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Shipwrecks in Pacific Waters: 1800s

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SS City of Rio de Janeiro

The SS City of Rio de Janeiro was an iron hulled steam powered passenger ship, launched March 6, 1878, which sailed between San Francisco and various Asian Pacific ports. Beginning in 1881, she was refitted to serve as an ocean liner for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and scheduled for San Francisco to Hawaii, Japan and Hong Kong.

April 3, 1895, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.


Eighteen Vessels Laid Up at Yokohama
Damaged by Storms on the Voyage Out.

The steamer City of Rio de Janeiro arrived from China and Japan at an early hour yesterday morning, appearing little the worse for her collision with the hidden rock off Kagoshima. She was twenty-six days from Hongkong and sixteen from Yokohama.

News by the steamer confirms the loss of the sealing vessel George W. Peabody, but no further particulars of the wreck have been furnished. The crew were on their way to Yokohama when theRio sailed. The vessel, however, is a total wreck. When the Rio left Yokohama, there were no less than eighteen sealers in port, among them being the Mattie T. Dyer, Jane Gray and the Winchester. All the vessels went direct to Japan from San Francisco, and all arrived more or less damaged, the trip across the Pacific having been a tempestuous one. The Winchester had 230 seals.

August 19, 1885, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California

Post Office Matters

The City of Rio de Janeiro, of the Pacific Mail Steamship line, sailed yesterday for Chinese ports without taking the mails, the service not having been tendered by the Post Office authorities owing to the former refusal of the line to carry any mails. The refusal of the Pacific Mail Steamship line to take the Panama mails out on August 1st, has made the matter a square issue, and it is not now expected that any postal service other than that of carrying the Australian mails until the completion of the contract, which expires next November, will be performed by the line. The next mail for Australia will leave on the Zelandia, on the 29th instant. Arrangements which have heretofore been made for carrying the Chinese mails via England and the Suez Canal route, will be continued for the present.

March 15, 1893

Hong Kong to San Francisco, CA 


I, J. Tremaine Smith, Master of the City of Rio de Janeiro do solemnly, sincerely, and truly swear that the following List or Manifest, subscribed by me, and now delivered by me to the Collector of the Customs of the Collection District of San Francisco, is a full and perfect list of all Chinese passengers taken on board the said vessel at Hong Kong from which port said vessel has now arrived, or that have been taken on board the said vessel at any foreign port or place, and of all such passengers now on board said vessel, and that on said List is truly designated the names and other particulars, as shown by their respective certificates. So help me God. (signature) J. Tremaine Smith Sworn to this 16th day of March 1893, before me, (signature) John M Dare, Deputy Collector of Customs Separate List or Manifest of all the Chinese Passengers taken on board the City of Rio de Janeiro whereof J. Tremaine Smith is Master, from Hong Kong, burthen 2275.45 tons Columns represent: Number, No of Certificate*, Name, Age*, Occupation*, Last Place of Residence*, Height*, Complexion*, Color of Eyes*, Physical Marks or Peculiarities and Facts of Identification.

If accredited officers of Chinese Government, state facts.

1 380 Chung Pong, Landed "I.T." Transit List 1973
2 388 Ho Hon, Landed "I.T." Transit List 1974
3 384 Mrs Law Ho, Refused Habeas Corpus USDC Case 10561
4 385 Mrs Chin So Moy, Landed 20-Mar affdt mcht's wife
5 386 Mrs Fong See, Refused Habeas Corpus USDC Case 10560

Wreck of the City of Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles Herald February 25, 1901
Los Angeles Herald, February 25, 1901
Taken for the San Francisco Examiner
Wreck of the City of Rio de Janeiro

The Loss of the City of Rio de Janeiro

On the morning of February 22, 1901, the Pacific Mail Steamer City of Rio de Janeiro was feeling her way through the Golden Gate toward San Francisco in one of California's dense coastal fogs.

