July 30, 1865: The SS Brother Jonathan sinks just off the coast of Crescent City, California. The paddle steamer was 220 feet long and 36 feet wide at the beam. She was built in 1851 and had a refit and update done in 1861. On this day she carried 244 passengers and crew. Of them, only 19 people survived making it the deadliest shipwreck on the Pacific Coast of the US up to that time. The final trip began from San Francisco Bay and the ship was headed to Portland and then to Victoria, British Columbia. She ran into gale force storms soon after leaving the bay’s protection. Most passengers were confined to their rooms by the “frightful winds and stormy seas”. The first night out, the ship anchored at Crescent City harbor. The weather seemed calmer.
On this day, they again left the calmer waters and headed out into the ocean and ran into more storms. The conditions became so perilous, the captain ordered the ship to turn around and get back to the harbor they had so recently left. Less than an hour after turning around, the ship struck an uncharted rock which pierced the hull. Within five minutes, the captain realized the ship was sinking and ordered everyone to abandon ship. Although there were enough lifeboats for all aboard, only three boats were able to be safely launched. The first to be launched capsized soon after it was lowered. The second lifeboat crashed against the sides of the quickly sinking ship. Only one boat safely managed to escape the wreck and make it to shore.
The nineteen aboard included the Union Commander of the Department of the Pacific, Dr. Anson Henry (Lincoln’s personal physician and closest friend), James Nesbit (a well known publisher) and Roseanna Keenan (a well known San Francisco madam). There were 11 crew members, five women, and three children in the lifeboat. Because of this shipwreck, new laws were enacted including one to assure that lifeboats could be released from a sinking ship and safely escape. Wells Fargo was shipping gold northward and there was what would be $50 million worth of the precious metal aboard. Although the ship sunk very close to shore and many attempts were made, the gold was not recovered.
It would take over a century and much more sophisticated technology before the wreck could be found and some of the artifacts salvaged. In 1993, the ship was found two miles from the reef it had struck. The wreckage was found at a depth of 275 feet using a mini-sub. In 1996, divers found 875 gold coins from in the early 1860s. They were in nearly mint condition. Eventually more gold was found along with other artifacts. No human remains were found amid the wreckage. It took legal intervention to determine who the owners of the salvage were and eventually the goods were auctioned off. A memorial has been established for the ship and her passengers and crew. It is registered as California Historical Landmark #541 and can be found in Crescent City.
Harbour, n. A place where ships taking shelter from storms are exposed to the fury of the Customs. – Ambrose Bierce
The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests. – Epictetus
I wished to see storms only on those coasts where they raged with most violence. – Marcel Proust
You don’t need to pray to God any more when there are storms in the sky, but you do have to be insured. – Bertolt Brecht
Also on this day: Where Did He Go? – In 1975, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared.
Follow the Money – In 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was signed into law.
Exterminated – In 2003, the last old style Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the assembly line.
House of Burgesses – In 1619, the legislative body first convened.
Grand Combin – In 1859, the Swiss mountain was first climbed.