Search for Steamer San Rafael

Latest update May 22, 2015 Started on November 30, 2014

The San Rafael was a 67m-long sidewheel steamship built in 1878 that sank near Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay shortly after colliding with the Steamer Saucelito on November 30th 1901. The exact location of the sunken ship was not recorded, and despite being in relatively shallow water that boaters pass over every day she has never been found.

November 30, 2014
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In January, I submitted a request to the National Park Service San Francisco Maritime Museum for the logs of the SS MATSONIA from July 1921. It was a bit of a longshot, but they were able to locate them and send a copy to us.

Contrary to what the newspapers said, she did not sit at anchor for the typical quarantine, but she came in late on the night of 5 July '21, anchored and then pulled up anchor on 6 July and with help from the tugs made it to the Ferry building terminal.

What was better, was we had a location where she anchored and a first hand account of pulling up the San Rafael's walking beam. The two entries read as follows:

"5 July 11:07 [P.M.]: Alcatraz light bore 333°, Lime Pt bore 260°, Fort Pt. bore 240°, shipshead 183° P.S.C." (P.S.C stands for "Per Standard Compass)

"6 July 8:56 [A.M.]: Anchor aweigh, foul of wreckage of S/S San Rafael"

Gary crunched the numbers factoring in magnetic variation for 1921 and we got two points within 400ft of each other. As you can see from the picture, the wreck was dragged from where she was first located (orange square) to a position between the two fixes (yellow pushpins).

Our final conclusion is that the wreck lies within the disposal area and since 1921 has been covered over by several tons of debris. It's a modern twist to a 100 year old mystery. Although the active search was unsuccessful, by doing our research we were able to determine the wreck's final location with high accuracy and confidence.


Nice Sleuthing, bummer about the outcome. Perhaps we can use this story to prevent future dumping on wreck sites in SF Bay and other ports. Miami is still doing a lot of dredging, and I know for a fact that there are hundreds of wrecks just outside the mouth of Government Cut.

Great work Kevin

Finding wrecks is all about the work you do before getting on the water

Some nice alternative sources of information

Even though we had a reasonable search area, I still wanted to follow up on the MATSONIA lead. As you will recall, the MATSONIA was the last ship to locate here whereabouts with hard evidence by pulling up the walking beam from her engine.

Here is the SS MATSONIA's information:

I found a article from a periodical "Facts About Sugar; Volume XIII July 2 to December 31, 1921". Nothing really new here , but it kept reiterating the fact that she was at a quarantine anchorage, NOT Quarantine Station on Angel Island.

I did some more digging and turned up the "UNITED STATES COAST PILOT; PACIFIC COAST: CALIFORNIA, OREGON, AND WASHINGTON" from 1909. On page 71, it says the quarantine anchorage is the following: "The quarantine anchorage is the area included between Black Point and Powell Street wharf, thence to Alcatraz Island, thence westward to a point 1 mile northwestward from Black Point, thence to Black Point." I drew the box in my picture, "SF Bay Quarantine Anchorage"

I plotted these points in the red polygon attached below. The wreck had to have been located somewhere in this red polygon. It was also at this point that Eric and the OpenROV team went out and conducted their first search of the area based on the information we had obtained.

Although the team was unable to find anything that resembled a shipwreck on the side scan sonar, they were able to find a target that appeared man made and would require another inspection.


After Eric returned from the Marin History Museum Archives, he shared what he found and we were able to pull out a few details relating to the San Rafael's possible location.

From the periodical The Northwesterner, "Sinking of the Ferry San Rafael", we found the following:

“For twenty years no one knew where the San Rafael sank, till some ten years or so ago up came the walking beam of the San Rafael, on the hook of the anchor of one of the Matson boats which had anchored prior to passing inspection, just about on a line between the Golden Gate and Alcatraz possibly about two-thirds of the way out to the Island. This walking beam is, or a few years ago, down at Second and Bryant Streets, back in a vacant lot, in apparently a pretty good state of preservation.”

“The Matson Navigation Co.’s S.S. Matsonia I caught the San Rafael’s walking beam in 1921.

"The outgoing tide apparently caused the San Rafael to drift southwesterly to a point about halfway between Alcatraz Island and Black Point (off Fort Mason) and she settled at the bottom of the bay about sixteen fathoms deep.”

“As of this writing the writer has no knowledge of the whereabouts of this relic from the San Rafael.”

