"This well-written and interesting book considers ten significant shipwrecks on the Pacific Coast over eighty years.." (Times Literary Supplement, 30 November 2001)
Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coastby Robert C. Belyk
The eighty years spanning the California gold rush to the start of the Great Depression saw thousands of passengers and crews perish in Pacific steamship wrecks. Yet despite the alarming number of incidents during this period, few have asked just why so many ships were lost. In Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast, author Robert Belyk looks beyond commonly
The eighty years spanning the California gold rush to the start of the Great Depression saw thousands of passengers and crews perish in Pacific steamship wrecks. Yet despite the alarming number of incidents during this period, few have asked just why so many ships were lost. In Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast, author Robert Belyk looks beyond commonly providedand frequently superficialpublic explanations of weather conditions or human error, and closely examines ten significant maritime disasters that occurred along the Pacific coastline from California to Alaska.
Filled with the drama of life and death aboard doomed ships, Belyk brings to life the struggles of real people caught in desperate situations when disaster strikes at sea. In 1865, only 19 of the 204 passengers and crew on board survived the wreck of the Brother Jonathan, whose owners had been more concerned with maximum profitability than with the safety of their passengers. When, in 1907, the Columbia disappeared under the ocean surface in just eight minutes after ramming another passenger ship, her poorly maintained iron hull simply gave out, leading to the deaths of 87 passengers. And in 1918, all 353 of the ship’s passengers and crew drowned when the Princess Sophia, a victim of bad navigation, bad weather, and bad judgment, struck a reef and sank. As these tales of disaster at sea unravel, never-before-told details reveal how those involvedheroes as well as cowardsreacted under such terrifying circumstances. Along with information drawn from contemporary sources and documented reports, these accounts lay bare the causes behind the tragedies, from carelessness and ill-equipped, unseaworthy ships to politics, personal greed, and pride.
Both intriguing reading and invaluable historical record, this chronicle of a tumultuous era illustrates the ironic fate encountered by those who believed they would exchange the hardships of overland travel for the relative safety and comfort of an ocean voyage.
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Yankee Blade: Wreck of a Gold Ship
Not every shipwreck is an accident. Maritime history has many tales of unlucky ships lured onto rocky shores by false beacons. Once aground, gangs of wreckers would move in and steal the ship's cargo. However, sometimes the reasons for the disaster were not so clear-cut. To collect insurance money, owners bribed their captains to put their ships on the rocks. At other times the ship's master would run his vessel aground so that he could plunder the cargo himself. While it may seem unlikely that Captain Henry Randall deliberately put the Yankee Blade on the rocks off Point Arguello, California, it is nonetheless true that he benefited substantially from this disaster.
In 1854 one of the companies transporting gold, people, and goods between New York and San Francisco via the Isthmus of Panama was the Independent Line, which was controlled by the shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Yankee Blade was one of the most luxurious ships in the new Independent Line fleet. She was fairly large by the standards of the day--1,767 tons burden with a length of 275 feet, and a 21-foot beam. 1 Her 22-inch oak hull had been made to withstand the worst winter storms.
The ship's two boilers fed a cast-iron side-lever engine with two 78-inch steam cylinders, each with an 11-foot stroke. Her two 38-foot metal paddle boxes housed wheels that were 33 feet in diameter. 2 Each paddle or wheel float reciprocated so that it entered and left the water in a vertical position, thereby increasing its bite of the surface and decreasing its drag. With a cruising speed of about thirteen knots, the ship was considered fast for a steam-powered vessel. Important also were refinements in the beam-lever engine design--they gave the Yankee Blade an advantage over her older rivals.
For the comfort of her passengers, the Yankee Blade boasted large, square portholes, icehouses, and bath rooms. It may have also given the passenger some peace of mind to note in the company's advertisements that the Independent Line was "No. 1 with the insurance companies." 3 For the health of the passengers, the Yankee Blade was well ventilated and carried a surgeon whose services would be available free of charge. For safety the ship was equipped with six self-righting lifeboats as well as life preservers. The Yankee Blade was a cut above most of her competitors.
