The Wreck of the Ferry San Rafael
by Alan Barbier
From the Marin County Historical Society Bulletin, December 1991, pp. 1-14.
On a cold Saturday evening, November 30, 1901, the ferry San Rafael was preparing to make its 6:15 trip from San Francisco to Sausalito. A few minutes earlier, the ferry Sausalito had left its slip in Sausalito for San Francisco. There was a heavy crowd aboard the San Rafael, many were children who had been to matinees in San Francisco with their parents and were returning home. This would have been another routine crossings in its long history of service, had it not been for a dense fog that had formed on the Bay.
As the passengers boarded the San Rafael the gate agent told the passengers that fog was delaying the departure. At 6:20 or 6:25 the ferry backed out of the slip, turned around and entered the impenetrable fog as it moved forward under a slow bell. In less than forty-five minutes the San Rafael would be resting at the bottom of the Bay.
John McKenzie, Captain of the San Rafael:
"After turning around I shaped my course for Alcatraz. The fog was the thickest I have seen on the Bay for many years. I ran along on a slow bell and passed a tug to the port shortly after leaving the slip. After steaming along a few minutes, I picked up the bell off the end of Lombard Street. It was then about 6:30 o'clock or thereabouts. As soon as I got bearings from the bell, I shaped my usual course for Alcatraz, running along under slow bell. My lookout, C. H. Johnson, the second mate, was peering into the dense fog at the bow and my first mate, Charles Johnson, was with me in the pilot house."
The San Rafael's upper and lower decks were filled by the Saturday crowd. Some sat down to play a game of cards, some read, others rested or ordered cocktails or dinner in the restaurant. Due to the heavy fog, the conditions of the crossing were far from routine and several passengers later reported that because of the fog they were nervous and passengers were talking about the danger of a collision.
Mr. T.J. Lennon, Passenger on the San Rafael:
"I usually go home on an earlier boat, but was persuaded to remain later this time to accompany my sister-in-law, Miss Josephine Leonhardi. On the boat I decided to take my dinner.
I ordered a steak and became very nervous in the restaurant because Jim McCue of Corte Madera and several young men near him said this was just the night for a collision."
Hampered by the fog, the ferries approached one another, as the captains navigated by the compass, and established their positions from bells sounding from known points on shore, fog signals and lookouts. The captains were aware of the timetable of the other ferry's departure and knew that at some point they would have to cross the path of the other ship.
John McKenzie, Captain of the San Rafael:
"We had to be guided almost entirely in our effort to pass the Sausalito safely by the fog signals ... the San Rafael was right on course and should have passed the Sausalito safely ... As a signal to the Sausalito and other bay craft we kept our fog signal going from the moment we left the slip. This signal consists of repeated blasts of the whistle."
The two boats approached one another at a slow speed and sounded long, regular blasts of their fog horns. Many passengers commented on the unusual signaling activity.
Mr. Ed Thomas, Passenger on the Sausalito:
"I first heard Captain McKenzie's whistle and his danger signal, which was answered immediately by the Sausalito. Captain Tribble tried hard to slow his ship but it was too late, The fog was so thick that you could scarcely see the lookout on our boat let alone the San Rafael in front of us."
From the exchange of fog signals, each captain knew that the other vessel was very close. The San Rafael stopped and then reversed its engines. In the last moment the Sausalito reversed its engines just as the San Rafael was being pulled broadside to the path of the Sausalito by the outgoing tide. For a brief moment their approaching outlines became visible through the fog, but it was already too late to avoid collision.
With the engine of the Sausalito reversed the momentum carried the ship forward slicing into the starboard of the San Rafael. The collision was not bow on bow or a glancing blow, but a direct impact of the Sausalito's bow almost squarely into the starboard side of the San Rafael.
John McKenzie, Captain of the San Rafael:
"While we were backing I suddenly saw the dim outline of the Sausalito's lights steaming head-on under a slow bell toward my boat She was scarcely a boat' s length away when I first saw her. The Sausalito crashed in the San Rafael just a little forward of amidships, where the restaurant is situated, It was quite a crash, but at the time I did not think it was serious enough to sink her."
The Sausalito struck the San Rafael on the starboard side, smashing through paddle box and driving its bow into the dinning room. Some passengers who were eating at the coffee counter or at the tables were knocked from their seats injured by the explosion like shower of splintering lumber. The cook and waiter who were in the restaurant were both knocked to the floor and covered with debris. Portions of the paddle wheel were thrown onto the dinning room floor.
