THE WRECK OF
SOURCE - The Real
Frontier August,1971 VOL.2, NO. 3. By Harry E. Rieseberg.
This the true factual account of the
strange mystery of the old frontier sidewheeler
one of the Old West’s famous Pacific Coast ships who legend has
grown fat an most colorful down through the years by the
undocumented, questionable and ambiguous fiction writers who gave
small consideration the of the truth of the vessel’s loss.
Sacramento was one of the principal
early California gold carriers, which carried huge consignments of
gold and silver from the California gold camps to the eastern ports
until meeting her final anchorage with her last passage on an
uncharted reef, later to be marked on our nautical charts as the
in memory of the master and crew’s bravery and actions in saving her
Early Spanish galleons
and frigates, tall ships of sail, pioneer steam sidewheelers
carrying gold and silver from the California gold fields, foreign
schooners and barks—the waters of the West Coast have had them all!
Waters from Alaska southward to and just below the Mexican border
have been the scene of disasters which have taken their terrific
toll of ships for the past three hundred years. More than 5,000
ships have been lost since Sir Francis Drake, in 1587, sailed
southward to Cano Island, off Ecuador. In truth, these usually calm
waters were once a seaway of death.
Sacramento was built in 1864, in
New York City, and immediately sailed around the "Horn" for service
by the Pacific Mail Steamship company. Sidewheelers at that period
were scarce and much needed, and the
was an exceptionally large craft of 2,647 tons.
Strangely enough, with the passage of the
years, as the legend of the
Sacramento has grown luridly
distorted. The incident has been recorded as being pushed back into
1849 and the ship packed with hundreds of red-shirted gold miners
and prospectors gold-rushing to San Francisco and the Mother Lode
country. The vessel’s last hours have been reported crammed with
horror, with everyone aboard perishing miserably. As a matter of
fact, the gold rush period was a score of years behind her time. Her
consignment of gold and silver actually had come from the diggings
of the California mines. The passengers were merely ordinary
travelers, and none were drowned or lost.
In fact, the
master, Captain Farnsworth, seeing his ship pile up upon an unnamed
sandy, uninhabited reef, close to Geronimo Island off Baja
California during the second mate’s watch, had informed his officer
T. Herrington, in effect: ‘O.K.
Sonny Boy, you were in charge when she hit the reef—now
you go get some help!"
Accordingly, instead of
turning in when his watch had ended at midnight of that Thursday
evening, the luckless second officer suddenly found himself at 12:45
A.M. Friday morning shoving off from the wrecked sidewheeler in a
hastily-provisioned gig, with orders from his master to make the 190
miles to San Diego, in a boat manned with only two white men and
four Chinese seamen to man the oars of the frail craft.
On the first day at sea
in the gig, the crew didn’t do too well, making only thirty-four
miles eastward in the direction of San Diego. Probably they were
learning the grim fact that in beating to windward under sail and
oars, a ship’s boat leaves much to be desired. On the second day
they apparently took to the oars alone, and covered forty-six miles
each, with four of the seamen at the oars constantly while the
Meanwhile, back on the reef. The rest of
passengers and crew were not idle. When dawn came, they discovered
that the vessel was firmly held in the grip of an extensive reef.
Captain Farnsworth ordered a second gig, with chief engineer J.S.
Buck in charge to reconnoiter for a landing place while a third boat
was dispatched to San Quentin for help. After considerable
searching, the engineer finally located a good landing-beach on the
lee side of the island, and at 13:30 A.M. the task of getting the
145 passengers ashore began.
At the moment, the sea
was calm enough—but one look at the treacherous reef was enough to
predict to Captain Farnsworth that, should the weather change, to
remain aboard the wrecked Sacramento would be anything but safe. To
attempt then to escape from the wreck by any kind of small boat, in
any kind of breeze, would be absolutely out of the question for both
crew and passengers. Therefore he lost no time filling each small
lifeboat which remained intact to capacity with passengers, rowing
it to the nearby island, unloading quickly, and then returning as
swiftly as possible for others, taking an entire day in the
The wisdom of the
Captain’s decision became apparent toward early evening, when the
wind began to rise and heavy surf crashed against the reef in huge
torrents as the now barely submerged plateau of the reef quickly
turned into two square miles of seething breakers.
On the tiny island -
San Geronimo where the passengers were stranded, it was a most
miserable night. They were chilled to the bone even in these usually
warm waters, and hungry, for everyone had been too busy to think of
bringing food. Fortunately there were blankets enough for the women
and children, who huddled together in what shelter they could make
for themselves. Even as a desert sea island, Geronimo Island is no
bargain; less than a mile in length, it is low and wind-swept; its
soil is chiefly sand, guano and volcanic ash, and vegetation
virtually non-existent. There is, no water whatever on the island.
