Crescent City harbors ship disasters

April 15, 2007 11:00 pm

By Michelle Radison

Special to the Triplicate

Crescent City grew quickly during the 19th century, and so too did the ship building industry.

By the mid , the shipping industry was in full swing. Steamers outnumbered the number of sailing vessels entering the harbor by more than four to one.

The location of Crescent City was a convenient port for ships and steamers traveling from San Francisco to all points north. The harbor provided a safe retreat during the summer months.

The Hobbs, Wall & Co. in Crescent City began carrying passengers on steamers such as Elizabeth, Pomeroy, and Del Norte. The Humboldt Times reported, "Crescent City is a rather lively town. Almost every branch of trade is represented; Crescent City will be the most important city north of San Francisco."

The inclement weather during the winter months and the dangers to vessels in the harbor damaged ships, however. Some were demolished by the heavy surf. In other cases, mooring lines snapped, causing proprietors to lose their cargo.

These unpredictable seas took lives and vessels throughout the years. The Paragon went down in 1852.

Another such ship was the America. Traveling north, the vessel arrived in Crescent City's port on June 24, 1855. After unloading the cargo, the steamer resumed her journey. Soon after, a large plume of smoke was seen pouring from her.

Crescent City citizens in large numbers assisted the crew, attempting to extinguish the growing flames. But it was to no avail; the steamer was soon a charred relic.

The batteries – three brass canons – were reclaimed from the vessel and placed on a nearby island. The island's name is now Battery Point.

In another maritime disaster, the J.D. Peters sailed into our port with the wind blowing into her sails that hung across her masts. The square-rigger soon was also a victim of our coastline.

The Brother Jonathan is arguably the most famous of them all. Built for shipping by entrepreneur Edward Mills, the ship carried cargo and passengers. The double-side steamer measured at the length close to 221 feet and had 365 berths. Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the steamer in 1852, at his hand the ship had been reconstructed, adding even more accommodations. The vessel was described as being, "Luxurious. The staterooms surrounded the central saloon with doors of ornamented paneling outlined in gold leaf and washes of gold."

On July 26, 1865, at 10 a.m., with Captain DeWolf at the wheel, the Brother Jonathan left San Francisco's Broadway wharf northward bound. The Brother Jonathan carried on board her decks approximately 244 passengers and crew members. On July 30, the steamer was at port in Crescent City harbor. After depositing cargo and a number of passengers, she resumed her voyage.

At 1:50 p.m. she struck a rock near the uncharted St. George Reef. Within minutes, she had disappeared – along with large amounts of cargo and gold coins – into the depths. Only 19 passengers safely escaped.

The Brother Jonathan sat in her watery grave until 1993 when Deep Sea Research discovered her in the murky seas off our coastline. Although the steamer had partially disintegrated, she was the best-preserved Civil War-era steamer in the Pacific Coast at the time of her discovery.

A portion of her hull was still visible at the first sighting of the wreck, as well as floor and ceiling planks. Also visible were portions of her paddle wheel shaft. From this conservation effort, artifacts brought to the surface from the dark deep depths of the Del Norte coast were preserved.

The Del Norte County Historical Society plans to remember and celebrate our rich maritime history at the Crescent City Tall-Masted Ships celebration, when the tall ships once again sail into our harbor in early May. A Brother Jonathan Artifact exhibit with a display of items never before seen publicly, as well as passenger lists and survivor accounts, is planned.

Michelle Radison is a Del Norte Historical Society

volunteer.