In 1853, there were few public transportation options in the Bay Area. Folks travelling between San Francisco and San Jose had the option of a long, dusty ride in a crowded stagecoach, or a more leisurely excursion by steamboat. Two side-wheel steamers traveled daily between San Francisco and Alviso, which served as the port into San Jose and one of these was named the “Jenny Lind.”
On the morning of April 11th, 1853, 150 passengers boarded the Jenny Lind in San Francisco, southbound for Alviso. On board were people from every walk of life — gold seekers and gamblers, families with children and a number of prominent businessmen who turned the wheels of industry in San Jose.
It had been an uneventful trip when the dinner bell rang to signal seating in the dining compartment. The Jenny Lind was off shore from present-day Redwood City, just north of where the Dumbarton Bridge is today. Families with women and children were seated first, followed by the businessmen. It was then, that a sudden ominous shudder ran through the ship.
On the opposite side of a wooden bulkhead from the dining compartment, the ship’s boiler suddenly exploded, blowing the bulkhead in upon the diners and unleashing a cloud of scalding steam and boiling water. Some were killed instantly, others succumbed hours or even days later to the effects of steam inhalation. More than 50 lost their lives, including every woman and child on board.
The tragedy of the Jenny Lind prompted public outcry for greater safety standards to be adopted. The Port of Alviso which had thrived in the 1850s, suffered greatly as a result of the disaster and has slipped quietly into obscurity.
Today, we hardly give our safety a second thought as we travel across the bay, but it was not always so. Next time you cross the bay, take a moment to gaze out across the water and to remember the Jenny Lind.
With a Perspective on the anniversary of the Jenny Lind disaster, I’m Claire Britton-Warren.