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The Rio - Ingots On The Bottom

By 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.

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Captain William Ward of the Steamer City of Rio De Janeiro.

The Captain 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.

Suddenly the 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.

Captain ward 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.

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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.

The Immigration 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.

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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.


Compass Publications Inc, 1964.
2. Thomas Penfield, A GUIDE TO TREASURE IN CALIFORNIA, True Treasure Publications, 1972.
3. Duncan Gleason, THE ISLANDS AND PORTS OF CALIFORNIA, The Devin Adair Co., 1958
4. Don B. Marshall, CALIFORNIA SHIPWRECKS, Superior Publishing Company, 1978

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