Entrance to San Francisco Bay. Albert Bierstadt.

San Francisco. Albert Bierstadt.

They had sailed with a crew that was mostly Chinese. Of the 84 crewmen only two spoke English and Chinese. During the long voyage orders were given by using signs and signals and it seemed to work fairly well. It was known that the ships' equipment and lifeboat launching apparatus were in good working order and should have been able to be lowered in less than five minutes.

Prior to reaching the Golden Gate, one of the crewmen was caught breaking into a cabin and accosting two female passengers. He had been chained below deck for 18 weeks prior to the wreck. The whole time he shouted and cursed at the crew and passengers of the Rio. He promised that everyone aboard would rot on the bottom.

The Rio was inbound from Hong Kong with 227 passengers. Visibility was zero. Captain William Ward paced the bridge as crew stared blindly into a damp, gray void. Shortly after five o'clock, the liner neared the Golden Gate. She was a little too far south on her course when she struck the jagged rocks near Land's End and Fort Point. The blow was devastating. Virtually the entire underside of the vessel had been torn open by the collision and the engine room and cargo holds rapidly flooded.

The ship had been built in 1878, before watertight bulkheads came into use, and sunk in 320 feet (98 m) of water only eight minutes after striking the reef. 200 of her passengers rushed up on deck, while the steamer sank fast amid the wail of her whistle and the sound of escaping steam. Passengers fought for a seat in the lifeboats, only to overcrowd and sink the boats. Fist fights broke out over life jackets.

The wreck was so sudden that the lookout at the Fort Point Lifesaving Station, only a few hundred yards away, was completely unaware of the situation for two hours when a lifeboat was sighted emerging from a fog bank. Rescue boats were dispatched but only a few survivors were found, clinging to wreckage.

Captain ward issued orders calmly to try to prevent panic from setting in.

The lights flickered out as the power sources went dead. Using lanterns the stewards went below to warn passengers and to get them up to the lifeboats. Many of the passengers stubbornly stayed in their cabins gathering valuables. The passengers failed to realize the gravity of the situation. Of the 11 lifeboats only three managed to get lowered and two of those, lowered improperly, were submerged. One boat got off.

When she sank, the boilers exploded below and debris started popping up everywhere. Luggage, sofas, chairs, and clothes littered the ocean. The ebb tide started sweeping everything in its path to the open sea. People desperately tried to swim, but in the fog many simply swam the wrong way and drowned. A number of Italian fishermen in the area, hearing the ships calls, came through the fog and assisted in minimizing the death toll. In less than 18 minutes, she was inundated by the Pacific's frigid waters.

At final count, only 81 people survived; 129 had perished, among them the Captain, who had gone down with his ship. His headless body was found washed up on the shore near Baker's Beach on July 12, 1902. He was identified by the numbers on a watch he was wearing and which was purchased from a local jeweler.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, reports of quantities of gold and silver estimated as high as $3 million were reputed to have been lost with the liner, yet her manifests listed no treasure.

February 23, 1901, Woodland Daily Democrat, Woodland, California, U.S.A.


Wreck of Steamship Rio de Janeiro Near Fort Point

Loss of Life Terrible -- Russell Harper Rescued With One Leg Broken and Otherwise Injured.

The Pacific Mail steamship Rio de Janeiro ran on a hidden rock while entering Golden Gate early Friday morning in a dense fog. She sank a few minutes after striking the rock.

Ships.The American Consul.The most prominent passenger on the vessel was Rounseville Wildman, United States consul at Hongkong, who was accompanied by his wife and two children. It is thought all were drowned.

The ship was in command of Pilot Frederick Jordan when she struck. He was rescued. Captain Ward went down with his vessel.

As nearly as can be learned there were 201 people on board the Rio de Janeiro, as follows: Cabin passengers 29; second cabin, 7; steerage (Chinese and Japanese), 68; white officers, 30; Asiatic crew, 77.

