Digest>Archives> November 2009

Better Late Than Never

By Richard Clayton


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It was quite a distance to walk from the ...

Before the California “gold rush fever” of 1849 struck, on average about 26 ships a year left Boston Harbor bound for the West Coast. These were mostly merchant ships bound for Southern California to bring back cowhides for the shoe manufacturers. Also, there were a few whaling ships that sailed out of Newport.

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California's Point Arguello Lighthouse, ...

After the reports of the gold discovery reached the East Coast, just in 1850 alone, 2,000 vessels set sail from Boston bound for the Port of San Francisco. The boats were abandoned by would-be gold miners and soon it became a graveyard of ships.

There was such a flood of constant maritime traffic that from 1854 to 1856, the Lighthouse Board in Washington authorized the construction of eight light stations, beginning with Alcatraz Island in 1854; followed by Point Bonita, Point Loma, Point Pinos and Fort Point in 1855; the next year Point Conception, the Farallon Islands and the Santa Barbara Light were added. Over the next forty-four years, ten more were built, bringing a total of eighteen lighthouses to serve 500 miles of coastline.

Better late than never, the eighteenth lighthouse was constructed at Point Arguello, near Lompoc in 1901. Similar to the lights that were built in the 1850s, it was a modest one-story rectangular fog-building with a pitched roof and a tower extending from its western end. Atop the tower was a circular lantern room, housing a fourth order Fresnel lens transferred from the Point Hueneme Lighthouse.

The history of Point Arguello was one of shipwrecks, and earned the name the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” The most famous tragedy was the wreck of the “Yankee Blade” on October 1, 1854. She carried a fortune in gold bullion from San Francisco and 415 people perished when the steamship hit the rocks 200 to 300 yards offshore. The shoreline of that Central California coast consisted of high bluffs with steep cliffs and rock strewn beaches. The light station was built on a rocky finger that extended out into the Pacific, thirteen miles north of Point Conception which marked the entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel.

California was growing at such a rapid pace that more and more coastline vessels were needed to supply mercantile goods. Due to the demand, many inexperienced seaman were hired to man the vessels and since they had little navigational experience, if coastline steamers lost sight of land, they were lost at sea.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, passenger and freight steamships covered about 400 miles in less than 24 hours, averaging 20 knots per hour, sailing from the Port of San Francisco to the Los Angeles Harbor. Steamships still offered the highest degree of creature comfort for their passengers.

In the early days of statewide travel, auto motorists had few maps and no road signs to help them find their way on the very poor roads. In 1914, you could make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in “five days---easy running.” The roads of 1914 sometimes required motorists to ford streams and drive over rocky, sandy roads. Travel by rail required riding in a coach car and changing trains often as there was no direct route between these two cities.

By 1880 the population of San Francisco had reached nearly 350,000 people and it had become an industrialized city, because of the gold-rush-era development. In contrast, the population of Los Angeles was only about 10,000 but, by 1910, it had become the commercial metropolis of Southern California with a population of 550.000.

For 40 years, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company was the dominate firm in the coastline traffic along the West Coast of the United States and to Alaska. There were several Steamship Companies in operation but the PCSC was considered the largest. However, it had an abysmal safety record with the loss of several ships over the years.

A monthly publication that was in print from 1912 until 1939 was published by the Lighthouse Board in Washington, DC and distributed to the various lighthouse keepers in the United States. It was a means of communicating information vital to the operation of the stations as well as stories by and about various keepers and their heroic deeds. LIGHTHOUSE SERVICE BULLETIN was its name and in the very first issue of January of 1912 was a personal account written by William A. Henderson, Keeper, to the Inspector of Lighthouses that was submitted December 31, 1911 and titled: REPORT OF RESCUE OF PASSENGERS OF THE STEAMER “SANTA ROSA.”

“Sir: On the morning of July 7, 1911 (Friday) I was called up by one of the wireless boys and told that the steamer Santa Rosa was ashore somewhere above the Honda (railroad tracks). We could not see her from the Point, and it was some time before we located her. The weather was clear: a very light breeze was blowing from the northwest: the ocean was very smooth. After a while we saw smoke coiling up from the other side of Saddle Rock Point. I went into the house, drank a cold cup of coffee, and started for the wreck, arriving there at 5:50 a.m.”

The opening paragraph seems to indicate that there was a telephone at the station and, possibly, a young “ham operator,” who read Morse code, picked up a signal from the wireless operator on the Santa Rosa sending out a distress call. The steamship must have run aground in the dark sometime after midnight on a very smooth ocean. The light from Point Arguello would have been visible on the starboard (right) side of the ship; however the seaman at the wheel failed to turn the bow ninety degrees to starboard. Most likely, William rode a horse as he started for the wreck before dawn.

“The Santa Rosa was lying broadside to the beach and resting easy. Did not think they would have any trouble in getting her off if they could get help before the tide got too low. A few minutes after I arrived there the steam schooner “Helen Drew” came and passed a line aboard the “Santa Rosa.” Then shortly after that the steamer “Argyll” arrived and passed a line aboard, but it soon parted: then they made fast the wire cable. By that time the tide was ebbing, and they could not do much in the way of towing.

One report of this incident stated that the “Centralia” made an offer to evacuate the passengers to their ship, but the Captain held his passengers aboard until (allegedly) another Pacific Coast Steamer could take them on. So, the “Centralia” steamed away.

