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1. The Burning of America

Beginning with Paragon in April 1850 and Tarquin the following January, the coast of Del Norte County and that part of Humboldt County included within Redwood National Park was destined to be the scene of many maritime disasters. Sunday, June 24, 1855, was a memorable day for Crescent City. At 3:30 p.m., the big sidewheel steamboat America, A. G. Jones master, anchored in the harbor. The steamer was en route from San Francisco for Puget Sound with a battalion of the U. S. Infantry commanded by Maj. Henry Prince.

America had stopped at Crescent City to land passengers, freight, and mail. Soon after the mail had been put ashore in a lighter, one of the stokers discovered "large quantities of smoke issuing from the coal bunkers." He raised the cry of "Fire!" No flame could be seen, but "volumes of smoke and gas" soon filled the area below decks, driving out the engineers and stokers. It was impossible for anyone to go below to pinpoint the fire. [20]

Meanwhile, those ashore had observed the smoke and speculated on its cause. Soon, however, they realized the ship was afire. Lighters, boats, and canoes headed for America, while those ashore could see that Captain Jones and Major Prince had turned their men to in an effort to control the fire. Pumps were manned, as sailors and soldiers fought the flames amid suffocating gas and smoke. After about 30 minutes, Captain Jones told Major Prince to have the lighters come alongside and put most of the soldiers ashore. As soon as this was done, Captain Jones ran his ship aground, bows on, in shallow water about 150 yards from the beach. [21]

Here the crew and soldiers were reinforced by citizens. For a time, it appeared that the firefighters had gained the upper hand, but "the dense smoke gradually deepened and darkened, the efforts on board became feebler . . ., and a sheet of clear flame that tore through the black sky proclaimed the triumph of the destroyer." The ship was abandoned.

By Monday morning the flames had died, leaving "a charred, smouldering and hideous skeleton" of America. Subsequently, the hulk was examined and it was believed that it would pay to tow it to San Francisco, where the vessel would be rebuilt. Accordingly, the steamer Goliah took the hulk in tow. Off Point Reyes, she encountered heavy seas and the hawser parted, casting the hulk adrift. Efforts were made to get a line aboard America, without success, and when last seen she was shipping water badly, with the seas breaking across her. [22]

2. The Sinking of the Steamer Brother Jonathan

A frightful disaster occurred off the coast on Sunday, July 30, 1865. Two days before the sidewheel steamer Brother Jonathan, of 1,359 tons and owned by the California Steam Navigation Co., had left San Francisco bound for Portland, Oregon. She carried about 120 cabin passengers, 72 in steerage, and a crew of 50 officers and men. Among the passengers was the commander of the newly constituted Department of the Columbia, Brig. Gen. George Wright, his wife, and staff; and Paymaster E. W. Eddy with $300,000 with which to pay the troops at Fort Vancouver. [23]

Capt. S. J. DeWolf conned his ship out the Golden Gate and into a north wind. The rugged Farallones soon dropped astern, and the vessel was out of sight of land. On the morning of the 30th, the wind increased in velocity and became a howling nor'wester. Captain DeWolf, taking cognizance of the mountainous waves, determined to turn his vessel about and make for Crescent City, 16 miles to the southeastward. He would anchor in the lee of Battery Point and ride out the storm, resuming the run up the coast as soon as the storm had abated.

Off Point St. George, about four miles from land, lay St. George Reef. It was customary for steamers sailing against a nor'wester to keep close inshore, inside the reef. But Brother Jonathan, in beating her way toward Crescent City, held to a course outside the reef as laid down on the chart. Quartermaster Yates recalled that the ship was four miles due west of Point St. George, when she struck a sunken ledge. The shock sent passengers and many of the crew scrambling out on deck. DeWolf sought to back his ship off. For five minutes she wallowed helplessly. Then there was another dull thump. A section of her keel surfaced. Her foremast torn loose, dropped, punching another hole in her bottom, and came to rest with its foreyards across the rails.

The stranding was so sudden, so unexpected, so terrible that those aboard had barely recovered their wits, when the cry, "Abandon Ship!" was raised. Some women fainted, others called for help; strong men who had faced death paled. All looked to Captain DeWolf for "the means of safety and delivery." Life-preservers were passed out, two guns were fired in quick succession as a signal of distress, and the command "Lower Life boats!" was given. Three were lowered from the davits. One, crowded with women and children, was swamped. Another, filled with men, collapsed. The third, captained by 3d Mate Charles Patterson, and manned by Quartermaster Yates, a steerage steward, and 13 others, was able to beat her way clear of the doomed ship. Pulling at their oars, they soon lost sight of Brother Jonathan, and all their energies were devoted to keeping their small craft from being swamped. They reached Crescent City about 4 p.m. and sounded the alarm. [24]

