past tells those lost stories, using a specific location to illuminate San Francisco’s extraordinary history — from the days when giant mammoths wandered through what is now North Beach to the Gold Rush delirium, the dot-com madness and beyond. His column appears every other Saturday, alternating with Peter Hartlaub’s OurSF.
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This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/A-heavy-fog-a-fateful-mistake-How-128-people-13709268.php.