The speed records of the gold rush ships added to the prestige of the steamship companies. While beating a competitor by a few hours was hardly a worthwhile goal, the lines could advertise having the fastest vessel on the run, and such claims increased ticket sales. For the owners of these ships, it was particularly important to convince the public that their vessels were the fastest carriers on the east-west route, for they faced stiff competition. The Independent vessels had an advantage over those of its rival, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, for the latter's ships were older and generally slower. The side-lever engine, though, was not fuel efficient and was falling out of favor with American shipping companies. In new ships, the cumbersome walking beam engine was replacing the standard side-lever design. 4
In command of the Yankee Blade was Captain Henry Randall, who had been employed by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company as master of the side-wheeler Northerner on the Pacific run until his retirement in 1852. Randall's familiarity with California waters made him an excellent choice for the master of the new ship, which was destined for the West Coast. Because of the premium placed on speed, Vanderbilt had promised Randall a bonus for record-setting voyages between San Francisco and Panama. This was a major incentive to Randall, for Vanderbilt had a reputation for paying his captains and crews less than other lines.
At noon on February 2, 1854, the Yankee Blade steamed out of New York to begin her trip around Cape Horn to San Francisco. On March 3, the ship dropped anchor in Rio de Janeiro harbor to pick up fresh supplies. Rounding the Horn proved not to be difficult, and the Yankee Blade arrived in the charming old city of Valparaíso, Chile, on March 23. There, she waited more than a week as she took on fresh supplies. After arriving in Panama City on April 14, the Yankee Blade took on 793 passengers, as well as coal for her bunkers that was of particularly poor quality. 5 It was indeed a seller's market for coal in Panama City. On April 18, she weighed anchor once more.
On April 25, the ship was low on drinking water, but found that her scheduled port of call, Acapulco, was under siege as Mexico was in revolt. Rather than allowing the Yankee Blade to fill her water tanks, the port authorities "arrested" her cattle, reducing the ship's food supply. As the sun was setting on May 4, the Yankee Blade entered the waters of San Francisco Bay and tied up at the Jackson Street wharf. The voyage from New York around the Horn had taken a little more than ninety days. The journey by way of the isthmus could be completed in less than one-third the time.
On June 1, the Yankee Blade began her regular run to Panama. Leaving at the same time was the Pacific Mail steamer John L. Stephens, which overtook and passed the Independent Line vessel. Fortunately for Captain Randall, the Stephens was detained four hours at Acapulco, which allowed his vessel to beat her rival into Panama harbor. 6 The Yankee Blade was not as fortunate during her return journey. She arrived in San Francisco on July 1, a few hours after the Stephens.
The Yankee Blade's next run to Panama began from San Francisco's Jackson Street wharf at 3: 30 p. m. on August 1. The Sonora departed from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company's Vallejo Street wharf fifteen minutes later. 7 On his second trip to Panama, Randall seemed even more determined to beat the Pacific Mail steamer. To achieve maximum speed, the captain did little at first to conserve coal. When he did cut back it was too late, for not far from Panama City, the ship ran out of fuel. When the Sonora neared, Randall ran up a distress signal and fired rockets, but the rival steamer simply acknowledged the summons for help and continued on her way. According to Yankee Blade Purser Samuel Vought, "We then found it necessary to run into Dumas Bay, Quibo [sic] Island, for wood, of which, by the assistance of our passengers, who displayed a genuine California zeal, we were enabled to procure sufficient in about 20 hours to take us to Panama. . . ." 8
The Yankee Blade steamed into harbor barely in time to prevent another ship, the Golden Gate, from launching a search. For Randall, the entire incident must have been humiliating.
On September 29, an advertisement appeared in the Daily Alta California offering a $5,000 wager that the Yankee Blade would reach Panama in advance of the Sonora. 9 Although the person putting up the wager remained anonymous, it seems probable that Captain Randall was behind the challenge. Since the rival company regarded such races as dangerous, he could be sure that his ship would be officially unchallenged. Yet throwing down the gauntlet in this manner was certainly a provocation for Captain R. L. Whiting of the Sonora.
There is also some evidence as to why the wager may have been important to Randall. In the beginning of October, a Sacramento newspaper had reported that the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the Nicaragua Steamship Company were negotiating to purchase the Independent Line, which included the Yankee Blade and Uncle Sam on the San FranciscoÐ Panama run. 10 If Captain Randall had heard similar reports prior to his departure on September 30, the news would have been disturbing. One could not imagine that the Pacific Mail Steamship Company would take kindly to one of its "retired" masters commanding a rival company's ship. When the new company flag was raised on the Yankee Blade, Captain Randall would likely be out of a job. For this reason, winning the bet may have been doubly important.