The saved number 79, classed as follows: Cabin passengers, 12; white officers, 11, steerage (Asiatics), 15; crew (Chinese), 41.

The lost number 122, classed as follows: Passengers, 24; officers, 19; crew (Chinese) 36; steerage (Asiatic), 48.

Passengers drowned on the SS Rio de Janeiro.

(January 2013: Full List Has Not Been Located)

From the Los Angeles Herald, February 25, 1901

Passengers Drowned (in order from above)
Miss Rowena Jehn
Mrs. Sarah W. Wakefield
Mrs. Wildman and Daughter
Miss Naomi Wakefield
Mrs. Dormann, Stewardess

Additional images are in the February 25, 1901 San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California

Passenger saved from the SS Rio de Janeiro.Passenger Saved
J. K. Carpenter, Mining Expert of Oakland, California

The ship was three days overdue from Hongkong, via Honolulu, when she arrived off the heads Thursday night. The density of the fog prevailing at the time induced Pilot Jordan to bring her to anchor until he could see his way clear through the gateway. She laid to until about 4:30 o'clock, when the atmosphere cleared, and she was started under a slow bell toward Point Bonita. All went well until 5:40, when she struck. Most of the passengers were below at the time, and it is believed that many of them were drowned in their berths.

From all accounts it appears that the officers were cool and gave the necessary orders with the least excitement possible. Captain Ward, who was on the deck when the vessel struck, at once gave orders to the crew on watch to hustle the passengers on to the forward deck. At the same time the quartermaster on duty pounded the signal for fire drill, and within five minutes all the men were at their stations. There was no way of telling the extent of the damage to the vessel, as she remained on an even keel for fifteen minutes after striking the rock. But Captain Ward, with the instinct of long experience, knew that the gravest danger threatened the 200 souls in his barge, and, pacing the deck, gave order to lower away the lifeboats and life rafts.

There was not much confusion until fifteen minutes after striking, the bow of the vessel suddenly plunged under water. Then there was a wild rush for the boats. Two boats had already been lowered, and others were getting away as rapidly as the trained discipline of the crew could prepare them. A thick fog enveloped everything, and as yet no sign had come from the life-saving station. Darkness was all about, and with this added horror the people on the Riohad to cope.

A number of Italian fishermen, who were just starting out yesterday morning, saw the sinking of the Rio, and at once hastened to render every assistance in their power.

That the steamer sank almost immediately after striking is the report of a majority of those who were aboard. Some of the passengers say that she instantly listed forward, and that in five minutes she went down, while others declare that she stayed afloat at least half an hour after she struck.

There an several conflicting stories concerning the fate of Captain Ward. The steward of the Rio says that he stood beside the captain when the vessel went down. Two other survivors say that they also saw the captain, but Frederick Lindstrom, the quartermaster officer of the Rio, emphatically declared that Captain Ward enclosed Admiral Tyron of her British Majesty's ship Victoria in going down to his cabin, where he met his doom behind a locked door.

Among the passengers who were rescued was Russell Harper, formerly of Woodland, a son of Mrs. D. McPhee, and a nephew of Mrs. W. W. Brewmall, W.E., T.R. and O.A. Lowe. William Brander of London was thrown into the water, sank and rose again and was rescued. Concerning Mr. Harper, he said:

"When I found myself in the water, I was compelled to force my way through the shroud. I finally reached the surface and saw people swimming near me among a lot of wreckage. Among those I recognized Russell Harper, a journalist of Nagasaki, who called out to me that both his legs were broken. I lost sight of him for a time but was told that he was picked up and taken ashore to the hospital."

A San Francisco dispatch of Friday night says: "The parents of Russell Harper, of Honolulu, live in this city. Harper sustained a broken leg and several body bruises, and his condition is critical."

As soon as the news reached this city, 0. A. Lowe telephoned to Mr. McPhee for particulars. Mr. McPhee replied that Mr. Harper is in the hospital and there are strong hopes that he will pull through. One leg is broken, his ribs caved in and he is otherwise badly bruised.