Mr. T.J. Lennon, Passenger on the San Rafael:
"I had just finished my steak when the crash came. The Sausalito actually forced her bow right into the restaurant where we were seated. I was pinioned down for a few moments but eventually was able to release myself. Jim McCue, however was in bad shape: he had one of his ears nearly cut off and one of his arms broken. I ran out of the restaurant and secured a life preserver. I tried to fasten it around me, but it was too tight. I ran upstairs and found my sister-in-law and gave her a life preserver. Mr. Hynes of San Rafael assisted me to save her. I said I would lower the young lady into the boat. He said that there was not time and she must jump, so I threw her down into the boat, which was shoved away from the side of the San Rafael.
Soon afterward the Sausalito seemed to bump into us, or else the San Rafael was sinking and she was swaying against the Sausalito. The next thing that I knew was that the bow of the Sausalito was jamming against us. I heard a scream and I saw that a young man was wedged in against the bow of the Sausalito. At the same time a young lady screamed and said that her arm was broken. I thought that I was getting too warm and knowing that the San Rafael was sinking I jumped overboard. I was always curious to find out if a man could swim with his cloths on and I found that they were no hindrance to me at all. I swam around from boat to boat, but was afraid to attempt to get into them, as I feared that I would turn them over. I eventually was hauled into a boat by Mike Hynes of San Rafael, as I was in an exhausted condition."
The impact of the Sausalito set off a scene of tremendous confusion and instances of panic as passengers to tried escape the sinking vessel. The passengers in the restaurant took the worst of the impact as the bow of the Sausalito penetrated the restaurant about ten feet. The impact knocked James McCue across the room breaking his arm and nearly severing his ear. The waiter, George Crandall, was struck in the chest by a beam and severely injured. A half dozen other diners were thrown from their seats and pinned by overturned tables and cat by the splintered timbers. Immediately, there was a rush to get out of the saloons and to put on life preservers.
The Sausalito pulled away from the point of impact and came along side of the San Rafael and a line was passed to prevent the two vessels from drifting apart This action probably did more to save lives than all the other actions that evening. Some reports state that a plank was put in place between the boats and passengers were soon using it to evacuate to the Sausalito. This single plank could not accommodate the rush of passengers who all wanted to get off at once. A second escape route was created when windows in the saloons were broken out by passengers and crew and people began to leap across to the Sausalito.
James McCue, Passenger on the San Rafael:
I was sitting at the head of the table of the ladies department of the restaurant. There were three other passengers at the table. When the crash came I was sent spinning across the place. I found myself in a comer with my arm broken and my ear hanging down the side of my face. When I recovered from the shock [I] realized that something serious had happened and that the boat was going to sink. I found everything in confusion and everybody struggling to get inside of life preservers. I pulled off my coat and threw it away. There was $400 in greenbacks in the breast pocket, which I meant to transfer to my pantaloons, but forgot in the rush for a jumping off place. I found myself on the upper deck and just before the steamer sank I leaped into the water. I managed to swim around until I caught hold of a line, to which I hung with my left hand for nearly a quarter of an hour before I was picked up. I have been through some pretty tough experiences in Alaska, but never anything like this."
John McKenzie, Captain of the San Rafael:
"I can say that as quickly as the thing could be done, we had the two boats lashed together to facilitate the transferring of passengers from the sinking San Rafael to the Sausalito ... You must consider that intense excitement prevailed among the passengers while the panic that prevailed in the main cabin where the women and children were running around in circles screaming and frantic made it difficult for the steamer's officers to carry out any orderly plans ....
As the steamer sank she listed to the starboard and in going down her forward mast nearly smashed one of the lifeboats that was lying 'longside the Sausalito. I was the last man to leave the San Rafael and when I left the sinking steamer there was not a living soul aboard...."
Mr. Peter E. Nagle, Passenger on the San Rafael:
"I was on the San Rafael and was resting quietly on the upper deck when, all of a sudden, I heard a crash that fairly scared the life out of me. I walked downstairs, but did not notice anything particular was strange. In a minute, however, everyone was running about as if crazy. Several men who were in the kitchen were rushing out, their faces all covered with blood. I started for the upper deck again, where I left some bundles that I had. Women were running, children were crying and men were becoming desperate. I secured two life preservers and wrapped them about me. I was getting down in a boat when I lost my balance and fell into the water. I struggled around for about ten minutes and at last I caught a rope that was thrown me and I was pulled aboard. I was almost exhausted. I could not have lasted another minute."