At 4 p. m. on Saturday, September 30, 1854, the fore and aft lines holding the Yankee Blade to the wharf were cast off, and the vessel backed slowly into the main channel before heading toward the Golden Gate. Although the company's agent would claim a manifest of only 819 people, 11 there is little doubt that the Yankee Blade was carrying as many as 1,200 passengers. 12 Competition among a number of carriers on the route had lowered fares and made travel a bargain. 13 In addition, about 125 crew members were on board. Other ships were leaving at the same time, but only one was taking the same route to Panama: the Pacific Mail steamer Sonora.
The Sonora was only a few hundred yards to the stern of the Yankee Blade. The passengers on board the small coastal steamer Goliah watched the two big Panama ships close in on one another. As one of the Goliah's passengers would later report, "Before reaching the Fort [Fort Point], the Yankee Blade stopped her engine, and allowing the Sonora to pass her, raised her flag as a challenge of speed, and then getting again headway, passed the Sonora at the bar. It was understood at San Francisco that a bet . . . was pending on the race to Panama." 14 Once beyond the bar, the Yankee Blade took a southward course that took her close to the coastline while the Sonora steamed farther out to sea.
At least $153,000 of specie gold in nine boxes, shipped by the bank Page, Bacon and Company, was on board the Yankee Blade. Additional valuables had been entrusted to the safe in the purser's office, but some of the passengers who didn't trust anyone or anything, including the ship's safe, carried large amounts of gold and coins on their persons.
As the Yankee Blade was now a dozen miles from the entrance to San Francisco harbor, the voyage settled into the usual shipboard routine. The splash of water against the floats, muffled as it was within the two big iron paddle boxes, made a throaty sound. Some male passengers went to the saloon to order a drink. The few women on board talked in the social room or walked on deck with their husbands, enjoying the fresh salt air. A few wisps of fog floated above the water, like shapeless ghosts haunting the ocean expanse. The air was already heavy with the coming of night.
Captain samuel haley of the little Goliah was on a regular run between San Francisco and San Diego, stopping at a number of the smaller ports along the way. She had been originally built as a tugboat-- the second constructed in the United States--in 1849. After completion, she was sent around the Horn to Sacramento, where she served as a passenger steamer. A few years later, the Goliah was lengthened and used in the coastal trade. Captain Haley had steamed the waters off California since before 1852, first on the little steamer Sea Bird and later on the Goliah, and knew well the dangers of the coast south of San Francisco.
Since her departure, the Goliah had felt her way through the coastal fog that drifted in and out as they steamed south. Fewer than a hundred passengers had bought tickets and the Goliah was not overcrowded. Most were frequent travelers on the run and were accustomed to the vessel's slow pace. Not far out of San Francisco, the fog became so thick that it was necessary to heave to several hours before continuing. When they reached the port of Monterey on Sunday morning, the fog had thickened again, and it was not until late in the afternoon that they got under way for Santa Barbara.
Although the Yankee Blade was crowded, the passengers did not seem to mind. For most, their journey on the ship was the first step in their return to friends and relatives in the East. A fresh late afternoon breeze blew gray mist away. At 9 p. m. , Purser Samuel Vought saw the outline of a steamer off the starboard beam. He suspected it was either the company's sister ship, Uncle Sam, or the Pacific Mail's John L. Stephens returning from Panama. 15 It was in fact the small coastal steamer Southerner on her trip north to San Francisco. The Southerner passed the Goliah a few hours after her meeting with the Yankee Blade, and hailed Captain Haley. Captain Sampson, the Southerner's master, asked the Goliah to keep an eye out for the big side-wheeler, for she stood in danger of striking the rocks. 16 It seemed that Captain Randall had set a course sure to end in disaster. Concern for the fate of the Yankee Blade took Captain Haley close to shore, placing his ship in peril of running aground.
As with the Goliah, the Yankee Blade encountered thick fog banks close in to the coast, but Captain Randall ordered no reduction in speed or change in course. With less distance to travel, the Yankee Blade had an advantage over the Sonora. Those on board who were familiar with this part of the coast were well aware that the vessel was close in to shore. Some passengers indeed claimed to have seen land before it was obscured by a fog bank, but Captain Randall said this was impossible.
