Monday, January 7, 2019

Steamer San Benito on the Rocks -- January 7, 2019

San Francisco Call, 23-November-1896
William A Coulter did many maritime drawings for the San Francisco Call. The Pacific Improvement Company was a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The Steamship Wrecked on the Beach Near Point Arena.
Eleven Are Rescued and Twenty-Four Still Cling to the Rigging.
Heavy Seas Break the Vessel in Twain and Sweep Over the Unfortunates.

POINT ARENA, Cal., Nov. 22.— The Pacific Improvement Company's steel screw steamship San Benito was driven ashore two miles north of the Point Arena light by a gale at 1 o'clock this morning. Eight of the crew were lost, eleven reached the shore and the rest, twenty-four in number, are clinging to the rigging, swept each minute by the charging surf. The names of the known dead are:

O. W. SCOTT, first assistant engineer.
C. CONDON, second assistant engineer.
M. PENDERGAST, fireman.
M. SHERIDAN, messboy.

The steamer struck on the sand beach and after breaking in two the stern swung around and now lies about 500 feet from the beach, stern in shore. The forward part, on which the crew clings, lies broadside to the sea about 100 feet north of the afterpart of the ship and a little farther out.

Part of the men are in the rigging of the foremast and some are on the wheelhouse. The poor fellows in the rigging can be seen moving up and down in their efforts to keep warm, for they are kept wet by continual clouds of spray dashing upon them, and the cold north wind blowing on them would chill anyone not a seaman in a very short time. The latest reports from the wreck are that the men are still hanging on and eagerly watching for the expected tug which they think will surely be sent by the owners of the vessel. The people on shore have built great fires from wood gathered on the beach, so a bright light is cast onto the wreck.

The San Benito, Captain Smith, left Tacoma on Wednesday afternoon with a cargo of 4000 tons of coal for San Francisco. It encountered head winds all the way down and the crew did not see land until Saturday. Then a heavy rain fell. They could not see any distance from the ship, but from the log believed they had passed Point Arena.

At 1 o'clock this morning the steamship struck suddenly north of Point Arena lighthouse and immediately blew its whistle for assistance. The surf was very high, seas breaking over the ship, which almost instantly broke in the middle, just back of the smokestack. The crew, in charge of First Assistant Engineer Scott, launched a boat containing nine men, but it was swamped immediately and only four reached the shore, nearly exhausted. Three of the survivors started inland and came to the house of O. W. Davis, who aroused the neighbors and hastened to the scene of the wreck after sending a man to the town of Point Arena, seven miles distant, for help.

San Francisco Call, 23-November-1896
George Christopher, a fireman, jumped overboard immediately after the ship struck, and after a hard struggle reached shore and started for the lighthouse, whose light he could see as the storm had suddenly ceased. He had been told a life-saving crew was stationed there, but when he came to Garcia River, which was swollen by rain, he could not pass. He went to the ranch of Thomas Kenney, who at once hitched up a team and started for town, with Christopher and another survivor, Narciso Layva, who had also reached the house. Everybody in Point Arena was aroused, and soon, after daylight the beach was covered with men anxious to help.

The boat that was swamped came ashore in good condition and the men on the beach tried to reach the stranded steamer in it, but failed. Meanwhile the steamer Point Arena came into port at Point Arena and landed its passengers, and then steamed to the wreck to render assistance. A boat was put off from her and after two hours' hard work and many narrow escapes, it succeeded in getting Chief Engineer Wood and five others off the rigging and putting them aboard the Point Arena. They tried a number of times to reach the wreck again, but failed.

About 10 o'clock one of the sailors was washed from the rigging into the sea, and after a hard battle of twenty minutes the men from shore waded in and pulled him ashore, more dead than alive. Dr. Gallison, from Point Arena, was on hand and took charge of him. The water along the beach is very muddy from the current out of Garcia River and Brush Creek, which makes it difficult to keep afloat.

At 2 o'clock the steamer Weeott came up and after trying to assist found she could do nothing, so steamed back to the port at Point Arena and landed her gun for throwing life-lines, which was started overland at once to the scene of the disaster. The watcher on shore tried to send a line over the wreck by shooting from shotguns and rifles, but without success.

About 4 p. m. a very large wave washed over the wreck, and it is believed that three men were washed overboard. One was pulled back onto the wreck, but the other sank.

The scene was heartrending. Men, women and children remained on the beach since daylight without eating. Kind-hearted farmers brought provisions and milk for all, though none cared to touch a morsel. Men were shouting, women wringing their hands and crying, every one trying to do or suggest something, but all of no avail. The men who have been rescued can give no definite cause for the ship's getting so far out of her course, and ail questioning will only bring the same answer: "I don't know." Captain Smith and his officers, except the chief engineer, who is on the Point Arena, are still on the wreck, and until they can be seen nothing definite can be learned.

