By Michelle Radison
Special to the Triplicate
The Brother Jonathan steamer tragically went to the ocean floor in 1865. On board were approximately 400 passengers, but sadly only approximately 12 survivedsome being notable California residents of the era. There are many accounts to be told of the passengers and that of the crew. The following are some of their personal stories:
Rosanna Keenan and her husband John owned a bordello in San Francisco. It served "liquor and cigars in the most proper manner" and ranked one of the "very first class houses of the kind in the country." Traveling with Mrs. Keenan were seven of her women. Their names were kept secret, other than Martha Scott and her son, and Martha Wilder.
The image of Mrs. Keenan and her "soiled doves" was certainly a sight while they were boarding the steamer. The entourage caused a few leers and whistles. The women were perfumed and dressed to attract in their low-cut dresses
During the voyage, Keenan and the women would begin performing business on board, of course with the utmost discretion for her clients. The dinner hour caused another stir when the entourage appeared fashionably late to their table. Surely, the dining room topic of conversation changed quickly at the appearance of the provocative group.
As the ship went down, Keenan hurriedly sent her women through the saloon toward the lifeboats, which they managed to board. The lifeboat tipped in the water after being struck by a wave.
Ms. Wilder was pulled to the steamer and covered with the coat of her rescuer. Ms. Scott, reportedly a woman of the evening, also was saved and described seeing her Madam in the sea with a life preserver tied about her. Ms. Keenan was not seen again.
Captain Samuel DeWolf
At the helm of the Brother Jonathan was Captain Samuel DeWolf, an experienced seaman who began his career at the age of 16. During the Gold Rush, the West Coast called to him. He joined the California Steam Navigation Company. This post led him to the ill-fated steamer.
Newspapers of the day reported that the captain had fiercely protested that the steamer was overloaded before leaving San Francisco. After leaving Crescent City to resume her voyage, the captain felt the oncoming Nor'easter was a threat and ordered the steamer turn about for harbor. While returning, the ship struck the uncharted reef. DeWolf ordered the steamer to stop and reverse its paddlewheels, but to no avail. The steamer was impaled on a rock.
During the final hours of the steamer, DeWolf heroically tried to save the passengers from their ill fate. As the ship gave way to the sea, Captain, Dewolf gave his last order: "Tell them if they had not overloaded us, we would have got through all right, and this would never had happened."
Joseph Lord, another passenger on the Brother Jonathan, was a Wells Fargo Agent. Lord's duties on board the ship were to protect the Wells Fargo shipment of gold and other valuables. Originally, he had not been scheduled for the trip, but replaced another agent unable to sail, giving him the opportunity to visit with his family in Crescent City.
Lord most likely would have enjoyed music, and a cocktail in the steamer's saloon with acquaintances Captain DeWolf, James Nisbet and General Wright as the ship sailed toward Crescent City.
After arriving in Crescent City, he went ashore to visit with Theophlis and Margret MacGruder, his in-laws who, at the time, were keepers at Battery Point Lighthouse.
Lord returned to the steamer at 9:30 a.m., and on the docks, he hugged his wife Mary for one last time, planning to meet again in San Francisco. As the ship sank, Joseph Lord reportedly was seen standing in the purser's room door.
General George Wright
General George Wright was in control of military affairs in California during the Civil War, and participated in mediations that kept the West Coast separated from the conflict of war in the East. The General was scheduled to take his post as Commander of the Department of Columbia.
General Wright reportedly boarded the steamer with military attire covered by a sealskin coat. His wife dressed in fashionable clothing of the day. Also accompanying them were other military members and the couples Newfoundland dog. The site of this entourage must have caused quite a stir on board ship.
As the ship began to dive toward the ocean floor, he was reportedly seen with his wife, assisting her to a lifeboat. As the boat was being lowered, a terrified woman leapt into it. As she landed, a heavy wave surged the boat and everyone on the lifeboat was tossed to the sea. Passengers still on the steamer struggled to bring the victims back on board the decks. After being rescued, the general put his heavy coat around his wife's shoulders. The couple stood with their arms intertwined and with as much dignity as possible, sank to their deaths.