A number of boats were manned, and the would-be rescuers put out into the wind-swept Pacific. High seas forced them to turn back far short of the reef. Early the next day, July 31, two boats commanded by Benjamin West and Anson Burr started out to look for survivors. They returned that evening with the report that they had seen neither wreckage nor bodies. Monday evening a boat manned by 3d Mate Patterson and others sailed for Eureka to obtain assistance. Before proceeding very far, they sighted wreckage, which Patterson identified as part of Brother Jonathan's hurricane deck, along with beds and trunks. They returned to Crescent City with this information. Meanwhile, the lifeboat which had been swamped drifted ashore on the beach, near Crescent City. [25]

On Tuesday, August 1, two men in a small boat excitedly told that they had seen people on Seal Rock. Several rescue boats were manned, and at 1 p.m. they pulled off into a heavy surf. When they reached the rock, they found, to their disappointment, that the "people" were sea lions. Because of the heavy seas and a strong head wind, they did not get back to Crescent City until 1 a.m. The hard pull and cold spray had sapped their strength and they were exhausted. [26]

Several days after the disaster, a boat went up and tried to pinpoint the site of the sinking. Quartermaster Yates pointed out a rocky ledge, a small portion of which was visible at low tide, as the one on which Brother Jonathan struck. The rock, which was not on any charts issued by the Coast Survey, was named "Brother Jonathan Rock." [27]

News of the loss of Brother Jonathan, along with 215 passengers and crew, did not reach San Francisco until Wednesday, August 2. There was no direct telegraph line connecting Crescent City with the Bay area, so a soldier from Camp Lincoln rode up the plank road to Jacksonville, Oregon, with a message addressed to Col. R. C. Drum. The dispatch read:

At 2 p.m. yesterday the steamer Brother Jonathan, struck a sunken rock and sank in less than an hour with all on board except 16 persons who escaped in a small boat, the only survivors of the ill-fated ship. No trace of the vessel is left. Gen. Wright, family, and staff are supposed to be lost.

This message was received at San Francisco late on August 1, and the next morning, when the Alta California published the news, the city was plunged into mourning. Flags hung at half-mast. Bells tolled. Buildings were draped in crepe. [28]

Nine to ten days after the sinking, the bodies of the victims began to come ashore. A patrol of soldiers from Camp Lincoln watched the beaches near Crescent City, while troops from Fort Humboldt patrolled the coast north to Trinidad. Every day three or four bodies were picked up at sea by boatmen, and a number came ashore on the beaches above and below Crescent City. As fast as they could be secured the bodies were taken to Dugan & Wall's warehouse, where an inquest was held. The 45 bodies recovered in the area were buried in the old Crescent City cemetery, near Pebble Beach. Those found south of Trinidad were laid to rest at Dows Prairie or taken to Eureka. Between Gold Bluffs and Trinidad, about 16 bodies were interred near the beach. The body of General Wright's horse and a camel—there were two camels aboard the ship destined for the Portland zoo—were found on a beach, eight miles north of Trinidad. It was said by the survivors that Captain DeWolf's Newfoundland, a superb swimmer, would certainly reach shore, but the angry sea was too strong for the dog. [29]

In the old Crescent City cemetery there is a monument encircled by markers, bearing the inscription, "Sacred to the Memory of __________, Lost on the Brother Jonathan, July 30, A.D. 1865." [30]

Each summer until the turn of the century, promoters would organize expeditions to recover the treasure that went down with Brother Jonathan. These expeditions came to naught, because they were never able to pinpoint the site of the sinking. [31]

3. Queen Christina Runs Aground

In the period 1865-1907 a number of vessels were wrecked or stranded along this coast. Amanda Alger went ashore at the Gold Bluffs in December 1871; Centennial stranded in April 1877 as she sought to cross the bar at the mouth of the Klamath; seven vessels, including California, Wall, and Elvenia, were stranded near Crescent City in the years 1878-1881. Seven more strandings were reported to the Life-Saving Service for the period 1884-1905. Several of these ships, including Dauntless, had run afoul of the Klamath Bar. [32]

On October 21, 1907, the coast of Del Norte claimed a noted victim. One of the largest freighters on the Pacific coast at this time was Queen Christina. She had been built at Newcastle, England, in 1901. Displacing 4,268 tons, she had a beam of 48 feet and a length of 360 feet. The Queen had sailed from San Francisco on Saturday, October 19, for Portland, with a cargo of wheat.

Off Point St. George on Monday, the 21st, she encountered a pea-soup-like fog. Capt. George R. Harris, believing he was holding a course seven miles off-shore, eased his ship ahead. Suddenly, there was the sickening thud of iron grating against rock. The damage control people called that the ship was hard aground and taking water badly, so Captain Harris passed the order to abandon ship. The crew made shore in two lifeboats.