Farmers who beard the steamer whistling for help say they plainly saw the headlight of the steamer and the light from the lighthouse. One of the firemen says the first officer was on the bridge and that Captain Smith was below when the steamer struck, but until the excitement is over nothing can be definitely known.

The steamer Weott's gun for throwing lifelines arrived at sundown, but it proved no better than the shotguns and rifles, and no line has reached the unfortunates yet.

Great indignation is expressed by those on shore at the seeming indifference of the owners, as they could have had a tug here by dark with everything necessary to rescue the poor fellows.

So far not a body has been washed ashore. The town of Point Arena is deserted, and there are at least 300 people at the scene of the wreck, who will watch all night, ready to risk their lives to succor the men in the rigging. The crew of the boat from Point Arena who risked their lives to-day are all heroes, and Messrs. Caughey, Lazarus, Cunningham and Lighthouse-keeper Brownhead and an Indian, who launched the boat in the surf, although they were unsuccessful deserve medals for their bravery, for few life-saving crews would have risked their lives as they did to-day.

The steamers Point Arena, Weott and Alcazar are still lying as close to the wreck as possible, waiting until it will not be positive suicide to send their boats into the doomed vessel. The survivors who are on shore will not leave the beach, and have hardly tasted food since being rescued, as they say the food would choke them should they eat while their comrades are suffering within speaking distance.

Another party just arrived says the land watchers are wide-awake and the poor fellows still in the rigging. They do not think any one has been washed off since dark, as the tide has gone out and the spray does not dash as high, but a heavy sea is still running.

The rescued men still refuse to talk or give any opinion. It is apparent that they do not intend to injure anyone by saying anything until they can see some of their superior officers.

POINT ARENA, Cal., Nov. 23.— A man just come from the wreck (at 1:30 o'clock) says the men have all cone from the rigging into the pilot-house. The sea is still very rough. He heard a cry of "Man overboard!" just before he left, but could see nothing. All three steamers are on duty yet outside.

The men are now working here in a blacksmith shop making bolts to shoot from a gun to take a line across the wreck. They think they can get a line across before daylight. Big fires are kept going at the wreck.

Went Ashore Once Before in Almost the same Place.

The long predicted southeaster got in its work yesterday. Reports from various points between Cape Flattery and the Golden Gate have been one continuous tale of disaster, but never before has it struck so near home. Wreckage has drifted ashore at Astoria, and the general opinion is that some big American ship has gone down. An immense amount of timber has been passed through, and among it was the remains of a fore-and-aft schooner. Neither vessel has been identified, and the chances are that their names will not be known until they are so long overdue as to be given up as lost.

San Francisco Call, 23-November-1896
The Umatilla went onto the rocks near Port Townsend, the Arago was lost at Coos Bay, and now the San Benito is a total loss on the rocks two miles from the Point Arena light.

The San Benito went ashore while a hurricane from the southeast was blowing; there was a thick fog and the rain poured down in torrents. The moon was at its full, but nevertheless was of very little assistance, as its rays could not pierce the atmosphere that surrounded the doomed ship. Leaving Tacoma last Wednesday night or Thursday morning, the steamer probably had fair weather for twenty-four hours and then ran into the southeaster that swept over the City on Saturday night. Just how Captain Smith managed to get out of his course and allow his vessel to go ashore above Point Arena remains to be told.

The following is a list of the crew of the collier on the last payroll, October 20. The officers and the men of the engineering department are the same now as then, with the possible exception of one or two firemen and seamen:

Captain. William Smith.
Chief officer, R. Zolling.
Second officer, J. Swan.
Third officer, C. Zale.
Seamen — A. White, G. Johnson, C. Blanberg, C. Jansen, J. Perry, J. Benson, J. A. Barclay, O. Bemens, N. Nilgon, H. Fehm, T. E. Foster.
Chief cook, J. W. Wilson.
Second cook, J. J. Wilson.
Messboy, M. Sheridan.
vVaiters— C. Meyers, J. Sheeran, F. Dean.
Engine Department— Chief engineer, L. W. Wood.
First assistant engineer, O. W. Scott.
Second assistant engineer, C. Condon.
Third assistant engineer, T. Cleary.
Water-tenders— W. H. Jeffs, J. McKeon, J. Ward.
Storekeeper — W. Sloan.
Firemen— J. McDavid, B. Fahey, M. Pendergast, G. Christopher, J. Reilly, F. Fahey, H. Jackson, J. Walsh.
Coal-passers — C. Brown, N. Leyva, W. Sheehan, N. Fitzgerald, M. Fernandez, M. Kelly.