G. A. Hart was on his way to New York State to visit his wife and family. Like many others, Hart did not buy passage for himself and a servant until after the ship was under way. About 3 p. m. on Sunday, October 1, he paid for his tickets at the purser's office. There he met Captain Randall, who invited him to the saloon for a drink. The ship's master noted that he was pleased with the progress the Yankee Blade was making. Her eleven-foot cylinders were stroking at thirteen revolutions a minute. 17 Immediately the ship shook from bow to stern. 18 Glasses flew off the bar and people were thrown to the deck. Those in steerage heard the ominous cracking of the oak hull.
The Yankee Blade had struck a rocky pinnacle jutting almost to the water line. For a moment, the fog lifted long enough to see that the ship was almost a mile from the mainland. Once Captain Randall reached the wheelhouse, he ordered full reverse but the great paddle wheels were useless: the ship didn't move. Forward, he could see that the Yankee Blade had run high up on the rocks. He quickly sent one of the mates and the ship's carpenter to survey the damage. After ordering the engineer to get the suction pump working, Randall went to inspect the damage and quickly found himself in water up to his waist. He noted a long gash running about twelve feet along the ship's stern below the waterline. As Randall stated later, "I saw at once that the ship was lost. . . ." 19
The side-wheeler had been traveling at almost full speed when she struck, and the force had driven her bow sixty feet out of the water. Within thirty minutes the entire aft quarter was submerged. The bow anchors were dropped to make the ship less likely to slip off her perch into deep water while steam was vented to prevent an explosion. The Yankee Blade was firmly wedged high on the rocks, and while the forward quarter remained dry, the rise and fall of the waves worked the stern. It was obvious that the Yankee Blade would eventually snap in two. If the forward quarter slipped into deeper water, the death toll would be high.
Purser Samuel Vought was able to save the valuables entrusted to him and the express bags stored in his office, but when he and his crew approached the specie gold stored in the vault in the stern, he found that the safe was already under rapidly rising water. There was nothing they could do to save this valuable cargo.
Since the Yankee Blade carried so many passengers, there were not enough lifeboats for everyone. Each rescue craft would have to make many trips before everyone was removed. By now most of the daylight hours were behind them and the ship was some distance from shore. Even if the lifeboats landed safely, they could make only one or two return trips before darkness set in. Most of those on board would have to remain with the vessel through the night.
Although a large number of people crowded the decks, the loading of the three starboard lifeboats was orderly. The crew, responsible for making a safe landing, took their places. Women and small children were given seating preference, but a few single male passengers attempted to push them aside to gain a place. The boats were ready to be lowered.
Randall, with a crew of four sailors, took charge of the starboard quarter boat. C. W. Hewitt, the first officer, was in charge of one lifeboat and the second officer was in command of another. The captain left his son Henry Randall Jr. in charge of the Yankee Blade. The young man was only in his teens and entirely incapable of handling distraught passengers and an undisciplined crew.
Randall later claimed he was attempting to find a safe landing site for his lifeboats, but his action belied his words. The captain's desertion of his ship in one of the first boats was a matter of much controversy following the wreck. Seeking out a location to land the passengers was a task belonging to a boatswain or an experienced officer.
Moreover, to leave in charge a relatively inexperienced young man seemed inexcusable. Purser Vought would claim that Randall's actions were the result of the lack of trust the captain had in many of his crew. Once the passengers were unloaded, he feared that the seamen would not return to the ship. 20
The master also maintained that he gave no order to launch the other boats, but four craft were lowered. Randall's boat remained offshore, making a survey of the coast to find a safe landing spot; two other boats turned their bows in the direction of the shore as the surf washed in behind them. One boat, with an unknown officer in charge, was hung up in its davits, and when the fall line was recklessly cut away, its crew and passengers tumbled into the ocean. The boat was eventually launched, and most of those in the water were picked up. A few, though, were lost before they could be rescued.