Our Analysis: The wreck is supposedly half-way between Alcatraz Island and Black Point (Fort Mason, still a known location). It also gives us a depth of 16 fathoms, or 96 feet.

We also know that on that night, it was a strong ebb tide (outgoing) so it would have pushed the ship to the west of the collision point. This coincides with the diagrams and written accounts.

The walking beam was successfully recovered and was placed in a vacant lot. This item is now lost. It is unknown if any other larger pieces were brought up.

With the hard research in hand, we were able to come up with a very reasonable chronology of events after the sinking:

November 30, 1901- Steam Ferry San Rafael sinks somewhere south of Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay.

December 14, 1901- The wreck of the San Rafael is located by Henry Rogers of the California Wrecking Company. The description given is "It lies in twenty fathoms, or 120 feet, of water about three-eighths of a mile due south of the light on Alcatraz Island, on a line between the light and the gas works at the foot of Hyde Street."

Sometime after December 14, 1901- "Divers placed cables around the hull and used two tugs to pull it to 16 fathoms. However, a few days later, owners elected not to proceed with the salvage effort and the wreck was abandoned."

July 1921- Matsonia I caught the San Rafael’s walking beam upon weighing anchor somewhere around Alcatraz Island.


Next, Gary searched through the archives of the San Francisco Chronicle and discovered an article dated December 14, 1901 reporting the location of the SAN RAFAEL.

The headline reads "WRECK OF THE SAN RAFAEL FOUND."

the article tells how a diver named Henry Rogers from the California Wrecking company discovered the wreck and its whereabouts for salvage:

"It lies in twenty fathoms, or 120 feet, of water about three-eighths of a mile due south of the light on Alcatraz Island, on a line between the light and the gas works at the foot of Hyde street."

With this information, Gary was then able to plot the location overlaid with our multibeam data. The bad news was this plotted location was right in the middle of the disposal site and meant the wreck was buried under several tons of debris. Newspapers, however, get things wrong so we kept looking...


Now that the initial search is over and our research has pointed us to the SS San Rafael's final location, we can tell all about the research adventure that happened in the background.

When Eric first mentioned the possibility of finding this wreck, Gary Fabian and I both went diving into the books (No, not everything is on the internet!) and came up with some interesting information.

From Don B. Marshall's "California Shipwrecks" written in 1979, page 79 had this to say:

steamship, side wheel ferry, Capt. McKenzie.
She collided with the SAUSALITO in fog in San
Francisco Bay...sank in 15 minutes near Alcatraz
Island. In July of 1921, MATSONIA's anchor
pulled up wreckage from the SAN RAFAEL. The
hulk was dragged to the dock at the quarantine
station, where it was salvaged out by the Haverside
Wrecking Co.

(on the bottom of the next page)
*re-floated or partially salvaged

We could find no mention of the Haverside Wrecking Company so it was a bit of a dead end. However, the part about the MATSONIA seemed interesting.


Here's a video from our day on the SF Bay with the Starfish sonar.


Great video guys! Glad to see the excitement of finding something new.

Wow, thanks for bringing us along David. I can't wait to see the next video!

Great video! Next time we do this I think we need a drone though to record footage from above. Then we can combine aerial, onboard, and under water footage in one video :)

Nice watch the adventure, it's exciting to see it all.

Driving the ROV. Video to follow tonight. No luck yet. Poke and hope. Strong current.


I'm excited to see what shows up in the video. I'll be interested in seeing how you deal with the current too. The waters around the ship we're working on can often get a bit rough.

I'm very curious what you find.

About to dive with the OpenROV


Getting Walt's OpenROV ready for a dive.


Promising sonar images from Site 2.


Nice! Can you post a link to the way sidescan sonar data. I would like to try playing with it!

Oh my! Yes! Thought you would find something!

Great looking image the target looks like it has some height and some fish in the water column at the top of the screen (always a great hint for a wreck)

Maybe a slower pass or a depressor weight on the towfish or a 2 part tow system guessing the range is set to 50m? in ideal world you would want the fish say 5-7m off the bottom

Either way a good looking target

Right now we're using the stock cable on the Starfish 452, which is only 20m long- so we can't get the towfish all that deep. At some point we may try adding some weights to try to fly the fish a bit deeper, but that will have to wait for a future day.


Over Site 2 right now. (You can vaguely see Alcatraz in the background.)


Any update on the quality of the side scan data?

Side scan data has been great. We're getting the hang of it.