This makes a crew of forty-three men. Many of them are married.

The San Benito carried a cargo of 5000 tons of Carbon Hill coal consigned to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. She was bound from Tacoma to San Francisco, and usually made three trips a month between these ports. The Carbon Hill Coal Company is one of the smaller wheels within the large wheel of the Southern Pacific Company. The San Benito usually made the down trip in three days, and according to this reckoning she left Tacoma some time last Thursday.

The San Benito mases the fourth ship lost in the last few years by the Pacific Improvement Company. The others were the Tacoma, built by the Cramps, which went ashore on her first round trip after rounding the Horn ; the San Pedro, which went ashore in November, 1891, on Brotchey Ledge, Vancouver Island, while in charge of an English pilot, and the San Pablo, which went down while chartered on the China run.

The San Benito was rigged as a three-masted schooner and was of 3789 tons gross burden. She was built in Scotland in 1884, and when launched was called the Kimberly. For some time she ran in the South African trade, and later was sent across the Atlantic with a general cargo for Philadelphia. She went ashore in a hurricane and C. P. Huntington bought the wreck for $500. The Kimberly was taken to Newport News and there was renamed the San Benito, and when launched again the American flag flew at her mizzen. She came around the Horn in 1889 with a cargo of cement and oil, and ever since has been carrying coal from Puget Sound for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

Once before the San Benito was ashore in almost precisely the same position and in the same place as she is now. On that occasion she got off, but Captain Colville, who was then in command, failed to report the matter to the Inspectors of Hulls and Boilers. In consequence, when the annual inspection took place, the dents in the bottom plates were found and the story came out. As a result Captain Colville was suspended and Captain William Smith took his place.

San Francisco Call, 23-November-1896
Captain Smith has been connected with several unlucky ships, but this is the first time he has ever had an accident scored against him. In the old days he was master of the British ship Barnard Castle. Soon after he left that vessel she crashed onto Race Rock and became a total loss. Next Captain Smith went as third officer of the steamer Wellington, and later was made master of the San Mateo. From that steamer he was transferred to the San Benito, and had been captain of her up to the time of the disaster.

Chief Engineer I. W. Wood has had a really remarkable experience while in the employ of the Pacific Improvement Company. He came around the Horn in the Tacoma, and was in the engineer's department when that vessel was lost. He was first assistant engineer of the San Pablo when that vessel went ashore, and was chief engineer of the San Pedro when it was wrecked on the rocks at the entrance to the harbor of Victoria, B. C. Now he is chief of the San Benito when she is being dashed to pieces on the rocks near Point Arena. Chief Engineer Wood is a nephew of Captain Charles Goodall of Goodall, Perkins and Co.

First Assistant Scott and Second Assistant Condon are both well Known in marine circles, but this will be their first experience in a shipwreck. Chief Officer Zolling and Second Officer Swan have been with the San Benito for years and are two of the most careful officers who sail out of the Golden Gate.

The San Benito was 340 feet long, 41 feet 2 inches broad and 17 feet 7 inches deep. The managing owner was F. S. Douty, secretary of the Pacific Improvement Company. The wrecker Whitelaw left for the scene of the wreck last night and Manager Schwerin of the Southern Pacific went along to see what could be done to salve the doomed steamer.

The Condon family have been very unfortunate, as among the drowned is Second Assistant Condon, whose father was chief engineer of the Bertha. Last year, when the steamer was on her way to Alaska, Condon Sr. was washed overboard and drowned. The brother of the two men who lost their lives at sea is chief engineer of the Spreckels tug Reliance.


Nick said...

We were at Point Arena last summer, and I can easily picture this scene--although since this wreck happened in 1896, the lighthouse would be the *old* Point Arena lighthouse which fell down in the 1906 earthquake.

The original Point Arena lighthouse was a twin of the Pigeon Point lighthouse where, in a strange coincidence, the steamship named Point Arena (mentioned in the story) was later wrecked.

Joe Thompson said...

Hi Nick. I'm glad you found it interesting. I did not know that about the steamer Point Arena. I have to see if I can find an article about that.

Unknown said...

Wow I'm grateful you put this together as this is part of my family. Second assistant engineer, C. Condon he was (Cornelius H. Condon) b. 1862 in Croydon, England. He was my gggf's brother (Michael D. Condon). They whole family was into careers in marine engineering. The sad thing is two years prior his father Frederick Condon died in a ship wreck too! OCT. 14, 1894 • Off the Coast of Unga, Alaska, USA (Drowned at Sea)

I do want to want to visit this spot thanks for transcribing the article as it's hard to read on the scans from the newspapers.

My mom was a Condon!

Thank you,
Cathie Schafer