Most of the passengers were able to make a dry escape from the San Rafael by crossing over to the Sausalito. However, as the San Rafael settled, the dynamics of escape changed as its position aside the Sausalito became lower. As the minutes passed, escape from the San Rafael's main deck across to the Sausalito was cut off and passengers were forced to scramble to the ship's roof. Many of the passengers jumped or fell overboard and by the time the San Rafael had sunk, many were struggling in the cold water. Estimates of the number of passengers in the water ranged from 40 to 60. Lifeboats from both ships were lowered and many were picked up from them or were hauled aboard the Sausalito when ropes were lowered to them. One of the lifeboats capsized spilling a dozen passengers into the Bay. Those spilled into the Bay were forced to cling to the overturned boat for nearly thirty minutes until their cries were heard and they were rescued.
Lawrence Schell, Passenger on the San Rafael:
We left the San Francisco side of the Bay and had been moving for about thirty minutes when the collision occurred.
I went from the cabin to the deck to see how thick the fog was. At that time the San Rafael was blowing her fog horn pretty frequently. I next went to where the engines were working and I watched there for five minutes, when the bell rang for the steamer to back. The San Rafael stopped for about two seconds and then the bell rang again to go ahead. She had not advanced for two seconds when the crash came. Windows were breaking and timber flying, but the engineer stood by his lever.
The lever struck the engineer on the side of the face and he bled profusely. One man came along and tied a handkerchief around the engineer's head to check the bleeding.
I looked for my baggage —I had a gun and two parcels—and then I rushed to a deckhand to find out if the boat was sinking. He said it was. I quickly grabbed the first life preserver I could find, put it around my body and went to look around.
A man hailed me saying, 'She won't go down for an hour yet.' I rushed to the back of the boat, where the Sausalito was tied to the San Rafael, but when I got there, I could not see, with the excitement. One man called out, 'You lobsters, keep back and leave the women go ahead!' I stood there for five minutes and a fellow shouted, 'Go up on the deck and get on the Sausalito!', so I went upstairs and got on the side of the boat where the water was up rushing the deck I stood there for about ten minutes, watching people getting on board the Sausalito from the upper deck.
The boat was then clearly sinking. A rope was tied from the Sausalito to the San Rafael and I climbed up on it to the Sausalito. I had great trouble, but a man pulled me up and said: 'You're safe.'"
The San Francisco Chronicle:
"At the height of the panic the nerve of the officers and the coolness of some passengers came to the rescue. The frightened women were calmed, and the men from both boats began to pass them over the rails to the opposite deck The rush at the doors blocked all entrances, and men threw themselves against windows and frames, breaking them and letting out the imprisoned women and children. A score of men, working like heroes, dragged them over the rails into safely.
Then, when order was coming our of chaos, it was seen that the San Rafael was settling rapidly, The water rose to the rail, submerged the lower deck, and slopped over the cabin floors. Working ankle deep in water, the rescuers dragged the last of their charges out to the cabin roof. The panic was almost over now, and the heroes, though working like madmen, were perfectly cool....
Lower sank the doomed boat, and it became impossible to reach the lowest rails of the Sausalito from the very highest cabin of the San Rafael. The men and women remaining on deck were lashed to ropes passed over the rails and dragged up in such feverish haste that many of them were injured in scraping over the rail. Others, lashing themselves to life preservers, jumped into the strong current Two boats had been launched by the cool heads among the crew, and these loaded themselves to the bulwarks with the struggling people in the water. Two more boats from the Sausalito aided in the work of rescue.
Captain McKenzie, standing by his duty to the last, stayed with his boat until the moment she sank. He saw most, if not all, of her human freight carried to safety, and then jumped for his life. The steamer had been about twenty minutes in sinking; in the last ten minutes her lights had been out, and she finished her career in total darkness, which may have hidden some who would otherwise have been discovered and taken off. As it is, no one could say last night for a certainty whether the dead are three or thirty.
At the same time the engines of the Sausalito had been stopped, and she was broadside on to the treacherous current When the last boat was unloaded on her decks, the fog lifted a little and a light showed to the south close abeam. At that moment the tug Sea King loomed up through the dense fog. "Where are we?" yelled the captain of the ferry from the bridge.
