Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Shipwreck and the Lighthouse

The Shipwreck and the Lighthouse
July of 1865


Roger Weston

Wind blew with wild abandon, carrying sheets of rain in a massive downpour. Riding low in the water, carrying 244 passengers and crew, the side-wheeler, the S.S. Brother Jonathan, was en-route from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. Her passengers, including dignitaries, settlers, freed slaves, prospectors, and a group of women living very hard lives—enjoyed first-class accommodations. Her cargo included gold. The 221-foot steamer got as far north as the Rogue River, but out at sea, the storm was fierce. Waves tossed the ship and crashed over her decks. She sank down into deep, watery valleys, and when she rose on big swells, she took the full force of the wind.

Fear gripped the hearts of many passengers and crewmen. As the S.S. Brother Jonathan pressed on, nature flung her unbridled wrath at the ship. Wind howled through the rigging. The hull creaked and moaned, and passengers feared she would break up. Anything not bolted down was thrown about. In the galley, plates flew out of storm shelves and crashed on the floor. Pots and pans crashed. The noise was tremendous. Sea sickness spread like wildfire. Passengers began retching all over the place, and the smell below decks was not pleasant. Children cried.

Finally, the captain made a dramatic, fateful decision. He would turn the boat around and head back to Crescent City, California to find shelter. The S.S. Brother Jonathan had Crescent City within her grasp when a particularly large swell lifted her on high. She then swooped down into the ensuing trough where an underwater granite spire punctured her hull, opening up a geyser inside the paddle wheeler. Water began to fill the ship.

The crew worked vigorously to deploy the lifeboats, but in those wild seas, it was perilous work. They successfully launched the first boat. However, she’d barely cleared the S.S. Brother Jonathan when a breaker capsized her, dooming 40 passengers who just moments before had thought themselves saved from the sinking ship.

Shocked and horrified, the crew had no time to mourn. There were more passengers to save and precious little time to save them. Crewmen struggled to keep their balance on the S.S. Brother Jonathan’s tilting, shifting decks. Wind threatened to knock them down or blow them overboard. Salty spray blew in their faces as they worked.

As they lowered the second lifeboat, a moment of surreal horror registered in their brains as they watched a wave crush the lifeboat against the hull of the S.S. Brother Jonathan. Helpless to save another boatload of their fellow voyagers, the remaining crew and passengers watched them perish right before their eyes. The violent ocean devoured them. Onboard the S.S. Brother Jonathan, people who hadn’t prayed in years did so now with passion and urgency. One passenger wrote out his will. Others took stock of their lives. Their ordeal dragged out for 45 minutes, after which the S.S. Brother Jonathan sank like a rock.

During the mayhem, one lifeboat was successfully launched, and it carried nineteen people to shore. As those passengers reached land, they were gripped with conflicting emotions. There was thanksgiving and a level of appreciation for life that they had never known before. Men and women crawled on the sand and wept. A creeping sense of guilt touched some of them because they had lived while so many others had not. Out of 244 good people, those nineteen were the only survivors.

After the storm, bodies washed up on the shores of Northern California and Southern Oregon. One of the bodies was that of James Nisbet, the man who’d written out his will on the sinking ship. His will was recovered from his pocket and later the terms were carried out. Many more bodies washed ashore. These bodies brought news to Oregonians, sad news, news of life and death, of tragedy and warning. Such tragic news from the S.S. Brother Jonathan was not expected. She was known for bringing good news. Only six years previously, in 1859, the S.S. Brother Jonathan had brought Oregonians news that she had been admitted to the union as the 33rd state. Often she brought gold from the goldfields of California. In fact, she was carrying a payload on this trip. Some say she was overloaded with cargo, which is why she rode low in the water. Her cargo included mill machinery, mining equipment, horses, and even two camels. Part of that cargo was a treasure chest of gold. Her cargo also included rare San Francisco gold coins that had been minted the year of the shipwreck, 1865.

Such things, however, would not matter to the lost passengers of the S.S. Brother Jonathan. Gold counted as nothing. Statehood was irrelevant. Their bodies washed up on the beaches, carried there by life preservers that could not save them from hypothermia in the freezing waters.

In 1865, the loss of the S.S. Brother Jonathan was the deadliest shipwreck ever to occur on the Pacific Coast. However, it was many years before her wreckage was found.

It wasn't until the 1930s, that a fisherman hauled up a grimy load. It was an old metal lifeboat from the S.S. Brother Jonathan. Inspecting his catch, the curious fisherman found a rotten leather valise that was jammed under one of the seats.  When he opened the valise, he was stunned. It contained twenty-two pounds of gold. In his career as a fisherman, this was his most exciting catch ever. It was a gift from the long-lost shipwreck, the S.S. Brother Jonathan. It’s hard to explain how leather could last 70 years underwater. Perhaps it’s one of the mysteries of the sea. Perhaps the fisherman got his story wrong. Probably, we will never know. At the time, private ownership of gold was illegal, and the fisherman secreted away his catch, sealing his lips and keeping his mouth shut about his rare find. Later on, his memory failed him and he could not recall the exact location where he’d netted the lifeboat.

Then, i
n 1993, a treasure hunting expedition carried out by Deep Sea Research (DSR) found the wreckage at a depth of 250 feet with the help of a mini sub. She was found fully two miles from the best estimates of the shipwreck’s location. That she had moved so far underwater was attributed to the air pockets within the ship and the powerful currents. In 1996, DSR salvaged 1,206 Double Eagle $20 gold coins in near-mint condition. 

Government bureaucrats threatened legal action against DSR unless they received a cut of the bounty. DSR settled by turning over 200 coins to the State of California. DSR auctioned off  the rest of the coins bringing in $5.3 million dollars. 

Today in Crescent City, California, one can visit the Brother Jonathan Cemetery and Memorial; however, the memorial is not the only legacy of the Brother Jonathan. There is another, and on a clear day, it can be seen six miles off shore. It is the St. George Reef Lighthouse, which was constructed after the Brother Jonathan shipwreck. The beacon is situated on the Dragon Rocks of St. George Reef. Its purpose was to warn mariners of the rocks and thereby prevent another tragedy like that of the S.S. Brother Jonathan.

The St. George Lighthouse has stood tall and endured almost a century of powerful, frightful winter storms. During that time, four lighthouse keepers have been killed on the job. Service at St. George Lighthouse was considered to be the most dangerous assignment of the lighthouse service. The lighthouse is built on a low-lying, wave-thrashed rock, and even today, it is not safe for a boat to attempt a landing here. Operations were ceased in 1975; however, a group called the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society is dedicated to its maintenance and continuation. Thanks to their efforts, the light shines on.

Built on a wave-washed rock, the base of the lighthouse consists of hundreds of granite blocks, which are able to endure the eternal pounding of the crashing surf. The tower rises 150 feet above the water and is topped off with a cast-iron lantern room, which today, thanks to the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society, is fully automated. Even today, sailors and fishermen are kept safe by the light.

Oh, and one more thing. The salvors of the SS Brother Jonathan revealed that 4/5 of the SS Brother Jonathan's treasure has not been found. The safe carrying the her gold is still missing.

Side note: I've always been fascinated by missing treasure. In The Golden Catch I wrote about what happens when crab fisherman and ex-assassin Frank Murdoch finds a cache of golden treasure on his remote Alaskan Island. If you liked action-packed thrillers set on the high seas you might want to give it a try. 
Available on Amazon: THE GOLDEN CATCH
 Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.
You can find all of his books here: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page 

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