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Shipwrecks in Pacific Waters: 1800s

North Pacific Ocean Antique Map.

SS Tennessee

Builder: William H. Webb, New York, 1848. Engine: Side-lever by Novelty Iron Works. Launch: October 25, 1848. Original Owner: Savannah Steam Navigation Company. 1,275 tons (one source cites 1,194-tons, which may be the second Tennessee built in 1853 for J. Hooper.), 211 feet. Wooden side-wheel steamer, 2 decks, 3 masts. Accommodations for 200, enlarged in 1849 to carry 200 cabin and 350 steerage.

The SS Tennessee was initially to run weekly service between New York and Savannah, but she was bought by Howland & Aspinwall/Pacific Mail Steamship Company for the California trade. The Tennessee was the first American steamship whose service was interrupted to be used in the Panama run. She was provisioned for a Pacific voyage by way of the Straits of Magellan and on her first run, because of storms, she carried only 15 passenger, passing the equator on December 23, 1849. When she reached Panama on March 12, 1850 after 57 days at sea from New York, she was met by 3,000 people waiting for passage to San Francisco.

She brought thousands of gold-seekers to the City before sinking just outside of San Francisco's fog-shrouded headlands on March 6, 1853 in an area which is now named Tennessee Cove in her honor. Her passengers, mail and baggage were saved, but she was a total loss. She is but one of dozens of shipwrecks located near the Golden Gate.

Other ships include The Lewis (1849), City of Chester (1888), City of New York (1893), and the City of Rio de Janeiro (1901).

Arrive San Francisco

March 6, 1853
SS Tennessee: Wrecked! 


March 9, 1853, Daily Alta California, San Francisco


The steamers Thomas Hunt and Goliah came up from the wreck of the ship Tennessee yesterday afternoon, and report the ship as having bilged and is now full of water. Her machinery may possibly be saved, but the hull will be a total loss, as she appears to have a broken back.

Total Loss of the P.M. Steamer Tennessee

Meeting of the Passengers.

Owing to the smoothness of the ocean on the beach the Tennessee had not been strained but a little up to Monday night. Steam was got upon her and the pumps were worked by the engine, which freed her of the little water she made in a few minutes. During the night the rollers came in heavily on the beach, lifting the ship up from four to five feet and thumping her heavily on the sand as they ran back. When morning dawned it was soon discovered that she was much out of shape, her back broken, butt ends started and bottom probably bilged; she was then making a great deal of water; her connecting pipes were all broken, rendering the engines entirely useless. The sea did not fall, and at 9 A.M., the tide flowed and ebbed into her.

The steamers Goliah and Thomas Hunt were both on the ground a little after daylight, provided with every appliance to haul her off; but it was soon found to be a vain effort, and the attempt was abandoned.

All hands were then put to work discharging the goods, stores, &c., most of which were landed by 2 P.M. The swell was too heavy to allow of embarking them yesterday, but as soon as it smooths down they will be despatched ot the city. The hope of saving the ship seems abandoned.

Captains Totten, Mellus, and others were on the ground, doing every thing that practical knowledge and experience could suggest for the relief of the ship. Her officers and crew feel as if they were at tending the funeral obsequies of a dear and valued friend. She was a favorite craft and one of the best sea boats that plowed the Pacific ocean. She was the home, the pride and refuge of her officers and crew, and many a tear as salt as the brine that surrounds her shattered hull has coursed unbidden from manly eyes and sprung up involuntarily from the bold and courageous hearts of those whose pride and delight she was, as they have gazed on the last resting place of the gallant Tennessee

The sympathies of the public have been much excited by this event, not only on account of the loss that the P.M.S. Company must sustain - the first of this nature that has ever occurred in their career - but more particularly for the sake of Capt. Mellus, who was in command of the ship.

We feel the greatest pleasure and satisfaction in appending the following kindly tribute of generous sympathy for his misfortunate and testimonial of his skill, courage and courteous deportment, that has been tendered him by his passengers in the ill-fated Tennessee.

