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1868::The Wreck of the Viscata at the Golden Gates of San Francisco

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Britain's new iron clipper runs ashore in San Francisco, California.

1864::A New Ship and a Change of Plan

"1864::A New Ship and a Change of Plan"

Clip: Liverpool Mercantile Gazette and Myers's Weekly Advertiser (1864) Liverpool, England

On February 11th, 1864, a new British clipper ship was launched in Liverpool at the shipbuilding yard of Hart & Sinnott. She was christened Viscata, a magnificent ironclad vessel, 195 feet long with a 32-foot beam (width) and an A-1 rating at Lloyd's of London.

1876::Record Passage to San Francisco From Yokohama

"1876::Record Passage to San Francisco From Yokohama"

Clip: The London and China Telegraph (1876)

London, England

The Viscata was built to do well in the Calcutta trade, and that she did. But after her first year, she began transoceanic crossings and trips 'around the horn' of South America to embark on a new and lucrative trade with ports on the Pacific Coast. She was a speedy ship which meant massive potential in the shipping trade. In 1867, she proved her might when she broke a speed record sailing from Yokohama to San Francisco in just 23 days. The following year, she was set up to do it again. On January 27th, 1868, the Viscata arrived in San Francisco after a 136-day sail from Liverpool. She loaded up with a cargo of California wheat valued at $90,000 and, on March 7th, set out to break another record on her return to Liverpool.

1868::The Wreck of the British Clipper Ship Viscata

"1868::The Wreck of the British Clipper Ship Viscata"

Photographer: Carleton Watkins (1829–1916)

Photo: Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

The game was on. With the potential for enormous success riding on the Viscata's speed, members of the shipping community placed large bets on her return crossing. Her journey began with a tow out beyond the Golden Gates of the San Francisco Bay, where the wind could fill her sails and set her on her way. But as she passed Fort Point, she drifted dangerously near land. The current pulled her one way and then another without warning until she drifted into shore. It was a disaster.

1868::The Wheat

"1868::The Wheat"

Clip: Chicago Evening Post (1868) Chicago, Illinois

Barely past the Golden Gates, the Viscata had run ashore in the dark of night. The crew scrambled to float her again by throwing some of her heavy cargo of wheat overboard. But she wasn't budging. She had become completely embedded in the sand on the beach. Optimistic that they could still refloat her, the crew hired small boats and lightened the ship by unloading the rest of the wheat onto the beach. Again, she didn't budge. The wheat was quickly sold off to merchants on the beach who sold it at local markets at a discounted price.

1868::Gone to Pieces

"1868::Gone to Pieces"

Clip: The San Francisco Examiner (1868) San Francisco, California

The Viscata's owners and insurers back in England hired tug companies believing that the ship could still be pulled away from the shore and refloated, but there just wasn't enough water. The crew prayed for rain and rain they got. On March 22nd, the heaviest rains of the season came down on San Francisco and battered the ship for 24 hours, sending the Viscata to ruin. The following day, with her pieces and parts washed up on shore, it was determined that the ship had sunk 12 feet into the sand. The 4-year-old clipper was deemed a total loss, and the crew was stranded. The ship was sold off at a bargain price of $22,500.

1871::A Visitor

"1871::A Visitor"

Clip: Star Tribune (1871)

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Over the coming years, as the courts figured out the paperwork, the Viscata was slowly dismantled, and her parts sold off. Breaking a ship to nothing was a slow process, especially a new iron clipper. But before she disappeared completely, she experienced one last bit of excitement. The ship's guards woke one morning to a gray whale that had beached herself snugly against the broken Viscata that had lain on the lonely shore for almost three years. Over the following weeks, the whale was also sold off in parts.

1933::The Building of the Golden Gate Bridge

"1933::The Building of the Golden Gate Bridge"

Photo (top): Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Photographer: Carleton Watkins (1829–1916)

Photo (bottom): tbd

In 1933, almost 70 years later, construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge. The story of the Viscata had long since disappeared into history.

1876::The British ship "Viscata" ashore at the Golden Gate, San Francisco, California

"1876::The British ship Viscata ashore at the Golden Gate, San Francisco, California"

Artist: Eastman, Harrison (1823-1886)

Clip: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

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