The Call of today has the following additional particulars concerning young Harper's injuries:

"Russell Harper, a newspaper correspondent from Honolulu, was picked up two hours alter the wreck by Italian fishermen, who brought him ashore near the Presidio reservation. Although badly injured and suffering from long exposure in the water, Harper still retained consciousness. He talked cheerfully with his rescuers and said that he had about given up all hope when they found him. The fishermen sent word to the Presidio hospital that they had rescued an injured man and that medical aid was immediately required. Dr. Lowell, Steward Keeler and W. O. Henrichs of the hospital corps called out the ambulance and fifteen minutes later were at Harper's side. After giving him all surgical aid possible under the circumstances, they removed him at his request to the Lane Hospital. Harper had his relatives who live at the corner of Washington and Buchanan streets, notified, and they were soon at his bedside. Dr. Wemple, who has charge of the patient, refused to allow him to be seen.

"Harper is in a bad condition," said Dr. Wemple yesterday, "and he must be kept quiet for the next two or three days. I have forbidden the hospital attendants allow any any one in his room. It seems hard to be forced to keep his mother from his side, but his condition is such that unless he enjoys perfect quiet for sometime to come, there is no telling what may be the result. Harper is suffering from a compound fracture of the right leg and in addition is badly bruised about the body and head. He does not seem to realize his condition. He talks wildly of the wreck and becomes so excited that there is danger of collapse. Rest and quiet are what he now most requires."

"Did he talk with you concerning the wreck?" was asked.

"In an incoherent way," replied Dr. Wemple. "He kept mumbling something about the ship's officers not attempting to launch the life boats until after the waves were washing over the deck. Then he commenced calling out for some one to cling to the plank and not give up in despair. 'I am going to hold on, for I don't want to die. I want to get home once more,' he kept repeating. "I experienced considerable difficulty in quieting him," said Dr. Wemple in conclusion, "and under no circumstances will I allow him to be disturbed."

The Fort Point life saving crew was out drilling at 7:16 o'clock when the fishing boat with the first of the survivors passed in and reported the wreck. The rescued people were taken ashore to the life saving station and the crew started out to the wreck, but there was nothing to be found.

The south side crew was on the scene about three-quarters of an hour later, and its captain was of the opinion that all the wreckage pointed to the fact that the Rio had been blown up after sinking. All the woodwork is splintered, and other details known to seafaring too numerous to be discussed support this theory.

There is a difference of opinion as to who is responsible for the disaster. There is in the service of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company a standing order to every captain employed by that corporation not to leave a harbor nor to enter on in the fog. Captain Ward disobeyed that order. There is also a principle that when a pilot steps on board a vessel he is absolutely master of the ship and can be swayed in no possible way by any order or suggestion of the master of the ship. Captain Jordan violated that principle.

Officials of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company declare that the responsibility must rest wholly upon the unfortunate captain who went down with his ship. It is claimed that a pilot is employed solely for the purpose of acting in an advisory capacity and that he does not take command of the ship. He is to act solely in suggestion and to warn the commander of the incoming vessel if anything unusual has happened in the harbor since he left. If this be the habit of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company it is in violation of a universal custom at this port.

At 7:40 o'clock In the morning Captain Ward and Pilot Jordan would have entered the Golden Gate in absolute safety. They risked the attempt two hours earlier and 122 human lives paid for their hazard.

City of Rio de Janeiro Sinking.

Sinking into thirty fathoms of water, an eighth of a mile southwest of the Fort Point buoy.

February 24, 1901, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California


Detectives Sent Out in a Tug With Orders to 
Arrest All Persons Suspected of Robbing Baggage.