At a meeting of the passengers of the steamship Tennessee, stranded near the entrance of the Harbor in San Francisco, the following gentlemen were chosen as officers:

PRESIDENT: Gov. Peter S. Ogden, of Oregon

VICE PRESIDENTS: Hon. O. C. Pratt, Oregon; Judge Peter Lott, Oregon; J.L. Burton, Gl Belden, F.T. Low, J.D. Whelsey, Alfred DeWitt, San Francisco; H.C. Penniman, St. Louis; Dr. John W. Reins, Marysville, Cal.; G.L. Harison, New York; E.A. Pollard, Va.; Chas T. Miller, Baltimore; Rev. Edward Kennedy, Pennsylvania.

SECRETARY, Thomas Gihon

Whereas, the steamship Tennessee has, on this 6th day of March, gone ashore near the entrance to San Francisco Bay in a dense fog, under circumstances beyond the control of her officers, and whereas her passengers, to the number of five hundred and twenty, are all landed with their baggage, together with the United States mail, and whereas the passengers are desirous that justice shall be done in placing Capt. E. Mellus and his officers in a proper position before the public, and also the Company in whose employ they have so faithfully served, it is therefore,

Resolved, That in our opinion the disaster is in no way attributable to any want of skill, or prudence in seamanship, or vigilant foresight, which could have averted so sad a result, but that on the contrary we know and do not hesitate to say, that Capt. Mellus has manifested a zeal and strict attention in everything pertaining to the management of the ship, and the safety of all on board of her, which is on the highest degree praiseworthy, and that both to the company and the public, we are gratified to commend him for his noble and gentlemanly conduct, particularly on that occasion, as well as during our passage from Panama.

Resolved, That under the circumstances in which theTennessee is stranded, we do not believe it possible such a number of passengers, including many females and children, could have been more safely and expeditiously landed and cared for, without the loss of a single life or the slightest injury to either person or property of any individual on board, all of which we ascribe to the coolness, good judgment and entire competency of Capt. Mellus, his officers and crew.

Resolved, That the San Francisco papers be requested to publish this expression, since it is not intended as an ordinary compliment, but prompted solely by a sense of duty to Capt. Mellus and his officers, and from a settled conviction of Justice.

March 9, 1853, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

Complimentary Card.-- We, passengers by the steamer Tennessee, do hereby present our compliments to Mr. George Robbins, Boatswain up on said vessel, for his activity, energy, and gentlemanly conduct as an officer, and also for his untiring exertions in securing the landing of passengers, baggage, and mail from the boat to the beach where she stranded.

Stephen D. Burnett A.W. Carwood
John W. Wood W. Wood
James Ryte Israel D. Wood
Andre Ray John Wood
Harrison Ray Peter A. Vanderhoof
Minard Wood J.H. Johnson
Joseph Masters Israel Fairchild
Adam Long I.T. Barrett
Hugh Cox Jas. D. Taylor
John Nickerson E. Parker
J. Winant A.G. Hurlbutt
James Wagbom William Pearce
J.V. Decker Reuben Pearce
G.W. Arnett Edward Holland
Peter Wagbom Oscar Schmoldt
Jacob Keyser Geo W. House
J. Van Schorck F. Woodbury
Elisha S. Heath Chas. F. Dowin
Abraham Waglem C.S. Clark
Chris Huger H. Maiz
Bazin Wood D. Sherwood
Henry Ruggs T. Burmester
John A. Barnett C.M. Miller
David G. Royce James O. Gwin
John V. Vanderhoff John O. Gwin
Mahlon Spear Albert Greer
Abner Williams H.B. Pierce
E.C. Smith

More on the Wreck and Passenger List.

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.e Organization of American Historians. Benefitting from hundreds of primary sources, dozens of captivating images and reflective of the latest trends in the field.


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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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