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Collision Course

A tragedy on the bay in the dark of night.



THEN EVERYTHING HAPPENED, and with inconceivable rapidity. The fog seemed to break away as though split by a wedge, and the bow of a steamboat emerged, trailing fog wreaths on either side like seaweed on the snout of a Leviathan.

Those words are in the opening paragraph of Jack London’s novel The Sea-Wolf. And according to numerous sources, they were inspired by London’s reading of the San Francisco Chronicle’s account of the November 30, 1901, dark-of-night, fog-shrouded collision of the steam-powered ferryboats San Rafael and Sausalito. “It was the newer Sausalito that set off from Sausalito to the city on an extremely foggy Saturday evening,” writes historian Barry Spitz in Marin: A History. “Meanwhile, the San Rafael had left San Francisco a few minutes later than its scheduled 6:15 departure due to the fog. On board were over 200 shoppers and matinee-goers.” Prior to the accident, both ships were proceeding slowly with their fog bells, horns and whistles constantly ringing. The cause of the collision, other than a dense tule fog, was never clearly determined. Both captains’ licenses were temporarily suspended. First reports claimed anywhere from a dozen to over 100 deaths. Yet although the San Rafael sank within 20 minutes, fast action by both vessels’ crews, who lashed the ferries together and placed planks between them, kept actual fatalities to between three and five. A conclusive count was never reached, but “it remains the worst collision in the 166-year history of San Francisco Bay ferry service.” according to a December 1, 2016, Chronicle article marking the 115th anniversary of the tragedy. Both the San Rafael and the Sausalito were owned by the Northwest Pacific Coast Railroad, which, due in no small part to the two ships colliding on that foggy November night, fell into bankruptcy soon after.

PHOTOS COURTESY NORTHWESTERN PACIFIC RAILROAD HISTORICAL SOCIETY (SAUSALITO); BELVEDERE-TIBURON LANDMARKS SOCIETY (SAN RAFAEL)

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