The Sterling: Lost But Not Forgotten


John W. Foster
Senior State Archaeologist
California State Parks

Sacramento, California is knows as the River City  in the Golden State. Until recently, however, it inhabitants had seemingly lost touch with their aqueous roots. Stuck in the midst of a great Central Valley  with her formerly mighty rivers tamed by a series of dams and levees, the River City turned inland.  It passed time with the  Bakersfields and Modestos. Two extraordinary events occurred in the very recent past, however, which served to rekindle the interest of Sacramentans in their river/sea heritage. In the fall of 1985,  a wayward humpback named “Humphrey” slowly made his way inland from the San Francisco Bay. His cetacean odyssey became a huge media event, attracting coverage that was the envy of every politician in the Capitol. Many people were reminded that the whale was retracing a connection to the sea which had, some 136 years prior, brought Gold Rush argonants from all over the world to the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers.

Another startling discovery had been made a  few months prior to “Humphrey’s” wrong turn. Near the foot of ‘J’ Street at a depth of 20 feet in the Sacramento River, less than a mile from California’s restored Capitol building, large portions of a  sailing ship’s hull were found during an underwater archaeological survey. This paper will describe the site, present data which leads to its identification as the Gold Rush brig Sterling, and evaluate its interpretive and archaeological potential.

River front survey

In the summer of  1984, an archaeological survey of the Sacramento river front carried out to provide environmental clearance necessary for the reconstruction of an historic wharf. This work was ably performed by Jack Hunter (Hunter, et al. 1984), and involved remote sensing and SCUBA reconnaissance. A magnetometer proved useless as the bottom silts were found to contain a great deal of discarded iron. A 100kn side scan sonar unit, however, identified a total of seventeen targets protruding from the river bottom at the base of a concrete floodwall.  Diving reconnaissance operations identified each object as a tree stump, wharf piling or some other archaeologically inconsequent target with one exception. Feature 16, provided a dramatic find.

Protruding from the mud at a depth of 30 ft and oriented perpendicular to the current, is the bow section of a blue water sailing vessel presumed to be the brig Sterling. It lies on its port side, bow slightly inclined, with 44 ft of starboard hull exposed. The vessel remains at the point disappear beneath rip-rap rock which was deposited in 1914 to armor a floodwall at the foot of the waterfront. While the port side hull lies buried beneath silt and sand, the curve of the starboard hull extends to a level above the waterline near the sheer strake. Above that the frames and hull planking are missing. An anchor chain, made from “stud links,” exits the starboard hull through a lead covered hawse pipe and disappears into the silt after a short distance-suggesting an anchor was deployed at the time of her loss. The chain can be followed for only a short way into the vessel’s interior, where it becomes entwined in heavy timbers. The port side hawse pipe has been located in the silt in its expected position.

 Sterling's Copper Sheet   Closeup of Sterling's copper workmanship

Sterling 4-Ring

The hull is covered with fastened copper sheets measuring 13 by 14 in.  These, of course, formed a barrier to  marine organisms that threatened wooden vessels. Copper sheathing attest to the oceanic heritage of  the hull. It is a trait typical of mid-nineteenth century vessels and has been documented on other Gold Rush ships found in California such as the Winfield Scott and Tennessee (Delgado, 1983). Small sheathing nails of copper alloy attached sheathing plates to hull planks covered with tarred felt. On the cutwater area, lead sheathing overlies the copper.

A shackle for a single bobstay is attached to the stem. Bar style chainplates (which generally date prior to 1860) lie scattered around the starboard hull. One chainplate lies loosely wedged between two frames. Surviving preventer bolts for chainplate attachment are located approximately 30 ft aft the stem. The run of the hull is well established in this area and its estimated that the 44 ft of the exposed bow represents one-half of the ship. No detailed map of the wreck has been prepared, but approximate measurements predict the vessel’s bean to be between 20 and 25  ft as measured from the interior.

Sterling anchor

The interior hull is an open cavity penetrable only from below. The deck or decks are missing although at least one breasthook remains in place. The stump of a severed mast matching the angle of the bow is located approximately even with the chainplate preventer bolts. A lead ring forms a gasket where the mast passed through the weather deck. Only short deck plank fragments adhere to the lead gasket.

One of the most significant features of this wrecksite relates to the fact that there are not one, but two vessels present. The burnt hull remains of a flat-bottomed river craft lie parallel to the floodwall on top of the rip-rap and perpendicular to the Sterling. Most of its bow is missing, but heavy framing timbers and plants blanket most of the Sterling’s hull. Its position was well established by the archaeological survey that followed Hunter’s reconnaissance (James 1984). Little is know of this enigmatic river craft. Its means of propulsion has yet to be documented. It may have been a casualty of the great Broderick fire which swept the Sacramento riverfront in 1932 burning dozens of old steamers and barges laid up by the depression. Incredibly, however, it has come to rest on top of  the earlier vessel.