“About 12 o’clock (Friday noon) a fresh breeze sprang up and the surf began to roll and break hard. There was nothing we could do on shore but stand and look on. By that time a great many people had left the beach and gone home. I asked my friends to wait and see the steamer pulled off---that they would commence towing her off in a few minutes. They did not have to wait very long before the “Argyll” had a strain on her cable. The “Santa Rosa” began to move very slowly to the north and her stern pointed to the west; but, the strain was too great for the cable and it parted and the “Santa Rosa” swung broadside to the beach and broke in two.

It should be noted that it had been about twelve hours since the “Santa Rosa” had run aground and all of the passenger and crew had remained aboard ship.

“A few minutes later we saw a lifeboat come around the bow of the steamer on a big comber (a long curling wave of the sea) and capsize. One of the crew, a man by the name of Peterson, had jumped out of the boat as it had passed by the bow of the steamer, and someone aboard threw him a life preserver which he caught and put on. But the mate and three sailors had nothing to help keep them afloat. The four without life preservers started to swim ashore, but changed their minds when they saw how hard the surf was pounding the beach and swam toward the ship. We could hear them calling for help, but could not see as anyone aboard tried to help them in any way, and the four sank at the same time.

Also, note that five crew members, without life preservers, lowered a rowboat and proceeded to go ashore. They had ignored the “rule of the sea” that women and children should go first, then the male passengers before the crew.

“A few minutes later we saw a man in the surf with a life preserver on, but he could not get out of the undertow. There was not a line we could throw to him or tie to anyone that they might go out to him. So, we made a chain of ourselves and wading out, only to be knocked off our feet by the surf breaking the chain we had formed of ourselves At last a young man by the name of Hardenbrook found a piece of window cord which he tied around himself and went out to the man in the undertow and rescued the man.

This man in the undertow, rescued by the young man, was probably the crewman named Peterson, who had received the life preserver while he was in the water.

“Then a life raft was thrown over the ship’s side and a rowboat lowered which was soon filled with passengers and cut adrift. Both raft and boat drifted toward shore and were soon in the breakers. An extra large wave rolled in, and as the raft started to ride it, it broke under it, turning the raft upside down, throwing everyone off. The life boat rode the breaker all right. A few more heavy breakers came in and threw the boat upon the beach. Those that were able to jump and save themselves did so, while the others were dragged out by the rescue party on shore. One lady passenger was caught under the boat and badly crushed. As she was being carried off by others, I started to go up on the beach, when I saw a woman in the surf not more than thirty feet from me. I started into the surf for her and Japanese followed me in, but before I could get to her, a big breaker rolled in and drove her under and about the same time swept me off my feet. As soon as we could gather ourselves, we rushed back into the surf. That time I managed to get hold of her and with the assistance of the Japanese, got her out of the undertow and away from the breakers; then I turned her over to others to take care of.

It would seem that the crew of the Santa Rosa had received little training in assisting the passengers, in case of an emergency. The rowboat was lowered with only passengers in it and no one to man the oars in an attempt to get the boat ashore through the breakers. The passengers were at the mercy of the sea.

“Then they tried to shoot a line ashore from the ship, but something went wrong and the line parted. So, they sent a boat in shore where they could throw a heaving line to us and returned to the ship and made fast a heavy line, which we hauled ashore. A few minutes later we saw four more men in the water around the bow of the ship. Two swam for shore and two for the stern of the ship. By carrying our end of the line and dropping it in front of the two inshore, they took hold of it and we pulled them ashore. The two that swam to the stern of the ship were hoisted aboard. As soon as they rigged up the breeches buoy on the ship, we hauled the lifeboat ashore, and the sailors made the end of the line fast to the railroad viaduct: then we commenced hauling the passengers ashore. First they used a distillate drum for a carrier and it was so heavy that when it came halfway in, the rope sagged and the drum went into the water and filled. There were but a few of us on the beach and I thought those in the drum would drown before we could haul it ashore. It was then that some of the women ran into the surf and took hold of the line with us men. The next time they used the cargo net for a buoy. It was much lighter and easier to haul in. In the meantime, they had thrown an other raft from the ship and tied a rope to it and sent the other end ashore. Some of the people who came ashore were more drowned than alive when they got ashore. The women folks ashore took care of the women and babies as fast as they landed. We were all about given out when the Honda section gang arrived and gave us a hand in working the breeches buoy. Shortly after a large gang of railroad men arrived and they got the raft to work. We could bring eight in on the raft at a time and few of them got wet. By 10:30 p.m. we had all the passengers ashore. The last raft I helped haul ashore was loaded with the ship’s stores of some kind.

Then I quit: thought I had done enough if the passengers were all landed. I was wet, cold and hungry. So, I came home, arriving here 11:30 p.m.

Respectfully, W .A. Henderson, Keeper

The head keeper at the Point Arguello Lighthouse proceeded to the site of the shipwreck and seemingly took charge of the operations on shore. Undoubtedly, he had assisted in saving lives at shipwrecks in his past. As a dedicated lighthouse keeper who was in the life saving business, he stayed with the job of rescuing the passengers until the last person was ashore, before he quit. He had worked at the site of the shipwreck for over eighteen hours without food or warm clothing. And what did he do when he got home? He changed his clothing, ate supper and went up into the tower to tend the light.

In the February 1912 issue of the Bulletin, the following paragraph appeared:

“William A. Henderson, keeper of the Point Arguello light station, Cal., has been commended for the courageous work done by him in connection with the saving of the lives of many passengers from the stranded steamer Santa Rosa on July 11, 1911.”

Such was a day, in the life of W. A. Henderson, lighthouse keeper.

This story appeared in the November 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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