In the early morning of February 22, 1901, a steamship waited off the coast of San Francisco for the fog to clear. The S.S. City of Rio de Janeiro was nearly at the end of yet another Pacific voyage to Honolulu, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, and was heading into its home port in the San Francisco Bay three days past schedule. The ship was under the command of Capt. William Ward, a capable and experienced officer, until the night before when San Francisco Bar Pilot Fred Jordan came on board to guide the ship through the Golden Gate and into port.
At 5 a.m. the fog began to clear and the order was given to raise anchor. Jordan began the precarious job of guiding the City of Rio de Janeiro through the half-mile opening into the S.F. Bay. Within minutes, fog enveloped the ship once again but Jordan continued on. Suddenly, there was a crash and a jolt—the ship had hit a rock near Fort Point and torn open its iron hull. Within 10 minutes it filled with water and went under, taking 128 of its 210 passengers and crew to their deaths in the frigid waters.
The sinking of the S.S. City of Rio de Janeiro remains the worst maritime loss of life on the West Coast. It led to profound changes in maritime safety and also became the subject of a persistent treasure myth. But more intriguing is how it actually happened. Who gave the fateful order that led the City of Rio de Janeiro to its doom? And who ultimately is responsible for the loss of 128 lives? Was it the captain, anxious to complete his overdue voyage and see his waiting fiancé, who instead went down with the ship? Or the bar pilot, who somehow managed to survive the disaster? What part did the communication problems of the English-speaking officers and Chinese-speaking crew play? Why was the distress signal not heard—or was it just ignored? And is there any truth to the myth of the cargo-hold full of silver—or was it really just tin?
After more than a century of searching, the wreckage of the S.S City of Rio de Janeiro was finally located in 2014 using state-of-the-art sonar technology. It lies 287 feet beneath the waves, encased in mud in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Raising the remains of the ship are currently impossible, but the Rio's mysteries live on.
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