Jack London and a 19th-century shipwreck

This article about the rediscovery of the wreck of the Chester,  which sank in 1888 near the Golden Gate Bridge, calls to mind Jack London’s The Sea Wolf:

Here’s what happened: The City of Chester — a passenger steamer built in 1875, according to the California State Lands Commission’s shipwreck database — departed San Francisco in a dense fog on the morning of Aug. 22, 1888. The ship was heading for Eureka, Calif., a town about 270 miles up the state’s coast, when it collided with the Oceanic, a much larger steamer.

“Collided” may be too gentle a term for this, actually. The Chester “was rammed in mid-channel” by the Oceanic, a ship about twice as long as the Chester, according to Michael D. White’s book “Shipwrecks of the California Coast.”

“The City of Chester was cut almost into halves and reeled under the terrible blow,” The Day (of New London, Conn.) wrote in its evening edition the following day, noting that the Chester sunk in a matter of minutes.

From The Sea Wolf:

The vessels came together before I could follow his advice.  We must have been struck squarely amidships, for I saw nothing, the strange steamboat having passed beyond my line of vision.  The Martinez heeled over, sharply, and there was a crashing and rending of timber.  I was thrown flat on the wet deck, and before I could scramble to my feet I heard the scream of the women.  This it was, I am certain,—the most indescribable of blood-curdling sounds,—that threw me into a panic.  I remembered the life-preservers stored in the cabin, but was met at the door and swept backward by a wild rush of men and women.  What happened in the next few minutes I do not recollect, though I have a clear remembrance of pulling down life-preservers from the overhead racks, while the red-faced man fastened them about the bodies of an hysterical group of women.  This memory is as distinct and sharp as that of any picture I have seen.  It is a picture, and I can see it now,—the jagged edges of the hole in the side of the cabin, through which the grey fog swirled and eddied; the empty upholstered seats, littered with all the evidences of sudden flight, such as packages, hand satchels, umbrellas, and wraps; the stout gentleman who had been reading my essay, encased in cork and canvas, the magazine still in his hand, and asking me with monotonous insistence if I thought there was any danger; the red-faced man, stumping gallantly around on his artificial legs and buckling life-preservers on all comers; and finally, the screaming bedlam of women.

. . .

I descended to the lower deck.  The Martinez was sinking fast, for the water was very near.  Numbers of the passengers were leaping overboard.  Others, in the water, were clamouring to be taken aboard again.  No one heeded them.  A cry arose that we were sinking.  I was seized by the consequent panic, and went over the side in a surge of bodies.  How I went over I do not know, though I did know, and instantly, why those in the water were so desirous of getting back on the steamer.  The water was cold—so cold that it was painful.  The pang, as I plunged into it, was as quick and sharp as that of fire.  It bit to the marrow.  It was like the grip of death.  I gasped with the anguish and shock of it, filling my lungs before the life-preserver popped me to the surface.  The taste of the salt was strong in my mouth, and I was strangling with the acrid stuff in my throat and lungs.

3 thoughts on “Jack London and a 19th-century shipwreck

  1. Hello, Donna,

    I am an argentine seafarer and a reader, particularly interested lately in maritime literature. I discovered The Sea Wolf sometime ago and was delighted to read it.

    Today, reading some professional newsletter, I found about the City of Chester as well, and the resemblance to the “Martinez” came to me immediately.

    London was also a seafarer for a time of his life, but that was in the immediate years after the City of Chester went down the bow of the Oceanic. So he must have been not only aware, but probably in full knowing of the details and gossips of the tragedy. And no doubt he was making allusion to it in his novel.

    Also he was accused at a time of being racist, particulary against the chinese immigrants. The sinking of the City of Chester, by a ship crewed by chinese, coming from Hong Kong, raised a wave of racism at the time. Then it was reversed when word came out about how well and solidary were the chinese in trying to rescue the survivors of the City of Chester.

    It would be very interesting to know if there were any comments on the matter at the time of the publication of the book, only 16 years after the disaster.



    • Hello, Fabián,
      I had wondered if the resemblance to the “Martinez” would resonate for other London readers and am glad to hear that you saw the same parallel.

      That’s interesting information about the Chinese rescuers. I don’t recall if the reviews at the time mentioned it but will consult Susan Nuernberg’s book of reviews on London when I get a chance.

      Thank you for stopping by.


  2. Hi,

    I read about the the discovery of the wreck in a professional magazine, on the last issue of the Tugs, Towing & Offshore Newsletter (Nr 26), see it on http://www.towingline.com.

    There they say that “Impaled on Oceanic, which was arriving from Asia, City of Chester remained afloat for six minutes before sinking. Sixteen people died in the accident. The rediscovery of the wreck restores an important historical link to San Francisco’s early Chinese-American community. Reports at the time initially criticized Oceanic’s Chinese crew in the racially charged atmosphere of the times. Criticisms turned to praise, however, when the bravery of the crew in rescuing many of City of Chester’s passengers was revealed.”

    The references about London´s anti chinese feelings I took them from wikipedia.

    Note that I am no London´s specialist.

    And yes, the resemblance between the Martinez and the City of Chester arouse immediately, even before I finished reading the first line of the news about the discovery of the wreck 🙂



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