If you are going to play around a bit with Side scan sonar can't recommend highly enough Sound Reflections, by John Perry Fish and H. Arnold Carr A great teaching book full of pictures to understand what you are see on the screen

NSWwrecks- thanks for the tip on reference materials for interpreting sidescan images. I just scored a used copy of the earlier Fish/Carr book "Sound underwater Images" on Amazon for ~$60. Books like these are crazy expensive, but I guess that's part of the cost of doing business. Right now I have the book "Echoes and Images" by Atherton, and a training DVD on sonar images by Black Laser Learning, but have learned mostly by spending hours towing the fish in the shallows of Tahoe, watching stuff go by the boat and then seeing what it looks like in the sonar returns. There's always something new to learn, and I'm looking forward to digesting this new book before we head out again.


Here's the setup for viewing inside the cabin.


Nice! Looks like a beautiful day, too.

Getting the Starfish rigged up now.


Nice Starfish unit mmmmm ****envy*****

Packing up the boat: the Mahe 36 catamaran from OCSC Sailing.

We're spending the day on the Bay, running some preliminary sonar transects and ROV dives on promising targets. Stay tuned for more updates throughout the day.


Good luck today guys! Looking forward to the updates!

Keven_K has been an incredible source of information and guidance for this project. In an ongoing email thread between the two of us, he provided this 2m-resolution benthic map of San Francisco Bay in the region we're interested in searching. Keven's no stranger to searching for shipwrecks (check out his other project at, so he has an eye for anomalies in multibeam sonar data like this. He pointed out two candidate targets (also shown on this map) which are worth investigating.

Right now, the feature we are calling "Site 01" seems to be the most promising. We're continuing to analyse the data we have so far and review facts that could help us find the San Rafael, but it feels that we're on the right track toward finding the mighty ship's final resting place.


This is incredible! @kevin_k is this bathymetry data proprietary, something from your personal collection, or are there troves of it publicly available?

@erikabergman The data is available freely here:

As far as I know, some of it is still being processed for general use, but most of the raw grid files are up there. The hang-up comes to processing the data on the user side. ArcGIS costs around $5000-$7000, way too expensive for what I need. The affordable solution for us has been to use Global Mapper, a $500 program. It lacks some of the advanced features, but it allows me to analyze the data in 3D and then export it to Google Earth.

Kevin did you use the ASCII XYZ files or the grided file?

Also somewhere (I can't remember where currently) there is a option for smooth gradient in the shader so you don't get that stepped contour look in the image (unless you were chasing that look)

The above image was the shaded relief GeoTiff. For the data review report and the images I have been for the team, I have been using the 1m GRID DEM file. I have been trying the XYZ files with Gary, but my results have been skewed and I can't get them to work properly.

Kevin flick me an email (and tell me which data set you downloaded - hey I'm here in Australia its all West coast USA to me) and I'll see if I can step you through it, but the 1m GRID DEM should give same resolution in the data, but raw ASCII XYZ can be good for Lidar style images

We're still processing a lot of the information gathered at the Marin History Museum Archives, and the excitement hasn't died down a bit. A little while ago I began describing the trip to David Lang, and he immediately said, "Wait- we should film this!" and pulled out a camera. Here is a (very candid) video of me describing the visit to the Archives as well as a photo of pages inside the petition which helped Capt. Mackenzie regain his licence.


i agree completely, not everything is on the web. The public and historical libraries, and their access to materials from libraries all over America have been my greatest resource. I guess that why I ended up marrying a librarian! :)

Here is a map that was in "The Wreck of the Ferry San Rafael" (Barbier, Alan. Marin County Historical Society Bulletin, 1991., Page 2) which illustrates the courses taken by both ships, the point at which they collided, and the location of where the San Rafael apparently sunk. There is a plethora of additional information, so I'll post more soon.


Wow, nice work Eric! I was digging to see if I could find info on its route and accidents, and you found them all in one. My concern is that the collision and sinking point on the map are close to the dredge material disposal site.

Hopefully the San Rafael drifted far enough west before resting on the floor of the bay.

Today was an incredible day. After hearing that a lot of information about the wreck of the San Rafael could be found at the Marine History Museum Archives, I decided to stop by for an afternoon to look around. What I found there surpassed even my greatest expectations.

The Archives are located in a tiny room extending off a warehouse in the back parking lot of an industrial complex in Novato. They're open for a total of 10 hours a week, and staffed by an extremely lovely woman named Jocelyn.