At this hour the sea was smooth, but the stricken vessel would be exposed to storms bearing in from both the southeast and southwest. It was accordingly predicted that she would be pounded to pieces on the rocks by the first heavy sea.

When word of the wreck reached Crescent City, the Hobbs, Wall steam-schooner Navarro got under way. A line was sent aboard the big freighter, but Navarro was unable to pull her off the rocks. Arrangements were then made by Captain Harris to employ the Hobbs, Wall vessel to help his crew salvage as much as they could from the wreck.

Captain Harris sought to pin the blame for the disaster on the personnel manning the Point St. George Reef Light, claiming that the foghorn was not being sounded at the time his ship became stranded. The keepers' claim that it was being sounded was backed by most mariners, who pointed out that under "some conditions you can be 'right on top' of a foghorn and still not hear it." [33]

Those who said that Queen Christina would not withstand the first winter's storm had not reckoned with the quality of the workmanship of the Tyne shipbuilders. She not only took all the Pacific had to offer during the winter of 1907-1908, but she retained her lines. It was not until January 1909 that she succumbed to the breakers. The Crescent City News reported at that time that the "stranded steamer Queen Christina is a complete wreck . . . there is nothing visible of the ill-fated craft except a portion of the bridge . . . heavy seas roll over it . . . the masts have gone by the board." [34]

4. The Foundering of Magnolia

An unidentified vessel stranded on the Klamath Bar in 1908, and eight years later the small 49-ton coastal freighter Magnolia came to grief at the same point. On April 8, 1916, Magnolia sought to enter the Klamath in rough seas with a cargo of shakes. She was caught in the breakers and capsized, drowning her four-man crew. Magnolia then drifted out to sea. The Coast Guard, upon being notified of the disaster, dispatched the cutter Humboldt Bay northward. The cutter located the derelict, put a line aboard, and towed her down the coast to Eureka. [35]

5. The Disappearance of South Coast

Two vessels were lost off the coast fronting Redwood National Park in the period 1917 to 1929. On October 27, 1918, Mandalay became a victim of the sea nine miles north of the mouth of the Klamath, and six years later the motorship Sharp, a light coastal freighter, operating out of San Francisco, was wrecked offshore. A ship closely identified with Crescent City and Del Norte County, the Hobbs, Wall freighter Del Norte stranded on Point Arena on July 27, 1917. She was bound for San Francisco from Crescent City with "a valuable cargo of lumber, 80 tons of high-grade chrome ore, several tons of butter, seven passengers, and crew." [36]

The steamer South Coast was a veteran. Built in 1887 she had logged thousands of miles in the coastal trade. The 301-ton vessel had been purchased by Hobbs, Wall in 1915. In September 1930 she was chartered to haul cedar logs from Crescent City to Coos Bay, Oregon. Two trips had been made, so no apprehension was felt, when South Coast pulled away from the Crescent City wharf at 10 a.m. on the 16th. Although she carried no radio, the sea was calm, and Capt. Stanley Sorenson and his 18-man crew looked forward to a pleasant run up the coast. [37]

South Coast never reached her destination. That evening residents of Gold Beach, Oregon, saw a flash at sea, followed by a dull boom. The next day the crew of the General Petroleum Tanker Tejon sighted debris (logs, several lifeboats, and a pilothouse) 40 miles south of Cape Blanco and 30 miles to the seaward. The captain of Tejon radioed word of the disaster to officials of Hobbs, Wall and the United States Coast Guard Station at Humboldt Bay. The Coast Guard cutter Cahokia headed for the scene. No survivors were found, but the pilothouse and lifeboats were recovered and taken to Eureka. An examination of these indicated that the lifeboats had not been lowered, but had been torn from their davits, while the pilothouse had been battered from the deck. This satisfied Captain Halvorson of Cahokia that South Coast had struck Rogue River Reef in a fog, causing the cargo to shift, and capsizing the vessel. [38]

The grave of South Coast was found on July 30, 1937, as the Department of Commerce survey steamer Guide was making soundings off Port Orford. Her wire drags became entangled in the mast of a sunken ship. A diver was sent down, and returned with word that he had found the missing ship. Her position confirmed Captain Halvorson's theory that South Coast had indeed struck Rogue River Reef and had foundered there. [39]

Two vessels were wrecked off the coast in the 1940s. On November 16, 1942, Susan Olson was stranded at Crescent City, and on February 3, 1948, the 69-ton dragger Garrison went down in 128 fathoms of water off the north head of False Klamath Rock. [40]

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004