Complaints having been received by the police that men in boats were seizing and rifling baggage belonging to passengers of the ill-fated steamer Rio de Janeiro. Acting Chief Seymour, yesterday, hired the tug Amy and detailed Detectives Ed Gibson and Ross, to patrol the bay in her. They were, instructed to seize any baggage found floating in the bay and to arrest all boatmen discovered with baggage in their possession that had been tampered with.

"We have for years," said Captain Seymour yesterday, "been urging upon the Board of Supervisors the urgent necessity of providing the department with a police patrol boat the same as in New York and other coast cities in the East have, but without effect. In a seaport like this where we are-constantly being notified of criminals arriving or departing on vessels to and from the Orient and Australia the necessity of a police patrol boat is only too apparent.

"Take the case of the Rio de Janeiro as an illustration of the benefit to be derived from such a boat., The news of the wreck was telephoned to the Central Police station at half-past 7 o'clock yesterday morning. If we had been possession of a police patrol boat we could have sent a number of men to the scene of the wreck in her and many valuable lives might have been saved. The newspapers should take this matter up and insist upon a patrol boat being provided for the use of the Police Department."

February 23, 1901, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California

Editor's Note: Extensive coverage is available in the February 23, 1901 San Francisco Call: stories from passengers, details of the sinking and rescues and images.


Brander William, London, capitalist
Carpenter, J. K., Oakland, capitalist
Hecht, Captain, German Navy
Harper, Russell, correspondent, from Kobe
Holtz, K. Shanghai
Long, R. H., from Honolulu
Lehrahen, Miss G., joined at Honolulu
Iwada, J. from Honolulu
Nusenbaum, Mr., joined at Honolulu
Mussenblatt, Philip, Oakland
Ripley, Mrs. Frances, joined at Honolulu
West, Mrs. K., nurse, from Hongkong
Officers and Crew of the Rio de Janeiro
Borge, E. N., storekeeper
Coghlan, G., second officer
Donahue, H., steerage steward
Englehardt, E. J., freight clerk
Herlihy, P.J., chief engineer
Lenn, D., water-tender
Lindstrom, ?, quartermaster
Mathison, ?, quartermaster
O'Neill, A. A., surgeon
Russell, C., main-deck watchman
Tramp, Frank, carpenter.
Steerage Chinese and Japanese - 15
Chinese Crew - 4
The Dead
Caspar, William, Honolulu
Dodd, Dr. A. W., Honolulu, dentist
Dowdall, Charles, Shanghai
Fong Cheong, Honolulu, student enroute to Europe
Gussing, A. Honolulu
Guyon, Henry, Honolulu
Henshall, W. A., Honolulu, lawyer, married to one of the Afong girls
Hart, A., and wife, Shanghai, merchant
Hawley, E. C., joined at Honolulu
Jacox, Charles E., Honolulu
Jehu, Miss R. of Alameda 
Kawahara, O., and wife, Honolulu 
Matheson, H. C. Yokohama, merchant 
Reidy, Miss Kate, nurse to Wildman party
Seymour, H. F., Hongkong 
Wakefield, Mrs. S. B. and daughter Naomi of Oakland 
Woodworth, Mrs. W. A., Honolulu 
Woodworth, Miss, Honolulu 
Wildman, Rounsevelle, Consul General, United States, Hongkong, wife and two children
Officers and Crew of the Rio de Janeiro
Captain William Ward
First Officer J. C. Johnson
Purser John Rooney
Third Officer C. J. Holland
Quartermaster Domanic
Quartermaster Brighton
First Assistant Engineer R. J. Maccoun
Second Assistant Engineer T. H. Brady
Third Assistant Engineer W. A. Munroe
Water-tender, J. Smith
Water-tender, H. Lewis
Olier F. Greenway
Oiler H. Watts
Oiler W.Smith
Stewart H. A. Scott
Stewardess Mrs. J. C. Dorman
Butcher Edward Barwick
Saloon Watchman Albert Malcolm
Steerage Watchman McArthur
Chinese crew, names not known


Takata and wife, Sakurai, Odi, F. Sito, W. Sawaji, Z. Yamada, T. Kawamura, Mrs. Dika Hamasoke, Miss Hokiaseki, Miss Hemaseki, Senijiro Tamaura, Asiatic Steerage passengers names not known-31.