I had called the Archives before coming and described my interest in the wreck. When I arrived Jocelyn had already pulled a stack of cards from a library catalog out, and began searching for the pieces of work they referenced.

The first thing she brought out was an entire booklet entitled "The Wreck of The Ferry San Rafael". The first page of the booklet went immediately into quotes from Capt. McKenzie himself accounting for what happened the night of the collision, and a map of what route each boat took, where they collided, and where the San Rafael sank was drawn on the adjacent page. I was overwhelmed and elated, and then she started bringing more out...

Each new document Jocelyn presented was an even deeper look into exactly what happened the night of the sinking- historical texts, written accounts from passengers aboard, newspaper clippings (on original paper from 1901), and even several photographs of the ship during her heyday.

I was so quickly overwhelmed with how much information there was, that Jocelyn had to be the one to recommend that maybe I should just take some photos of the documents with my phone and read them later, as they would be closing soon and there wouldn't possibly be time for me to read everything.

I still haven't finished going through all the documents I photographed, but I'll post the best information I have as I find it.


Well done Eric! I'm excited to hear you've made some quick progress on the investigation.

Expedition Background

It's amazing how sometimes the most amazing adventures can be right in your back yard. While searching for possible targets to look at with an OpenROV in San Francisco Bay, I ended up getting in touch with a ranger from the National Park Service who told me of a shipwreck near Alcatraz that very little is known about. After doing some research, I learned that the ship was a 67-m long side-paddlewheel steam ship called the San Rafael that sank shortly after colliding with another steam ship called the Sausalito on November 30th 1901. From all the accounts I could find, no one has seen the ship since she sank, and her exact location is unknown.

I started investigating the wreck by looking up old newspaper articles and other accounts from the time, and have been slowly gathering information that could help determine where the ship lies.

Here's a summary of what I know so far (gathered through a simple internet search):

The San Rafael was a 67m long, wooden hull side paddlewheel steamship weighing 692 gross tons, with a beam of roughly 10m.

She was built by Benjamin C. Terry and was first in service in 1878. Her owner was the North Pacific Coast Railroad.

The ship left San Francisco at 18:22 on November 30th, 1901, 12 minutes after her scheduled 18:10 departure time.

The Captain of the ship was John Taylor McKenzie

The Chief Engineer of the ship was James Jones

The weather that evening was extremely foggy, and the ship was moving slowly and ringing its bell

Near Alcatraz, the San Rafael and Sausalito caught site of each other and both ordered full reverse on the engines.

The Captain of the Sausalito was John Tribble

The San Rafael was hit by the Sausalito in its forward section and stopped abruptly

As the San Rafael sank, passengers moved across a plank to the Sausalito. The San Rafael sank over the course of roughly 20 minutes

The tide was likely ebbing at the time of the collision

Five or less people died from the shipwreck

The Sausalito returned to San Francisco with rescued passengers after the collision

On December 14, 1901 a diver reached the wreck of the San Rafael and salvage efforts were made. These efforts were eventually abandoned after the ship was dragged along the bottom. The final location of the ship was not recorded.

In July of 1921, the anchor line of the SS Matsonia supposedly got caught on the wreckage of machinary of the San Rafael.

Legal action was taken against the North Pacific Coast Railway Company for negligence.

The licenses of both Captain McKenzie and Captain Tribble were suspended after the incident

By January 1902, Captin MaKenzie's licence was re-instated.

Between 1894 and 1997, the once deep area south of Alcatraz was used at least twice as a dump site for dredge waste, contributing 6.7 million cubic meters of additional material and changing the depth there from approximately 50 meters (1894) to roughly 10m (1997).



Wow, what a great find to explore!

I was wondering when you guys were going to get to some of the wrecks in the SF Bay. This is awesome! If it's over 100 years old and mostly made of wood, there probably isn't much left besides the hardened steel. That walker beam and the engines might still be recognizeable though. Let me scour the multibeam data for a bit. I'll let you know if I find anything. There wasn't a position report from the SS Matsonia, was there?

Michael and Kevin- thank you for the encouraging words!

Kevin, please do look through what you've got from the multibeam- I'd love to know of some possible targets to check out. What kind of resolution is your data?

There is still much research to be done. I'm going to try to find any records from the incident with the Matsonia, as well as look through court records from the legal actions that took place after the wreck (The San Rafael, 141 Fed. Reporter 270 (9th Cir. 1906)). I would also like to find the route and timetable for both ferries to estimate where their courses may have intersected. Beyond that, there is double checking the tides at that time, searching for other writing about the event, talking to historians, and searching for higher-resolution benthic data near Alcatraz (such as what you may have!)

