Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Digging for Gold at the Library: Marine Exchange records

(by Gina Bardi, Reference Librarian)

Every once and awhile, research questions will come in droves about a certain subject. Suddenly, everyone will want to know about a specific ship or event.  Usually this can be traced to news segment or TV show, but there are times when a collection just suddenly, mysteriously becomes popular.  In the last few weeks I’ve had quite a few requests for information in our Marine Exchange Records. They’re one of my favorite resources here and since everyone else is using them, you should be too. 

The San Francisco Marine Exchange was started in 1849. Its purpose was to look for and report vessels entering the bay.  Located atop Telegraph Hill (Here’s a good “didja know” to bring up at a cocktail party: Telegraph Hill got its name from the signal station there), the Marine Exchange would alert the city to incoming vessels by means of a wooden semaphore.  Everyone in San Francisco quickly learned what the signals met as evidenced by the oft repeated tale of a theatre performance being disrupted by howls of laughter when an actor on stage in response to a revelation in the play, threw his hands open in despair and lamented “What is this?” and a cheeky member of the audience yelled “It’s a sidewheel steamer.”
As I said, the Marine Exchange documented every vessel that came in or out of the bay. Our collection (HDC 559) includes:  12 Ledgers, scrapbooks of marine disasters, mishaps, and total losses, 102 Ledgers vessel arrivals/departures, indexed and a card index to arrivals by vessel name. Some of the collection is available on microfilm. The time span for the records is roughly 1886- 1982 for arrivals and departures and 1854-1962 for disasters, mishaps and total losses.  Here’s an example from Arrivals vol. 1 1904-1906. Note the first entry is the Mathew Turner  brig, the Galilee carrying a load of copra.

The ledger is so large it’s difficult to scan the entire page, but the information contained includes, date of arrival, nation, class name of vessel, tonnage, master, days from last port, cargo, consignees, import folio and departure folio and finally any remarks.  This is a heck of a lot of information.  There is no passenger information though. I REPEAT no passenger information (that’s for the intrepid genealogist who is already picking up the phone to call and see if their relative is listed- they’re not).

The Disaster and Mishaps and Total Losses ledgers are similar. Arranged by date, they list occurrences of cargos burned, masts snapped and crews lost with no traces to be found.  Some are detailed and seem to be retelling of Captains accounts, others are just a line or two.  Below is the entry from the Disaster log vol. 1 1900-1906 for the wreck of the City of Rio de Janeiro, a Pacific Mail steamer which hit a reef in San Francisco Bay.  131 people died. 

There is something for everyone in these records. It is my hope to have them all scanned and made available for researchers the world over.  Until then though, come to the library to see these unique records for yourself. 

The Marine Exchange Records (HDC 559 SAFR 18592) can be accessed in person by appointment. Some of the collection is available on microfilm and will be substituted for original material at the discretion of Collections Staff.  Please contact or call 415/561-7033. Scans or photocopies can be made as well at the discretion of the Collections Staff. Please see our Duplication Services for information on fees.

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