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Historian Says Steamer Holds No Silver Treasure

August 11, 1987

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A steamer that sank in 1901 has been found in the San Francisco Bay, a group claims, but a federal expert on shipwrecks said Tuesday that it was not carrying the rumored millions of dollars in silver that the group was hoping to salvage.

After years of speculating and searching by treasure seekers drawn by the rumors of the ship’s cargo, five local men claim to have found the sunken City of Rio de Janeiro and to have evidence that silver slabs are on board.

The mystery has grown in recent days because the ship’s discoverers have refused to reveal details about their find, such as its exact location.

James Delgado, a historian with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said they apparently found the ship in late 1985.

But Delgado flatly contradicted their claims of buried treasure. He noted that the ship’s manifest listed only tin and an assortment of Chinese goods, and said the silver story did not begin until decades after the ship went down.

According to the rumor, the silver was valued at $2 million in 1901 and would be worth many millions more at today’s rates.

″There’s no treasure of that sort,″ Delgado said, adding that knowledgeable historians of the period agree the rumors are false. He said the story probably originated in a casual lie by the ship’s purser that was repeated and exaggerated in later years.

″The words ‘shipwreck’ and ‘treasure’ are synonymous in most people’s minds,″ he said. ″Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way.″

Gus Cafcalas, a San Francisco-area mortgage banker and one of the five treasure hunters, said this shipwreck has lived up to its rich reputation.

″We believe we have been able to document the story of the silver on board. We believe it is there,″ Cafcalas said. ″We are as sure (of the discovery of the ship) as you can be without being able to visually inspect it.″

Cafcalas and the other four members of Seagamb Corp., which they formed after their discovery, have applied to the State Lands Commission for a salvage permit.

He said they do not intend to raise the ship because of the condition of the hull and rough waters in the Golden Gate strait, where it went down. Seagamb hopes to explore the ship without trying to move it, and Cafcalas said they will find and raise the silver cargo.

The sinking of the City of Rio de Janeiro has fueled debate and discussion among historians since it sank amid the treacherous currents of the bay on the night of Feb. 23, 1901.

In one of the worst maritime disasters in San Francisco’s history, 121 of the 211 passengers - Chinese and Japanese immigrants completing their voyage from the Orient - died in the wreck.

Bar pilot Fredrick W. Jordan tried to find the ship’s way through a thick fog, operating in the days before radar. The steamer struck a submerged ledge just outside the southern side of the entrance to the bay, and it sunk in 10 minutes.

At its last stop, in Honolulu, the ship’s purser had told the port’s assistant postmaster the vessels was secretly carrying a cargo of silver bars.

No one knew where the silver came from, but some speculated it was the treasure of powerful Chinese officials that was being shipped out of the country because of political turmoil.

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