Search for Steamer San RafaelLatest update May 22, 2015 Started on November 30, 2014
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.
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: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USSMatsonia(ID-1589)
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:
*SAN RAFAEL 1901
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
(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.
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 openexplorer.com/expedition/southerncalifornia), 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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