J. Moore and his young son Adolphus climbed into a boat under the command of First Officer C. W. Hewitt. There were thirty-one people on board. Because it was designed specifically to stay afloat, the little craft didn't go under when it was swamped by the waves, but many of the passengers were tossed into the cold Pacific waters. Some who had held on tightly and rode the boat to shore were badly injured. Moore lay unconscious in the breakers when a woman picked him up and carried him to higher ground, where he was revived. Others were not so lucky. Moore's son died in the pounding surf, as did twenty-five other people who had been on board his lifeboat. The role of Captain Randall in subsequent events is a mystery. The master of the Yankee Blade claimed that he returned to the wreck to take on more passengers, while others stated that he did not go near his ship again. It was true that some boats returned with their crews to the Yankee Blade and took off more passengers, but later that evening Randall remained on shore rather than returning to his ship, where his presence might have reassured hundreds of passengers. With most of the senior officers gone, a gang of San Francisco hoodlums who had come on board as steerage passengers came forward. Jim Turner, a well-known San Francisco crime figure, headed the gang. A week before the Yankee Blade steamed out of the harbor, a San Francisco grand jury had indicted Turner on a charge of assault with deadly weapons. 21 Those who had seen him on board the Yankee Blade had assumed he was attempting to flee the law, and few cared where he went as long as he left San Francisco.
During the chaos on deck, the beleaguered crew was not able to act against the "shoulder-strikers," as they were called, and these thugs were able to take large sums of gold and valuables from the passengers. Their activity was at first confined to below decks, but gradually they moved up among the first-class passengers. The Turner gang was aided by other crew members who joined in with the outlaws. "The miscreants on board attempted to get possession of all the boats," wrote the San Francisco Daily Herald, "and it was only when the passengers reduced to desperation, drew their revolvers, and threatened death to all who interfered, that they were able to get the women and children into the first boats." 22
Life preservers became a valuable commodity as the panicked passengers realized that there were not enough of them to go around. Passenger G. A. Hart was given a preserver on boarding, but when he went to his stateroom, it was no longer there. He estimated that no more than one person in ten had a life preserver. Second steward J. Madison, who seemed to have acquired a large stock of "personal" preservers, sold them at a good price. 23 Other crew quickly followed, selling life preservers to the highest bidders.
After stealing from the passengers and breaking into the captain's bureau, which contained $1,200, some of Turner's gang commandeered one of the remaining lifeboats; but according to Horace Bell, one of the passengers on board the Goliah, "the boat swamped in the breakers and the pirates and their gold went down together." 24 Not all gang members had been in the boat. Many who didn't trust the surf remained on the Yankee Blade during the night.
By 6 p. m. , waves had pulled away pieces of the promenade deck and aft superstructure above the waterline. The fog, which had retreated in the warmth of the afternoon sun, was thickening again. As evening approached, those on board could no longer make out the coast. First OffiCould not acquire words on page 12 cer C. W. Hewitt, despite being injured during the swamping of his lifeboat, had overseen the shuttle service between ship and shore. As the fog thickened, he decided it was too dangerous to continue that night. When the last boat pulled away from the ship's side, those on board the Yankee Blade were overcome by sadness. The action of the waves was relentless. There was no guarantee their ship would see the light of morning.
As darkness closed in, some passengers jumped overboard in a foolhardy attempt to swim to shore. Later their bodies were washed up on the rocks or were taken by the current into deeper water. G. A. Hart jumped overboard and was picked up by one of the last lifeboats heading to shore. "It was so dark that I could hardly see," Hart wrote to his wife later, "but a sailor put out an oar and finally drew me on board the boat. . . ." 25
Also sent overboard by the crew were eight or ten head of cattle. On shore, a passenger took the opportunity to shoot one of the animals for food. As the carcass was being butchered, the Turner gang moved in and began selling the meat to the hungry passengers. "If the rest of the passengers had turned upon them, and cut them to pieces," wrote the San Francisco Daily Herald, "they would have done the State a service and rid the world of monsters." 26 Many city residents who had been victims of San Francisco's large lawless element shared the same sentiments.
On shore, Hart and the other survivors shivered around a small fire. It was early October and the fog brought a chill that seemed to cling to the bones of the men and women. The fog was now as thick as wool. Eerily, the sound of the ship's bell echoed through the night. For many on shore, it was the beating heart of the stricken ship.
The fog, which had retreated in the afternoon, did not reform until the early hours of the next morning, Tuesday, October 2. The Goliah was now feeling her way cautiously down the coast. Captain Haley had ordered his crew to keep a close lookout toward the fog-shrouded shore for the Yankee Blade.
