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Brother Jonathan survivor related ordeal

By Michelle Radison

Special to the Triplicate

Mrs. Mina Bernhardt, a survivor of the Brother Jonathan, was traveling to Victoria, British Columbia, with her son Paul to join relatives living in the British possession.

Mrs. Bernhardt boarded the steamer in the port of San Francisco along with the other 150 passengers and 60 crew members. The passengers were from all walks of life. At noon on Friday, July 28, 1865 the farewells were made, the anchors raised and the Brother Jonathan began its voyage northward. After unloading cargo in Crescent City, the Brother Jonathan resumed its travels. The ocean had begun to rise with waves up to 25 feet.

Captain DeWolf gave orders to his crew to return to the harbor. A mate at the front of the ship noticed a dark outline in the waters ahead, the steamer crashed down on a rock, breaking its keel. Passengers were thrown about. People in their nightclothes struggled to reach the upper deck through severely slanted doors and stairways. Mina Bernhardt was interviewed about her experience by the San Francisco Bulletin. The article was entitled "The wreck of the Brother Jonathan, A graphic scene," and was published August of 1865. The following are excerpts from this article about her experience.

A harrowing tale

"I think it must have been about half past 12 o'clock, I was lying in my berth, feeling sick when I was suddenly startled by a fearful shock, followed by a labored rolling of the ship, and the creaking of her timbers, and the distinct roar of rushing waters. It was but a moment's movement to spring from my berth and look out the stateroom window, I saw piece of the ship timber floating in the water, and a man running to the upper deck with a life preserver. Which convinced me I was in great danger.

"I seized my child with one hand and grasped a life preserver with the other and ran up on deck. On the way I met ladies in their nightclothes, their hair loose, and their faces as pale as death. When I reached the deck I saw one of the boats lowered and full of ladies. Just then a women sprang into the boat, a merciless wave engulfed her. One lady clutched her infant in one hand and a rope in the other and swung by the ship's side, now aloft, she did not loosen her grip until the ship and its living freight went down.

"After the boat was upset, the captain threw a plank overboard and one lady got in it, but the waves drove it against the ship's side and struck her. When I last saw her she was sinking and pressing her head with one hand. Most of which is detailed above was seen while sitting in the lifeboat, and with which I now have to deal.

"As I said earlier, the life boat was already filled, seeing the boat fall to be lowered I called out, ‘Save my child,' when one reached out and took it, I at the same time buckled my life preserver, because I had no expectation they would take me, but one said ‘Don't you want to come too?' I joyfully accepted. The crew hastened to clear the steamer. I looked back and I noticed a lady standing with her husband and two children on the deck, staring wistfully at us, I shall long remember the memory of that sweet face.

"Now we could not look back to our sinking shipmates, we looked forward to our own rescue, and oh, how anxiously! Who shall measure the horror, dread and suffering that were crowded into these four hours from the steamer to landing! We got out of the boat cold and chilled, our few rags dripping and clinging to our shivering forms. We were nearly naked, and were cold and hungry; but thanks to the good people of Crescent City, we were soon clothed, warm and fed. I recall the kindness and sympathy manifested by those people."

Living treasures

After surviving the terrifying ordeal, Mina Bernhardt and her son returned to San Francisco on the ship the Del Norte with the other 21 survivors from the only surviving lifeboat. Of the survivors, only 8 were passengers. The exact number of passengers and crew vary among records, and there are often stories told of the Brother Jonathan and its riches of legal tender notes and gold that were lost at sea and believed to be off the coast. The value of the lives lost and the survivors lives changed by the disaster surely can not be valued in any monetary standard.

Consider what was felt and experienced on the fateful voyage. Are the sunken treasures the most important factor to be remembered of this—one of the worst shipping disasters of California's coastline?

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