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The Sinking of the S.S. Golden Gate

by Andrew Czernek, aczernekATcomcast.net


SS Golden Gate
The SS Golden Gate: built in 1851, burned in 1862 off Manzanillo, Mexico

At 4:45 pm on Sunday July 27, 1862 with the crew and passengers sitting down for dinner, fire was discovered between the engines and the aft galley. The ship was 15 miles offshore in a calm sea. Both Capt. W.W. Hudson and Capt. R.H. Pearson went to the scene of the fire, Pearson taking command of the firefighting and Hudson ordering the ship to make a dash for the shoreline. The two captains were on-board because the regular commander, Pearson, was heading east on vacation, so Hudson had command. Smoke was pouring from the engine room hatchway amidships.

About 100 first and second-class passengers were ordered forward but the position of the fire put the steerage passengers most at-risk and cut communications between fore and aft. Accelerating the ship towards shore sent smoke and flames streaming aft. Fire soon made it impossible for the captain to communicate with the engine room and W. Waddell, the chief engineer of the 270-foot long sidewheel steamer. It was Pearson who knew that the engine crew was trapped, so he broke down the bulkhead in the after-freight room to rescue his chief engineer at least a dozen crewmen.

The ship was equipped with pumps for firefighting, with several lifeboats, and with more than enough life preservers for the Golden Gate's 1,200 capacity. Several boats were gotten off but at 5:15 pm the ship was still 3-4 miles from shore and flames were now coming from the engine room hatch. Passengers were starting to jump from the ship, either with life preservers or by grabbing onto floating material. Ben Holladay, a New Yorker traveling with his business partner, lashed himself to a ladder. When he jumped he passed under the port paddlewheel but emerged unharmed and was picked up by one of the lifeboats. It was another 20 hours before they reached Manzanillo (often referred to as Manzanilla in earlier reports). Holladay later was one of the investors and directors of the Union Pacific RR, as it built the railroad west across the continent to join the Central Pacific RR and link the east and west coasts after the Civil War.

At 5:30 pm the ship had run aground about 300 yards offshore in heavy surf at what is now called Playa de Oro, 14 miles northwest of Manzanillo. Captains Hudson and Pearson were the last to leave the ship, according Pearson's written report made the day that he was rescued.

The foremast and the upper deck caved in to the fire at this time, but still the engines kept working. Hudson and Pearson tore off their clothing, then hung from the bowsprit, awaiting a chance to jump and not be crushed by the 2,000-ton ship rolling in the surf. A rope that the senior officer was holding burned through, dropping him into the surf, which carried him ashore safely.

"I was alone, exhausted, physically and mentally, with both hands, left arm and right shoulder burned," Pearson says. "Though I am a good swimmer, I doubted if I should reach the shore if I abandoned my life preserver." Luckily a wave threw him clear of the hull and onto the beach.

Some survivors clung to boats, including J. Enba, an Italian sculptor who had worked in San Francisco. Enba spent four hours in the water and clung to the side of a lifeboat until one came along that wasn't full.

Four Catholic fathers, who had recently been ordained in San Francisco, were aboard the ship. One, Padre Cardenas, was credited with pulling 24 people from the surf, where exhausted passengers were unable to gain a foothold and come ashore.

About 80 people had reached the shore that evening with the two ship's officers, as well as at least four dead. The fire continued to break up the ship, so that by dark the ship had broken up and both bow and stern had come ashore. In the morning, baggage from the wreck was found strewn along the beach, including several kegs of ale for the exhausted and isolated survivors.

The dead were buried at the beach, including at least four women (one of them Mrs. George McMullen). The group started towards Manzanillo but were blocked about 11 miles from town at an area called "White Rock," then spent a 2nd night outdoors and with no food or water.

On the afternoon of the 28th the Manzanillo customs boat picked up two of the survivors from the group. It was another day before the steamer St. Louis managed to rescue the balance of the survivors, most of whom went back to San Francisco on the St. Louis (except a few of the Golden Gate crew).

One survivor, André Chavanne, would drift for 24 hours in a life jacket before being rescued by fisherman, then transferred to a French sloop, the Liberatto. Chavanne's account of the sinking appears 80 years later in the California Historical Society quarterly (link) but excerpted versions can also be found in Oscar Lewis' book, "Sea Routes to the Gold Fields," linked here in Google Books.

Still, another 23 were missing from a lifeboat commanded by James Scott, the ship's 3rd officer. They drifted about 80 miles to the south of Manzanillo and didn't reach San Francisco until Aug. 18, when the steamer Orizaba brought them to the city. The passengers on-board this lifeboat unanimously described both Mathew Nolan, first officer, and James Scott, third officer, as heroes for leading passengers from the ship.

Bodies were taken from the water by the St. Louis crew in the days right after the fire. Some two weeks later, the American consul at Manzanillo took five men and managed to bury another 26 of the dead. People at the site continued to find and bury other bodies for at least a year after the incident.

Of those lost, the burden fell most-heavily on steerage passengers, where only 33 of 134 survived. According to the victim and survivor lists published after the accident, these are the statistics for survivors:


1st Class: 27 (41%)
2nd Class: 25 (47%)
Steerage: 33 (25%)
Crew: 61 (62%)

In one case, an entire Scots family would have been lost but for their inability to send the entire family back to New York at once. (The fares for an 1856 trip one-way between San Francisco and Panama were $250 for 1st class; $175 for 2nd; $100 for steerage.) As it was, A. Smith, his wife, sister and four children were killed. Smith had lost a considerable amount of property in the winter of 1861 and its floods. So daughter Jane Smith, 17, was attached as a nurse with another family, left on Aug. 1 onboard another ship before learning of the loss of the rest of her family aboard the Golden Gate.

Two of the children of John and Ella Given were also saved, including an infant. Afterwards a passenger named John Charte told stories of John Givens offering $3,000 to anyone who would save his 8-week-old child, Ellie Oceanae Wandesford Given. Little Ellie ended up coming back to San Francisco after being nourished on beer during the period that the survivors were marooned. She was the subject of fund-raising as her grandmother was the only relative in San Francisco -- and she was nearly destitute.

However, Ellie would only live another 8 weeks before dying on Sept. 30.


A transcription of the Aug. 7, 1862 Daily Alta California, complete with survivors' accounts of the fire and the initial list of survivors, dead and missing. Note that the initial list has many inaccuracies, most of which are resolved in this final list.


C.E.D.A.M. (Conservation, Echology, Diving, Archaeology and Museums), a museum on the commercial plaza of Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, has built a replica model of the SS Golden Gate -- and written a book about the shipwreck. (Puerto Aventuras is located 1 hour drive south of Cancun, 18 kilometers south of Playa del Carmen and 26 kilometers north of the archaeological site of Tulum.)

"Legend of the Golden Gate" was published by museum in 2003 and written by museum director Roman Rivera Torres and Joe Kelly Hughes. It was limited edition printing.

CEDAM is open to the public 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day and is free of charge.




Revision: 6/6/2023