For a century and a quarter, the SS City of Chester steamship lay forgotten at the bottom of San Francisco Bay.
But on Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it found the ship by accident last year in 216 feet of water about a quarter of a mile east of the Golden Gate Bridge. The fascinating discovery is already pushing researchers to correct the historical record and recognize the heroics of Chinese crewmen once blamed for sitting idly by while white passengers drowned.”While this is not a Titanic, we shouldn’t focus our shipwreck history on only the big names,” James Delgado, NOAA’s maritime heritage director for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said at a news conference at Crissy Field at the headquarters of the Gulf of Farallones sanctuary. “Every wreck, like every person, has a story, and this is something that we’ve forgotten about — the stories of the people on the ship.”

On the misty morning of Aug. 22, 1888, the 202-foot long Chester collided with the Oceanic, a steamer twice its size carrying mostly Chinese immigrants, as the smaller ship was trying to leave the harbor and head to Eureka with 106 people aboard. The Oceanic sliced through the Chester’s bow, ripping away wooden floorboards and iron walls — launching passengers into the water. Many were trapped by the onslaught of water, while others were fighting to stay afloat in the bay’s rough waters.

Because of the dense fog, the crew members of the two ships didn’t notice each other until they were separated by half a mile. The Chester tried to avoid the Oceanic, which was arriving from Asia, but swirling tides whipped it into the approaching vessel.

Crew members aboard the Oceanic scrambled to save the Chester’s passengers, reaching down to grab their outstretched hands and hoisting them up, but six minutes later the impaled steamer sank. Sixteen people died, including two children and three crew members.

It was the second-worst maritime disaster inside the San Francisco Bay. The worst was the 1901 sinking of the SS City of Rio de Janeiro, a steamer that struck a reef, leading to 123 deaths.

After the 1888 accident, local newspapers had reported that Chinese crewmen ignored the screams of drowning white passengers, said Delgado, who grew up in San Jose and was chief scientist for the 2010 mapping of the Titanic wreck.