Early in the morning of February 22, 1901 the 3,500 ton passenger ship Rio de Janeiro struck a rock off Fort Point in San Francisco and went down with 210 people on board. “She had moved scarcely a mile when the river fog came down and enveloped the vessel completely, shutting out all sight of land and sky,” read a front page account in the San Francisco Chronicle. “She struck off Fort Point ledge and then slid back with the strong current into the deep water just off the ledge, and is now lying about thirty fathoms deep at a point between a quarter and half a mile from Fort Point.”
Alessandro Adami was one of several Italian fisherman based at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf who saw the disaster and sped in his fishing boat out to the wreck. Adami and his compatriots helped pluck 80 persons, including 43 Chinese crewman, from the icy waters on that foggy February morning. In an interview on April 12, 1978 at his home in San Francisco, Adami’s son, Alexander, described how his father recounted the facts of the tragedy.
“The ship loomed up in front of him in the fog,” Alexander Adami recalled his father telling him. “It had come into shore and then pulled out. He could see it was in trouble. It had damage to the bottom and he saw a fellow with a megaphone yelling for help. So he got the Coast Guard and then made two or three trips to pick up the people floating near the wreck. My dad must have saved mostly Chinese lives.”
San Francisco’s Chinese population never forgot his father’s deeds, said the younger Adami. Raised in a time when Chinese and Italian youths were bitter rivals who would attack each other whenever anyone crossed Pacific Street, then the border between Chinatown and North Beach, Alessandro Adami, his family and other Italian fishermen from that time forward enjoyed the respect and gratitude of the local Chinese. The Chinese Six Companies, the leading commercial and political organization in San Francisco’s Chinatown, gave $200 to each of the Italian fishing crews that had helped rescue the Rio’s Chinese crewmen. Adami also remembered that “the Chinese used to come to the house on holidays. They’d bring firecrackers and Chinese candy to us kids.”
The Italian-America Bank – today the Bank of America – also granted an award of $100 to each of the rescue teams, along with a plaque commemorating their humanitarian heroics.
In 1932 the story took a wildly different slant when Alessandro Adami’s other son, Al, became enmeshed in an underworld dispute and was given refuge in the Chinese community of Walnut Grove, in the Sacramento Delta. By 1934, thanks to the heroics of his father, Al Adami was given special favor by merchants in the all-Chinese town of Locke and opened a bar and restaurant which became known throughout Northern California: “Al the Wop’s.” Featuring an unusual menu of steak, peanut butter and bread and stiff drinks from its lengthy bar at the front of the house, Al’s has been serving clientele from neighboring ranches, the State Capitol, and visitors from all over Northern California from the 1930’s until the present day.
In a dramatic maritime discovery in December, 2014, the wreckage of the Rio de Janeiro was discovered with a remote submersible, broken and covered with sediment, only half a mile from San Francisco in 287 feet of water. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took 3-D and sonar images of the sunken ship.
“It is a great discovery,” Robert Schwemmer, maritime heritage coordinator for the Office of National Maritime Sanctuaries, told the San Francisco Chronicle. The wreck of the Rio de Janeiro was the biggest maritime disaster in this region. “It is often called the Bay Area’s Titanic,” he said.
While treasure hunters still dream of finding the $6 million in gold bullion rumored to be aboard the Rio, most experts consider the value of the sunken ship to be virtually nil. The Rio will likely remain where it is, buried in more than a century of mud and debris, like a maritime graveyard.
But just as vivid as the memory of the sinking of the Rio is the enduring legacy of the Italian restaurant that thrived in the midst of the nation’s last surviving all-Chinese town. Alessandro Adami’s heroics led to his son being sheltered in the embrace of Chinese patrons in Locke, California, where year around Al the Wop’s still serves up cocktails and a formidable cut of beef to its loyal patrons. Few of them know this improbable and inspiring story about how an Italian fisherman’s restaurant ended up in the middle of an all-Chinese town.
Now you can tell them all about it.