The following morning, the sea had spent
itself and was calm again. The small boats were sent back to the
on the reef, where bedding was obtained together with some small
provisions which the crew was able to salvage from the vessel, along
with canvas and tablecloths with which to fashion into tents for
protection form the wind.
Chief Engineer Buck,
with the ingenuity typical of his profession, managed to devise a
crude condenser capable of distilling forty gallons of water a day
from the sea water—not much for all the passengers and crew, but
considerable better than none at all. With the ship’s code-flags,
they hopefully set up a distress-signal, and a lookout station was
established on the highest of the island’s pitifully low hills.
All this took place
while Second Officer Herrington and his small of six seamen
desperately rowed on toward San Diego. . .
Four days later,
shortly after five o’clock of Monday evening on December 12, 1872,
Second Officer Herrington stood at the closed doorway of the Pacific
Mail Line’s company agent’s office, in San Diego. He was quite
unhappy because the office was closed. He had hoped the agent would
help him out with a bath and shave; he had been sailing in a tiny
ship’s gig since shortly after midnight of the previous Thursday,
and a gig’s facilities for such nonessentials as bathing and shaving
are sharply limited. He might have called the agent on the
telephone, but for the annoying fact that Alexander Graham Bell had
not as yet perfected that instrument!
With C. F. Taggart, the agent, being
unavailable, the next best procedure was to contact one of he
company’s steamers, the Montana,
which fortunately, had just arrived from San Francisco and was
moored alongside the docks. Herrington, late that evening, boarded
the steamer and handed a letter to the vessel’s Captain Nolan. Nolan
opened the letter which read:
S.S. Sacramento, At
December 5, 1872
To C. F. Taggart,
Agent, P M. S. S. Co.,
Sacramento went on shore 190 miles to the southward and eastward of
San Diego. Weather quiet. If there is a steamer in port please send
her to our assistance. Everybody safe. Will remain on board until I
hear from you
Yours respectfully, E.
P.S.—The ship is filled
with water, and lays quiet on reef.
Captain Nolan, after reading the letter of
distress, ordered the Montana
under way, and at 7:00 o’clock on
Tuesday morning, set sail for Geronimo Island, after sending
passengers still aboard the Montana.
paddle-wheels were once again churning the sea, with her bow heading
in the direction of San Diego.
Later, on arriving safely at San Diego,
the passengers held a meeting in the
social-hall, quickly formed a committee
and suggested that the then name-less reef and rocks on which they
had been stranded be call the
"Sacramento Reef," passing a
resolution which praised the courageous conduct of the ship’s
officers and crew, and mentioned by names especially the master and
chief engineer, First Officer Samuel T. Dederer for there heroic
efforts in saving the passengers themselves. However, Second Officer
Herington, who had spent four miserable and most dangerous days with
his crew of six seamen in an open boat to bring them assistance,
apparently didn’t make the team.
That is the story of the
wreck, except to further explain how the vessel became stranded and
lost on the reefs. Careful astronomical observations by Captain
Farnsworth revealed that San Geronimo Island was more than eight
miles distant from where it was shown on the nautical charts; the
reef wasn’t shown at all! A great hullabaloo was raised by the press
at the time, the pulpit and the politicians, and action was
immediately got under way. Triangulation and soundings by the
and the U.S.S. Ranger
resulted in a raising of the accuracy of future nautical charts
which had long been overdue. From that period on, coastal voyages
became safer off the West Coast—but
even to this day, is a good place to avoid, as many a subsequent
navigator has discovered, the hard way.
Captain Farnsworth and four of his crew
remained with the wreck until December 17th, when they
were finally taken off by the salvage steamer
They had done, in the meantime, an exceptional good job of picking
bones, having recovered silverware, canvas, furniture and hand-tools
and the small auxiliary machinery from the flooded engine-room. The
main engine, of course, was too large to handle, and until just a
few years ago its gallows-frame, walking-beam and main shaft
remained visible at low tide, protruding from the water like some
ghostly sentinel. Gradually the massive timbers fell away by
disintegration, but the heavy shaft still protrudes even to this
late day, forlornly above the water, marking the resting place of
the wreck after more than ninety years.
The gold and silver
consignment, from the California gold fields was, fortunately
enough, recovered intact, one of the few successful salvage
successes of that period.
However, and oddly enough, until the
began to break up, for several years a lonely watch was continually
kept aboard the hulk by one of her officers, for whose use the sloop
had been chartered by the Pacific Mail Company. And who was the
luckless officer who drew this wretched assignment? Why, poor old
Herrington, the Second Officer, of course!
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