'Off the Presidio light heading out to sea,' came the answer.
The Sausalito put about and under her own steam felt her way through the fog to her own slip."
The Sausalito reached San Francisco about 9:00 P.M., two hours late. Many of the passengers of the San Rafael set foot on the San Francisco dock showing the evidence of their ordeal.
The initial reports of the number victims varied widely. First reports to reach San Francisco said 20 were drowned and then 100. Many of the passengers game accounts of seeing dozens go down with the ship or of seeing passengers being carried away by the out-going tide. Not until the following day, after the survivors managed to reach their homes to be counted, was it possible to determine the number of those injured and lost.
The following were lost:
Cyrus A. Walker, of Ross Station – Age 5.
George Treadway, of Sausalito – Age 55.
William G. Crandall, of Sausalito – Age 55.
Alexander Hall, of Sacramento County – Age 40.
Josephine Smith, of San Rafael – Missing.
Dick, the Freight Horse.
The following morning the fog lifted slightly as launches cruised the Bay in search of bodies or survivors. Two life boats were found drifting, one off Point Bonita and one off the Union Street Wharf. In the latter were found a pair of woman's gloves, two bonnets and a pair of garters.
The San Francisco Call:
"Throughout Marin County yesterday there was a feeling of unrest. The telegraph and telephone operators had more then their share of work. From one end of the county to the other inquires were made all day long Information was sought from police officers, (the) morgue and private citizens. To all the small loss of life is looked upon as a miracle."
The damage to the Sausalito consisted of battered woodwork and a smashed rudder. Since the boat was two ended, with a rudder at each end, it was able the resume service the day after the collision.
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, the owners elected not to proceed with the salvage effort and the wreck was abandoned.
The focus of interest lay in the determination of blame for the collision. The authority of investigation was the Federal Board of Hulls and Boilers, Inspectors Bolles and Bulger presiding.
The hearing began of Friday December 6th. Each captain provided his account of the accident to the inspectors. The captains were closely questioned about the sequence of the signals given, the ships speed and direction. The investigation focused, in particular, on what fog signals were given prior to the collision.
Within a few days the inspectors released their findings. They concluded that both Captain McKenzie and Captain Tribble were guilty of negligence and were equally responsible for the collision due to their giving a passing signal before knowing they were in fact clear. As punishment, Captain McKenzie's license was revoked—it was due to expire on January 2nd 1902—and Captain Tribble's license was suspended for thirty days.
In January, 1902, Captain McKenzie obtained a new license and took command of the Sausalito for its daylight runs. In San Francisco, he received a testimonial signed by more than 650 people and was presented with a plaque on which was engraved the image of the San Rafael. The plaque read:
"To Captain John Taylor McKenzie, Master Mariner, San Francisco harbor: We, who have been passengers for many years on the steamer San Rafael while under your command, have had ample opportunity of recognizing your skill, courage and caution as a navigator, your ability as a commander and your courtesy as a gentleman.
These attributes were never more in evidence the in the hour of the late accident, when, through no fault of yours, your vessel was sunk in collision with the steamer Sausalito, and where it was due entirely to our prompt action in lashing the boats together, and your thoughtful consideration of those under your care, that the loss of life was very small, when an immense loss would otherwise have been inevitable.
In evidence of your appreciation we ask your acceptance of this sincere token of our gratitude and continued confidence and esteem. On behalf of 650 subscribers hereto, January 10, 1902."
James McCue and the family of Alexander Hall sued the North West Pacific Railroad. Three years after the accident, McCue was awarded $1,500 and the family of Hall, $5,000. Both plaintiffs considered their settlement too low and took their case to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals, which in October 1905, increased the settlement to $5,000 and $7,500 respectively.
The last trace of the Son Rafael was seen in July 1921 when the Matson liner Matsonia anchored near Alcatraz. When its anchor was weighed in, it snagged a portion of the San Rafael's barnacled covered engine, walking beam, connecting rods and cylinder. The anchor was so firmly imbedded, the Matsonia required the aid of two tugs to free itself. One report stated that amid the mass of debris was one of the brass eagles that once flew atop one of the San Rafael's masts.
(This article is extracted from a manuscript to be published in book form in 1992 under the same title by Alan Barbier. Ed.)