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 Sacramento, 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.

The 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 "Sacramento Reefs" in memory of the master and crew’s bravery and actions in saving her passengers.

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.

The 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 Sacramento 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 Sacramento’s 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 reefnow 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 others rested

Meanwhile, back on the reef. The rest of the Sacrament’s 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 operation.

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 wrecked Sacramento 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 Sea.

December 5, 1872

To C. F. Taggart,

Agent, P M. S. S. Co., San Diego.

The steamship 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. L. Farnsworth.

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. The Montana’s 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 Montana’s 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 Sacramento 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 survey-steamer Hassler 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 "Sacramento Reef", 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 Fideliter. They had done, in the meantime, an exceptional good job of picking the Sacramentos 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 Sacramento 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 Dolphin 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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