The significance of this in archaeological terms derives from a combination of factors. The copper-sheathed hull is heeled over on its port side at about a  45 degree angle. This position, combined with the rivercraft wreckage overlying it, has preserved a deposit protected from contamination inside the hull. An artifact bearing deposit of thick sediment has been documented. Metal objects can be seen protruding from the silts. An iron frypan has been recovered from the top of this sediment immediately aft of the mast. It comes from what must be a sealed deposit, a “time capsule” containing artifacts on board at the time of her loss.

Now throughout this discussion reference has been made to the vessel as Sterling. The reasoning behind this reference begs explanation, but first we need to back up slightly in time. The Sacramento waterfront in 1848 was a quiet stretch lined with oaks and cottonwoods, but it was about to change forever. Upon the announcement that gold was discovered in the mountains above Sacramento, thousands of fortune-seekers made their way by every possible means to the small embarcadero established by John Sutter eight years prior.

Since there were no steamboats in California at this time, the fleet which ventured up the Sacramento River was composed of sailing ships (sloops and schooners, barks, and brigantines). For many it was a final journey. Vessel after vessel was abandoned by its crew and stripped of all usable items for sale in the gold fields. The hulks which remained became the embryonic city, including its first hotels, stores, post offices, hospitals, jails and warehouses (McGowan 1976:43) During the winter they offered the only dry refuge for man and beast alike. By May of 1850, there were a total of 33 storeships tied up at the Sacramento waterfront. These eyesores were to be a fixture until the mid 1860’s, when permanent levees and substantial building obviated their need.

One of the many vessels participating in the frantic rush to California was the tiny brig Sterling. She was built in Duxbury, Massachusetts in 1833 by Samuel A. Fraser. Eighty eight feet in length, two mastered and registered at 201 tons, she was involved in coastal trade between Boston and Philadelphia in the 1840s carrying cargo and passengers from the Union Line. Then the rush to the gold regions fated her to become one of the famed 49er California Fleet.

Sterling departed for San Francisco from Beverly, Massachusetts on a snowy January 3 to begin her new life. She sailed down the eastern seaboard and around Cape Horn carrying a large cargo of stores and seven passengers. Of the actual passage, nothing is known except that Captain Edmund K. Gallop successfully brought her in after 180 days. Her small size and shallow draft (11 1/2 ft., almost identical to “Humphrey”) probably gave her an advantage in the lucrative river trade over larger, clumsier vessels. On August 28, 1849, Sterling is reported up the San Joaquin River at the port of Stockton. On May 7, 1850, the brig, complete with riggings and sails, was advertised for auction at the level, foot of  ‘I’ Street (Delgado 1985:3) By July 15, she is noted tied up on the north bank at the Sacramento levee, and it was here that her conversion to a storeship occurred. By December 1854, however, she is reported drying up like the old toper among a lot of empty gin and whisky (sic) casks (Sacramento Union, December 22, 1854). She managed to hang on until the fall of 1855 when she sank at her moorings.

The 22 year old Sterling might have passed away without notice on the Sacramento levee except for a valiant struggle against dismemberment. Between October 11 and November 13 of 1855 there were no less than 8 “items” in the daily Democratic State Journal concerning her fate. The City of Sacramento contacted with various parities to remove the hulk, but increasing silts from the hydraulic  mining upstream heavily encased her in mud. There was initial optimism when the operation began. The newspaper reported “we may soon expect to hear that the hulk Stirling (sic)has been removed piecemeal....” In acknowledgment of her many newspaper mentionings, the writer continued, we think each of the city “items” should preserve one of her saturated timbers as a weighty memento of what the Stirling (sic) has done them, when filling a vacant place herself, she helped them do the same” (Democratic State Journal Oct. 17, 1855). The mourning was a bit premature. Exposed sections of the ship were skinned and removed by a subcontractor, Mr. H. Horton. He approached the job attempting to stop leaks by means of submarine armor on the starboard side so that the pumps could succeed. As the newspaper quipped, “we may look forward to not too distant day when that Standing Item will be numbered among the things that were” (Democratic State Journal, Oct. 26, 1855.

By October 29, efforts at dismemberment took a serious turn. The newspaper reported the work crew had “had called gunpowder to their aid,” but a note of realism escaped when they concluded “If by means of powder, the Stirling (sic) cannot be thrown in fragments, it is hoped that it will have at least the effect of loosening her in her bed...” (Democratic State Journal, Oct. 29, 1855). Within two weeks it became apparent that further efforts were useless. The Common Council of the city of Sacramento thought the task an “impossibility” (Democratic State Journal, Nov 13, 1855).  Finally, the City paid the contractor while the newspaper noted, “we are reliably informed that the job has been a losing one” (Democratic State Journal, Nov 16, 1855).