At about 8 a. m., startled passengers and crew on deck heard the rumble of breakers off the port quarter. Immediately Captain Haley changed course to starboard, but the roar of the waves continued. Worse, a distant sound even more chilling could now be heard: terrified screams of hundreds of human voices echoing and reechoing through the dense fog. "Nothing is more solemnly terrifying than to be on shipboard near the breakers and in a fog bank," wrote Horace Bell, "but add to this the knowledge of being in close proximity to a wreck is awe added to terror, and is paralyzing to the bravest heart." 27 Captain Haley ordered a change in course and the voices subsided.
Suddenly, like a curtain, the fog lifted to reveal a wreck about seven hundred feet from the Goliah. It was the Yankee Blade, her aft partially underwater and awash by breakers and her passengers clinging
The Goliah completed her run to Santa Barbara, San Pedro, and San Diego, where she dropped off her passengers. It was not until late the following evening that the ship was ready to clear San Diego on her return journey to Point Arguello, where she would pick up the remainder of the stranded passengers. Near the entrance to the harbor, though, the ship went aground in a thick fog bank, and it was twenty-four hours before she was finally free. By the time the Goliah returned, some of the Yankee Blade survivors had reached Santa Barbara overland. An enterprising local resident had taken a string of horses to the wreck site and had sold rides for $25 per person. 29
Most of the men and women were taken on board the Goliah and returned to San Francisco. The remaining passengers and crew who had been dropped off in the small coastal ports were picked up by the Nicaragua Steamship Company's Brother Jonathan and returned to the Jackson Street wharf--the same place where they had embarked on the Yankee Blade two weeks earlier.
Once in the city, passengers called a meeting that censured Captain Randall for "so quickly deserting the wreck and leaving the boat without a leading officer on board to quiet the passengers and prevent the plundering." 30 The choice of such a dangerous course so close to shore was also condemned. Had the ship followed the Sonora's lead and plotted a course further out to sea, the wreck would never have happened.
Captain Randall was also unpopular with the San Francisco press. "It was the eager desire to make the quickest trip," the San Francisco Daily Herald wrote on October 11, "that induced Captain Randall to attempt the passage between the islands and the mainland. Herein he was culpable, and here the charge of recklessness applies." 31 Similarly the San Francisco weekly Wide West wrote, "No unprejudiced examiner into the facts can fail to come to the conclusion that the commander failed--whether from error of judgement or from other cause--in doing the duty devolving upon him before and at the time of the disaster." 32
It would be wrong, though, to assume that everyone condemned Randall. Many passengers felt that he had done the proper thing by leaving the ship in the first boat to secure a landing site. In San Diego, where Randall went immediately after the wreck, he received considerable support in the press. "It is well known to all persons who have ever traveled by sea, that the officer of the deck is not supposed to be continually standing over the man at the wheel . . . but the man is supposed to steer the course laid down for him," wrote the San Diego Herald. 33 Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The officer of the watch and ultimately the captain was responsible for the ship. To blame the person at the wheel was only to admit that the captain and his officers failed in their duty to ensure the ship was on her correct course.
The shipping company listed the number of dead as fewer than thirty, but there is little doubt the total was much higher. The company agent had no accurate passenger manifest. Moreover, there was an unknown number of stowaways.
At the San Francisco meeting, the survivors freely showed their gratitude to some members of the crew who aided in the rescue. Passengers began a collection for a gold watch to be presented to Third Officer William Quinn, the last man off the Yankee Blade. Other sailors were introduced with hearty applause.
