The Wreck of the S.S. Tennessee

Watercolor sketching by Frizz of the S.S. Tennessee.

Watercolor sketching by Frizz
© Frizz, All Rights Reserved

…She was a favorite craft and one of the best sea boats that plowed the Pacific ocean. She was the home, the pride and the refuge of her officers and crew, and many a tear as salt as the brine that surrounds her shattered hull has coursed unbidden from manly eyes and sprung up involuntarily from the bold and courageous hearts of those whose pride and delight she was, as they have gazed on the last resting place of the gallant Tennessee. —Daily Alta California, March 9, 1853

The early morning hours of March 6, 1853 saw a thick fog settle in along the coast of Northern California as the S.S. Tennessee steamed towards the entrance to San Francisco Bay, some 100 miles away. Approaching from the South, after leaving Panama on February 19th, Captain E. Mellus continued on using dead reckoning to reach Mile Rock, about 2 miles Southwest of the Golden Gate.

What Capt. Mellus did not realize was that he had passed Mile Rock in the fog during the night and was turning East, sailing not into San Francisco Bay but into Indian Cove, nestled in the Marin Headlands. The fog lifted in time for the Captain to see land and realize that it was not Mile Rock. The horse-shoe shape of the cove made it impossible to back up and turn around so Capt. Mellus ran the Tennessee aground on the beach and removed 550 passengers, personal effects, cargo and mail from the ship in hopes that a higher tide would assist him in getting the ship afloat.

Some people went ashore where they set up tents and others boarded two waiting ships, the Goliah and the Confidence. There were no injuries during this evacuation, in fact the passengers lauded the Captain and his crew for their, “…coolness, good judgement and entire competency…”.

Unfortunately, during the night rolling waves came in, lifting the Tennessee up and dashing it down on the sandy bottom of Indian Cove. The next morning it was discovered that the ship’s back was broken and it had taken on water.

The area where the Tennessee ran aground and broke apart was re-named in her honor. We know it as Tennessee Cove and it is part of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. According to the GGNPC’s web site, “Coordinate your visit with a low tide and seasonal sand alignments to see the engine of the shipwrecked SS Tennessee.”

It will be 159 years tomorrow since the early morning fog claimed the S.S.Tennessee and, as if in tribute, the fog moved up the coast and into the Gate tonight, just like it did for Capt. Mellus. I turned on the fog horns at 22:28 hours and from the look of it on my way home a half hour later, this fog is thick and will probably remain until dawn, just as it did for him all those many years ago.

If the S.S. Tennessee had our fog horns to help guide her, this accident might well have been avoided.


Tennessee Valley contact information: Tennessee Valley Road, Sausalito, CA 94965     (415) 331-1540

Related Fog Links

  16 comments for “The Wreck of the S.S. Tennessee

  1. October 8, 2018 at 11:54 AM

    My great-great grandfather, John Jackson Lewis, traveled from Panama to San Francisco on the SS Tennessee, arriving on March 4, 1851. In searching for information about the ship he traveled on to add background info to his Diary and Journal about his trip, I came across your blog and I have added a link to your blog to my blog, I certainly hope you don’t mind. I found your account of the wreck interesting and informative. The painting really helps picture this event in history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 8, 2018 at 12:07 PM

      Thank you for linking to my story, Judy and welcome aboard. You might want to check out the California Digital Newspaper Collection. It is an online collective of scanned newspapers dating back to the 1800’s. Here’s a link:


  2. December 10, 2014 at 10:55 AM

    inspiring to paint..


    • December 10, 2014 at 1:57 PM

      I can’t wait to see it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • December 11, 2014 at 9:31 PM

        “I wish that the SS Tennessee had our modern fog horns to help guide her back in the day…” – maybe my painting can give your story (second step) a third life.


      • December 11, 2014 at 9:48 PM

        I would love to see your painting and see if we could work it into an update of that post. What do you think about that idea?

        Sent from my iPhone


        Liked by 1 person

      • December 12, 2014 at 12:34 AM

        for you:


  3. John
    March 5, 2012 at 11:16 PM

    Give the Captain “props” he did much better than the “Costa Nostra” (oops) Captain!


    • March 5, 2012 at 11:52 PM

      Captain Mellus did the best he could and the passengers revered him for it.

      Thanks for reading my Blog.


  4. Phyllis Galanis
    March 5, 2012 at 10:21 PM

    Nice article, Al re the SS Tennessee’s last night and Capt. Mellus. Really appreciated hearing more of the human details about how Tennessee Valley was named. I’ve hiked it many times in fog, rain and sun–one of my favorite spots. Have never seen the SS Tennessee’s engine, though. Like your new banner pix, too. Great shot especially since it must have been windy (judging from the fog) when you shot it. Fog looks beautiful coming through the Gate when you’re above it, but how unnerving fog is when you’re in its grayness and can’t see anything, familiar or not, except the enveloping grayness. Phyllis


    • March 5, 2012 at 11:54 PM

      I checked our Shop’s Log tonight and the Fog Horns were turned off at 10:45 am this morning. That time frame is almost exactly what Captain Mellus dealt with on that fateful day.


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