In a final lament that they would no longer fill up their pages
with progress reports on the Sterling, a eulogy appeared:

Thought other ships may come and other
bards may sing, Strange Manners oft
transpire Here’s health to thee STER
LING! Here;s a hand for those who love thee
Here’s a smile for those who hate,
A sigh for those who don’t deplore,
Thy twisted watery fate. Great scarcity
of items May make reporters sulk But
when we have our columns full We’ll
drink to thee, “old hulk.”
 (Democratic State Journal, Nov. 1, 1855)

Sterling historic drawing

The documented wreck near the foot of ‘J’ Street in the Sacramento River is an excellent match with what would be expected of Sterling’s bones. The bow is ‘bluffed.’ The estimated length, beam and draft correspond, she seems to have been two masted, the starboard side is the best preserved, the upper works and deck seem to have been forcibly wrenched from her, and those parts deeply embedded in the mud are remarkably intact. Further comparison with the other documented riverfront storeships (Globe, Orb). Dimon and Eliza show them being relocated and broken up elsewhere (Barter 1984; McGowan 1976). Sterling alone seems to have ended her career as an immortal if cursed obstacle at the foot of the levee. And, she’s still there!

Thorough mapping and recordation await, but some preliminary assessment of Sterling’s archaeological and interpretive potential can be made. Only a few other Gold-Rush vessels with significant hull remains have been found in California. Among them are San Francisco's King Street Ship, identified as the 1840 whaler Lydia (cf. Patron et.a. 1981: Fig. 4:39) and the famous Gold Rush storeship Niantic (Olmstead et.a. 1977:284). The other vessel thought to be in this category among California vessels reached but not destroyed in excavation is that found on Greenwich Street in Levi's Plaza, San Francisco. She is thought to be the William Gray which was in use as a storeship in 1852. But unlike these vessels located in urban landfills, Sterling  is exposed and accessible to investigation.

The combination of its orientation and overlying riverboat wreckage have provided a potentially sealed deposit inside the vessel’s hull. Newspaper accounts of her attempted dismantling indicated the use of pumps to remove mud for the exposure and demolition of ship elements. But since his effort fell far short of success, the potential exists to record evidence of the types of goods stored and activities represented on a  Sacramento Gold Rush  storeship. This excavation may offer a unique archaeological perspective on the role of a storeship in the birth of a city. Sterling may have been thoroughly cleaned out prior to her sinking. But if she wasn’t, she may offer, in murky water, a shadow glimpse of Sacramento’s origins and the enterprise of an embarcadero.

Aerial view of Old Sacramento State Historic Park (Site of Sutter's Embarcadeo in the 1840's)

Its interpretive potential is likewise incredibly great. Instead of being dashed on a remote reef or buried under an urban landscape, Sterling’s remains are situated in the heart of the city’s tourist center. In the very place chosen to depict Old Sacramento, the bones of the ‘old hulk’ offer a management and interpretive challenge. One  idea that has emerged is to construct a coffer dam enclosing the wreck site. The attempt would not be to drain the wreck, but to protect it, filter the water, install underwater lights, and allow people to view the bones of a Gold Rush ship. Sutter’s embarcadero, which saw an explosion of activity in the 1850s, is again being rediscovered as the River City reclaims its heritage.


Barter, Eloise Richards
 n.d. Storeships and Hulks on the Sacramento Waterfront
 Manuscripts in authors possession

Delgado, James P.
1963 Underwater Archaeological Investigations of Gold Rush Era Steamships on the
California Coastline. Proceedings of the First Biennial Conference of
Research in California’s National Parks. UC Davis Press.

Foster, John. W.
1985a All Wet in the River City: An Underwater Survey of the Sacramento River.
 Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Archaeology, San Diego.

1985b An Assessment and Treatment of Impacts to Historic Shipwrecks in the
Sacramento River. Report prepared for the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency, Sacramento.

Hunter, J., Sp. Helmich, and Monica Reed
1984 Old Sacramento Waterfront Underwater Archaeological Survey. Report
prepared for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, Sacramento.

James, Stephen R.
1984 Spatial Limits of Two Shipwrecks “J” Street Area, Sacramento, California.
 Report prepared for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, Sacramento.

McGowan, Joseph. A.
1976 The Sacramento Waterfront: Report on Historical Cultural Resources for the
 North Shore Channel Outfalls Consolidation Project. Report prepared for
 the San Francisco Wastewater Management Program, San Francisco.

Pastron, Allen G.
1981 Behind the Seawall: Historical Archaeology along the San Francisco Waterfront.,
Vol. !. San Francisco Clean Water Program. Arahceo-Tec. Oakland.