Samuel Kenny, one of the most notorious of the robbers on board the Yankee Blade, was arrested in San Francisco, but apparently many of his companions, including the notorious Jim Turner, escaped. In San Francisco, law enforcement was at best uneven, and at worst corrupt. Another outlaw captured, though, was Rolla Powers, a desperado who had taken passage on board the Yankee Blade to flee California authorities. When the Yankee Blade sailed Powers was probably sure he had made good his getaway, but when the unfortunate ship was wrecked he found himself back in San Francisco. He quickly booked passage on another steamer, the Golden Gate, but San Francisco police came on board a few minutes before departure and arrested him, thwarting his escape. 34
One recipient of instant California justice was second steward J. Madison, who had sold the Yankee Blade's life preservers to passengers. He was discovered by some of the survivors working as a steward on the ship Sierra Nevada. Before it sailed on October 24, Madison was grabbed by an irate mob and thrown off the ship. 35
Many californians dreamed of striking it rich by salvaging the gold treasure lying in the wreck off Point Arguello. It was also certain that neither the insurance company, Lloyd's of London, nor the bank, Page, Bacon and Company, were prepared to simply write off the loss. On October 12, 1854, Captain Randall had a new job. The underwriters had hired the Steam Tug Company to conduct salvage operations. The salvage vessel, the Caroline, was commanded by an officer of the U. S. Navy, but the former master of the Yankee Blade was taken on to direct the operation. Randall knew where to find the remains of the ship and was thus invaluable to the salvage. Two men in diving suits were lowered into the waters off Point Arguello at the place where Randall said his ship was wrecked. The attempt, though, was a failure. The Caroline's crew, the Daily Alta noted, "found their submarine apparatus too imperfect to be of any avail, and it was found likewise utterly impossible to work at her with any security, on account of the heavy sea which rolled over the wreck continually." 36
The general location of the wreck was no secret, for portions of the Yankee Blade were strewn along the beach. The stern, where the nine boxes of specie gold were kept, had broken off and slipped into about sixty feet of water. After Captain Randall reported that it would be impossible to secure the gold because of the heavy waves washing over the salvage site, Page, Bacon and Company withdrew its offer to finance the salvage, but it appears that the underwriters negotiated an independent deal with Randall and the Steam Tug Company.
On November 26, the refitted pilot boat Dancing Feather, under the command of a Captain Fowler, arrived at the wreck. To escape attention, Captain Randall arrived at the dive site some time later and took command of salvage operations. He recovered four boxes of gold valued at $68,000. 37 It seems, though, an additional two boxes of gold went unreported. Two salvage divers, Robert Wilson and Thomas Matthews, were charged with stealing $34,000 in gold. Captain Randall himself was charged with taking an undisclosed quantity of unreported gold dust from the wreck.
The incident touched off a complicated ownership battle between the bank, the Steam Tug Company, and Captain Randall. The court findings awarded 60 percent of the value of the four reported boxes to the salvagers. As salvage master, Captain Randall would receive the largest portion of this sum. The two boxes that had become the center of a criminal case were quietly turned over to Page, Bacon and Company, and the charges against the two divers were dismissed on January 22, 1855. Four days later charges against Captain Randall were also dismissed.
A board of inquiry convened in San Francisco later that year found that Captain Randall was not responsible for deserting his ship. Many of those who sailed on board the vessel, not surprisingly, regarded these hearings as a whitewash. Adding to the anger of many, Captain Randall continued salvage operations at the site through 1855, and recovered the three remaining boxes of gold shipped on board the Yankee Blade. Randall had grown rich on the salvage of the ship he had taken to destruction.
Even more upsetting to many of the survivors was their treatment at the hands of Vanderbilt and his agents. After losing all the money they possessed on the Yankee Blade, many of those who returned to San Francisco were penniless. To make matters worse, the San Francisco agents for the Independent Opposition Line, Fretz and Ralston, failed to refund the value of the tickets. Eventually they paid each of the ticket holders 25 percent of the fare, but the remaining money was never returned. Vanderbilt claimed that the Independent Opposition Line had been sold to the Nicaragua Steamship Company, effective September 30, 1854, and therefore he carried no financial responsibility as of October 1. The question of moral responsibility was never addressed. Did Randall purposefully wreck his ship? Before the incident with the Yankee Blade, Randall had a distinguished record as a mariner, and it seems difficult to believe he would have changed his behavior so late in life. Also sailing with him was his son Henry Jr. It is unlikely that he would have taken the young man with him if he intended to wreck the vessel. Yet there is no doubt that the master of the Yankee Blade behaved recklessly, putting the lives of his passengers and crew in extreme danger. Had the Goliah not come to the rescue when she did, the wreck of the Yankee Blade would have been one of the worst disasters on the Pacific Coast.
Whether the ghosts of those who died at Point Arguello haunted the master of the Yankee Blade is not known, but it is claimed that Captain Randall spent much of his later years working to increase the safe design of oceangoing vessels. It may have been that all the money he had made from the loss of his own ship could not ease his conscience.
Meet the Author
ROBERT C. BELYK is a writer specializing in history and folklore. He is the author of three books, including the bestselling Ghosts: True Stories from British Columbia. Belyk lives in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada.
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