Any additional research help is always welcome!


Oh- one other very relevant piece of information that could help find the wreck's final position would be to the name of the salvage company (or entity) that tried to recover the wreck. Even if no record exists of where the boat was left, it might at least be possible to figure out where it was going.

Awesome exploration, if you ever need the lauching boat just ask! I love sailing when we don't know where we're going or what we're going to find.

Eric, I'll see if I can dig up more information on the wreck and any possible attempts of salvage. I have a few resources I can reach out to.


Eric, I have 2m resolution multibeam bathymetry data from the Gate all the way to Treasure Island. There is a 160 ft barge that is clearly recognizeable. Due to the high currents in the Bay, the wreck could be thousands of yards from the reported position. Keep hunting for the historical data and I'll see if I can find any side scan, or better, magnetometer data. I'll send you an email seperately.

Hi Eric,

I became intrigued after reading the story of the SAN RAFAEL and your quest to find her. I hope you don't mind, but I did a little research on my own.

I searched through the archives of the San Francisco Chronicle and discovered an article dated December 14, 1901 reporting the location of the SAN RAFAEL. The headline reads "WRECK OF THE SAN RAFAEL FOUND." The description given is very explicit...

"It lies in twenty fathoms, or 120 feet, of water about three-eighths of a mile due south of the light on Alcatraz Island, on a line between the light and the gas works at the foot of Hyde street"

That's the good news. The bad news is that it appears the wreck lies within the bounds of the Alcatraz disposal site. I plotted the location on a 1-meter resolution multibeam sonar survey and discovered that the depth of water at that spot is only 60 ft deep. Obviously this is nowhere near the reported depth of 120 ft in 1901. Unfortunately this suggests that the wreck is deeply buried under years of dredge material.

I posted the newspaper article and my analysis for you at the following links.

Anyway, I hope you don't mind my participation. I wish I had better news to report.



PS. The book "California Shipwrecks" by Don. B. Marshall states...

"In July of 1921, MATSONIA's anchor pulled up wreckage from the SAN RAFAEL. The hulk was dragged to the dock at the quarantine station, where it was salvaged out by the Haverside Wrecking Co."

This statement may or may not be true. I could find no accounts to confirm it. Either way, whether it was salvaged or buried, the news is still not good.

Gary- your research is great!

I've been working with Keven_K on this, and he's been organizing data from my findings at the Marin Archives, as well as providing some multibeam benthic data from his research that is very helpful.

From the information we've gathered so far, it seems that the efforts to salvage the San Rafael which took place in the weeks following her sinking ended up being abandoned. According to "The Wreck of the Ferry San Rafael" (written by Barbier, Alan of the Marin County Historical Society Bulletin, 1991 - page 12):

“There was a great deal of conjecture concerning the exact resting place of
the sunken ferry. Within a few days, a salvage team was attempting to locate the wreck with grappling hooks. On December 14, a diver descended 102 feet in a strong current and succeeded in reaching the San Rafael. He reported that the ferry was resting on its side with the bow pointed up the bay. Divers placed cables around the hull and used two tugs to pull it to 16 fathoms. However, a few days later, owners elected not to proceed with the salvage effort and the wreck was abandoned.”

We're also finding more information about the encounter the Matsonia had with the ship in July of 1921. Apparently Matsonia's anchor dragged up the San Rafael's engine, walking beam, connecting rods and cylinder, and the that material was brought to "Quarantine Station" (I'm not where that is) where it was salvaged.

An account from Don Perry in 2010 in 'The Northwesterner' 24, no. 2 says that the Matsonia's anchor got caught on the wreck "just about on a line between the Golden Gate and Alcatraz - possibly about two-thirds of the way out to the Island."

There is a blip on Keven's multibeam data in that vicinity that has us very excited. I'll post that soon.

We can use all the help we can get with this project- can I add you as a collaborator to this expedition?


Hi Eric,

Great work tracking down the information at the Archives. A much better source to rely on than a single newspaper article. Sounds like there might be a glimmer of hope that something remains of the SAN RAFAEL. I hope so. You're in good hands with Kevin helping with the multibeam data. If I can help in any way please let me know. And yes, I'm very happy to be a collaborator. Thanks for asking.


Geez Gary, you always find the best information! Your article and drawing are dead on for her sinking position. We need to discuss where she could have gone afterwards. :)

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