Rio - Ingots On The Bottom
Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff
It was a day
like most others for Bakers Beach life station attendant Mark Ellington.
His shift started that morning at 4 am. Ellington busied himself
with his daily chores and sipped a steaming cup of black coffee,
the sounds of the sea and the yelling he heard faintly in the distance
he attributed to the sounds he heard nearly every day from the local
fisherman setting out early to do their days work. Shortly after
5 am the fog settled in and Ellington still went about his busy
work not paying attention to the bay so socked in with fog that
visibility had dropped to under fifty yards. He heard a ships fog
horn shriek out. His ears perked up for a moment as he heard another
and another. He stopped what he was doing for a second and as the
strangled last blast from the steam whistle seemed to belch its
farewells, Ellington shrugged his shoulders and went back to polishing
brass. The whistles were then silent. The rest of the morning until
it was nearly time for Ellington to be relieved was uneventful.
At 7:20 am
a very excited Italian fisherman rushed into the station house yelling
for help. The Italian kept shouting and pointing out towards the
bay, he seemed to be shouting that a ship had gone down and many
people were drowning. Ellington looked out towards the bay and saw
a lifeboat jammed with 81 people coming his way. He immediately
sounded the alarm and after getting the badly shaken survivors into
the station, the stations' lifeboats and two tugs were launched.
At this time the ebb tide was running very strongly. The lifeboats
reached the disaster site in less than ten minutes and though they
combed the entire area, no other survivors were found.
So what happened
that foggy morning when life had been seemingly routine and Mark
Ellington calmly went about mundane chores while 131 passengers
and crew were drowning? Many people have sought the answers to that
question and another, where is the City of Rio De Janeiro?
The City of
Rio de Janeiro was an American passenger steamer belonging to the
Pacific Mail Fleet. She was on the last leg of her journey to San
Francisco from the far away port of Hong Kong. Many ships laden
with valuable cargoes from the Orient sailed into her harbors. The
Rio stopped shortly in Honolulu on its voyage and it was here that
people first reported seeing Chinese silver on board the ship. Whether
it is true or not we may never know for sure. The manifests say
no. Onlookers say yes, as do the treasure hunters that to this day
still search for the Rio's wreckage.
Captain William Ward of the Steamer
City of Rio De Janeiro.
of the Rio was a man named William Ward. 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. One of these crewmen was caught breaking into a cabin
and accosting two female passengers. He was 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. He was almost right, for in the
early morning hours of February 22, 1901, all but for 81 people
went to their graves.
It was 5 am
on Feb. 22, 1901 that the ships pilot Frederick Jordan blew the
whistle that notified the lookout on Point Lobo, John Hyslop, that
theship was ready to make its way through the narrow entrance into
the harbor. Jordan had sailed through the area many times. The lookout
called over to the merchants Exchange and notified them to make
ready for the unloading of passengers and cargo. Meiggs Wharf was
the Rio's destination. It was only five miles away. Immigration
officials made ready their lengthy forms. As the Rio rounded the
point towards Bakers Beach the fog which had been almost nonexistent
till now, crept in around them. The pilot sounded the ships horn.
smooth watery world of the Rio was met by the rocky underworld of
Fort Point. A submerged rock had ripped the underside of the ship.
As the ship grinded to a halt everything else smashed forward into
whatever was closest. Passengers tangled in bed sheets crashed into
walls, deckhands flew from one end of a hallway to another, china
and glassware fell in shattered heaps and threw all this the deck
hands below watched with horror as the Pacific Ocean poured into
their engine room.
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.
An eerie scene on the front page of
the Chronicle showing a rescue.
Of the 11 lifeboats
only three managed to get lowered and two of those, lowered improperly
were submerged. One boat got off. The bow of the Rio went under
and eight minutes later she leaned to starboard, rolled over and
sank to the ocean floor. 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. 131 died that morning.
officers called Hyslop wondering what had happened to the ship and
Hyslop, surprised, responded that it should have docked over 1 and
1/2 hours ago! It was about this time that Ellington also found
out the ship had sunk. 81 were recovered, non by the authorities,
and the ship was a total loss. The
masts of the City of Rio de Janeiro stuck out from the murky waters
for a while but by the time divers were readied for salvaging the
spars had disappeared. All signs of the wreck have disappeared.
Salvage divers and treasure hunters alike have searched over the
years and can only assume the wreckage was carried out to sea. Searches
have taken place almost on an annual basis in the bay and as far
away as Angel Island, five miles out.
Front page of the San Francisco Chronicle
for February 23, 1901 telling the story of the day.
So you ask what
was the cargo? Why all the interest in this wreck? The ships manifest
#7803 for clearance into U.S. customs shows only the usual type
of Oriental goods. No gold. No silver. No pearls, just the valuables
that were placed in the pursers safe, which the insurance company
paid $37,000 in claims. The only other item of cargo that might
have been of interest was tin. Tin was hardly an item of interest
I would think. In 1901 the market value for this block tin was 30.5
cents per pound. So why did people continually search for this wreck?
In 1931 a Captain
Haskell presented to the federal government a claim for all the
gold, jewels, silver, cargo, and machinery of the Rio by right of
discovery. In a news conference he said he discovered the wreck
with the help of his new invention, a two-man submarine. He planned
to salvage the wreck of 6 million in Chinese silver. In July of
that year he disappeared without a trace. Other reports say the
ship had up to 11 million in gold and silver aboard. The lure of
gold and silver can twist a story in many directions and change
the course of many lives, but one thing we know for sure by the
manifests is that there were 2423 slabs of block tin on board when
the Rio sank. Each ingot weighed 107 pounds. The Insurance Company
paid off $79,000 for the loss of the tin. At today's prices the
shipment of tin alone would be worth over $900,000. Imagine if it
were indeed silver ingots that the man in Honolulu saw and at the
value of silver today this cargo would be worth over 22 million!
If you plan
to look for this wreck I suggest you first visit the area and talk
to the local salvers, divers, and historians to gain your own perspective
on the City of Rio de Janeiro, it may have even been found and salvaged
completely already. Be sure also to check treasure laws before you
dive your wreck site as you may in removing only a small article,
be breaking the law.
1. Adrian L.
Lonsdale, H. R. Kaplan, A GUIDE TO SUNKEN SHIPS IN AMERICAN WATERS,
Compass Publications Inc, 1964.
2. Thomas Penfield, A GUIDE TO TREASURE IN CALIFORNIA, True Treasure
3. Duncan Gleason, THE ISLANDS AND PORTS OF CALIFORNIA, The Devin
Adair Co., 1958
4. Don B. Marshall, CALIFORNIA SHIPWRECKS, Superior Publishing Company,