  # on Board Lost Saved
Cabin passengers 29 19 10
Second Class 7 5 2
Asiatic steerage 58 43 15
Ship's officers 30 19 11
TOTAL 201 122 79

The following passengers who started on the Rio de Janeiro from various Asiatic points left her at Honolulu on stopover tickets: H. S. Olcott from Yokohama, Mr. Heiza from Shanghai, Edward Secretan from Shanghai, W. M. Castle and wife from Hongkong, W. Close from Hongkong, Mrs. C. K. McIntosh from Hongkong, L. Harn from Shanghai.

Headlines and stories regarding the sinking of the Rio de Janeiro include:

  • February 25, 1901, San Francisco Call (illustrations)
  • March 23, 1901, San Francisco Call: Will Appraise Wreck of Rio
  • May 9, 1901, San Francisco Call: Chinese Testimony Is Offered
  • June 14, 1901: San Francisco Call: Pilot Jordan Sued for a Large Sum
  • November 21, 1901, San Francisco CallRio de Janeiro Libel Case
  • February 6, 1902, San Francisco Call: More Rio de Janeiro Claims
  • November 26, 1902, San Francisco CallRio de Janeiro Wreck Considered in Court
  • November 15, 1905, Los Angeles Herald: Find Wreck of Rio

Divers who have been searching for the remains or tho Pacific Mall steamship Rio de Janeiro, which was wrecked in the entrance to the harbor several years ago, announced today the success of their quest. It is asserted that there is no doubt of the identity of the wreckage found. One diver had a narrow escape from death during his exploration of the bottom of the Golden Gate.

All captains sailing in and out of San Francisco Bay are subject to some of the most dramatic tidal action in the world, along with fogs so dense it's impossible to see even a few feet ahead. The action of the daily tides through the Golden Gate are generally a more important process in San Francisco Bay than the action of waves. Twice each day the level of the ocean rises and falls with the changing tidal cycle.

Along open-ocean beaches, the changing tide is a simple rising and falling of the water level. In the Bay, however, the rising and falling water must all enter through the narrow opening at the Golden Gate, where strong tidal currents are generated. Each day, an enormous volume of saltwater moves in and out of the estuary with each tidal cycle.

This quantity is known as the tidal prism and is equal to nearly one-fourth of the Bay's total volume and the power of that moving water presents a navigational challenge to any water-borne vessels.

Searoutes. Map from MisfitsAndHeroes.com.

Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific CoastPacific waters.Shipwrecks.Great Shipwrecks in Pacific Waters.
Author Robert Belyk examines ten significant maritime disasters that occurred during one of the most turbulent eras in the history of travel. Real-life drama endured by those caught in the terrifying midst of disaster at sea and the causes behind the tragedies. Well researched, the shipwrecks accounted for here include:

  • 1854: the Yankee Blade runs aground. Twenty-eight passengers lose their lives.
  • In 1865, only 19 of the 204 passengers and crew on board survived the wreck of the Brother Jonathan, whose owners had been more concerned with maximum profitability than with the safety of their passengers.
  • 1875: The old side-wheeler Pacific rams another passenger ship off the coast of Cape Flattery, Washington. Two hundred and seventy-seven people perish when her rotting hull gives way.
  • 1906: The Valencia strikes a reef off the Washington coastline. Before dozens of dazed onlookers on the shore, the ship goes down taking 117 passengers and crew with her.
  • 1907: The Columbia disappeared under the ocean surface in just eight minutes after ramming another passenger ship. Her poorly maintained iron hull simply gave out, leading to the deaths of 87 passengers.

Organization of American Historians.
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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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