SS City of Rio de Janeiro

Jan 16, 2015, 7:00AM EST
SS City of Rio de Janeiro
Its 1901 sinking was one of San Francisco’s worst maritime disasters

 The steamship City of Rio de Janeiro, which sported a barquentine rig, was built in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1878 to serve the United States & Brazil Mail Steamship Company carrying mail, cargo, and some passengers between the United States and Brazil.  The company went out of business in 1881 and the ship was acquired by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.  Refitted to carry more passengers, the ship operated between its new homeport of San Francisco and various Pacific ports, including Honolulu, Yokohama, and Hong Kong.  With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and the subsequent guerilla uprising in the Philippines, the federal government temporarily leased City of Rio de Janeiro for use as a troopship, but it soon returned to commercial service.  In February 1901, it was returning to San Francisco from Hong Kong.  On board were 220 passengers and crew, including Chinese and Japanese immigrants and Rounsevelle Wildman, the US Consul General at Hong Kong, with his wife and two children.  Attempting to enter the Golden Gate in heavy fog on 21 February 1901, the ship struck a rock shelf just west of the present-day Golden Gate Bridge, ripping open a large portion of its bottom.  The ship rapidly filled with water, sinking in approximately eight minutes.  It should be noted that City of Rio de Janeiro was built before watertight bulkheads were mandated.  Only 85 persons survived, most by clinging to debris.  Fog was so thick, that watchstanders at the Fort Point Lifesaving Station just inside the Golden Gate were unaware of the disaster for hours.  Fortunately, local fishermen spotted the debris and rescued those they could.  The US Consul General and his family were not among the survivors; neither was Captain Ward, the master, whose body washed ashore the following year.  There were rumors that the ship carried a cargo of silver ingots, but the manifest showed these to be slabs of tin, each weighing 107 pounds.  Over the years, there were a number of attempts to find and salvage the wreck, but all were defeated by the strong currents and the deep water.  Recently, though, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that, using a high-powered remotely operated vehicle and sophisticated sonar, it located and imaged the wreck west of the bridge in 287 feet of water, covered in mud and inside the shipping channel.  There are no plans to undertake salvage.

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