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Shipwrecks in Pacific Waters: 1800s

North Pacific Ocean Antique Map.

Clipper Ship San Francisco

February 8, 1854 (from the Annals of San Francisco)

Loss of the clipper ship San Francisco, from New York to this port (San Francisco).

The clipper ship San Francisco, 106 days from New York, was wrecked in coming into San Francisco the 5th of February. The consignees abandoned the ship to the underwriters, and she was sold at auction, together with the cargo, with the exception of a portion which was stored between decks, and brought the sum of $12,500.

The Golden Gate. Albert Bierstadt.

Albert Bierstadt. The Golden Gate.

Several lives were lost near the wreck of the San Francisco. Parties procured sail boats, in which to visit the wreck, and not having returned, it is supposed that a gale must have upset tie boats. It is not known who were lost, nor the ; but it is believed a dozen or more have been drowned.

This was a fine new ship of large tonnage, whose cargo was valued at $400,000. In beating through the entrance to the bay, she missed stays and struck the rocks on the north side, opposite Fort Point.

This was nearly at the spot where the English outward-bound ship Jenny Lind, from the same cause, was wrecked a few months before. The "Golden Gate" is narrow, but the channel is deep and perfectly safe, if only its peculiarities be known and attended to. The loss of the ships named was supposed to be more attributable to the ignorance or neglect of their pilots than to any natural dangers in the place at the time.

If it were obligatory on masters of sailing vessels, not small coasters, to employ steam-tugs to bring their ships from outside the Heads into the harbor, such accidents as these could not occur. It appears that twenty-three large vessels have either been wrecked, stranded, or seriously injured in San Francisco Bay since 1850. This number is exclusive of any accidents occurring to vessels at anchor in the roadsteads, or lying at the wharves.

The total losses in the harbor, since 1850, are estimated to have exceeded a million and a half dollars.

The wreck of the San Francisco was attended by circumstances very discreditable to some of the people in and around the city. So soon as the occurrence was known, a multitude of plunderers hastened to the wreck, and proceeded to help themselves from the ship's hold.

It was in vain that the owners or their agents attempted to drive them away. Some two hundred dare-devil Americans, nearly all armed with the usual weapons, five or six-shooters and bowie knives, were not to be frightened by big words. They stood their ground, and continued to take and rob as they pleased, plundering from each other as well as from the ship. It was said that even some of the soldiers from the Presidio crossed the strait, and became wreckers themselves.

Entrance to the Golden Gate. Albert Bierstadt.

Entrance to the Golden Gate. Albert Bierstadt.

Then a storm came, and scattered and capsized the deep-laden boats that were bearing the spoil away. Some were carried out to sea, and were lost; others were swamped close beside the wreck and a few of their passengers were drowned. The number of lives lost could not be exactly ascertained, although it was supposed that, at least, a dozen persons must have perished in the midst of their unhallowed occupation.

She was sold after the wreck, as she lay, her contents included, for $12,000. A short time afterwards, and when some of the lighter parts of the cargo had been removed, the ship went to pieces, as had been the case with the Jenny Lind before her.

February 11, 1854, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California

Correct Particulars of the Loss of the Clipper San Francisco.

The following is a correct statement of the circumstances attending the loss of this noble vessel, which we copy from the Evening Journal:

At about 9 o'clock, on the morning of her loss, the mate came on deck; ship then standing toward the north shore, with good working breeze and under good working canvass. Captain remarked to the pilot, "you are getting very close in here." The pilot made no response to this remark, but, knowing the ship worked so well, the captain had no apprehensions but what she would come around with ease and safety. The men were stationed ready for "stays."

At this time the pilot called out "stand by the spanker." The captain, supposing that the pilot was about to "go in stays," stepped to leeward, seeing that the nbip was then in quite a deep cove to the le ward, and the land projecting well out. Immediately the pilot directed the man at the wheel to "put helm hard up," and at the game time gave orders to "brail up the spanker, and square the main and mizen yards," which order was instantly complied with; the ship then being about one length from the shore. The captain seeing the "spanker" brailed up, and the yards squared in, as directed by the pilot, and considering it a singular way of putting the ship in stays, jumped immediately to the weather side, and enquired hastily of the pilot "what, in the name of G d, he meant by handling the ship in that way."

The pilot answered, "it is all right." The captain rejoined, "the ship is a loss in spite of all that can be done, and why did you not tack the ship?"

The pilot made answer "that there was an eddy in shore, and that the ship would not "stay."

The captain then said "she would 'stay,' but, even is she would not, there would have been no danger from her failure to do so."

The ship having a head way of seven miles per hour, and being before the wind, with her main yards nearly square, immediately struck hard on the rocks. The concussion carried away all the forward tackling, including anchors, &c, and she is now a total loss. This statement is fully corroborated by the passengers, officers and crew of the San Francisco.

Passengers per clipper ship San Francisco, of New York Mr. Eli C Blake. Mr. Fary, Aly. Dehamel, Mrs. E Z Doty, Mrs. M. Hawkins and 3 children.

The Sun says:

Having a large amouut of imperishable freight on board, it is thought that much of her cargo will be saved, but very little hope is had that the vessel can be got off. Two vessels have been sent down to the wreck to save whatever may be possible, before she is stripped of everything by those self-licensed gentlemen who are found every where, ready to prey upon the misfortunes of others.

The San Francisco was a new ship, and is said to be one of the finest models that has ever entered our harbor. She was built in New York, at Bell's ship yard, last fall, and, we are informed, is fully insured Her owners are Mrs D. L. Beck, Messrs. Beck & Elam, agents and consignees, of San Francisco, Conley, Kirk & Co., of New York, Locke & Ketchum, do, Jacob Stanler, do, J. Ryerson, do, A. C. Bell, do, Samuel Dayton, do, D. Corwin, do, and Captain J. D. Setzer, who commanded her to this port.

She was valued at about $125,000, and her cargo at $150,000, which is probably insured at the East.

She sailed from New York on the 25th October last, and experienced remarkably fine weather throughout the passage. The topsails were not reefed at any time except on the 4th November, when she encountered a gale that lasted thirty hours. Passed Cape Horn on the 18ih December, with sky-sails set. Spoke the clipper ship Reindeer, of and from Boston, on the 28th December, and the clipper Northern Light on the next day, with other vessels. On the 30th, was boarded by whaleship Navigator, Palmer, Nantucket, 58 months out, with 800 bbls. sperm, and going home soon. Crossed the line in 107.30 W. lon. She did not have one good day's run during the entire passage.

Searoutes. Map from MisfitsAndHeroes.com.

Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific CoastPacific waters.Shipwrecks.Great Shipwrecks in Pacific Waters.
Author Robert Belyk examines ten significant maritime disasters that occurred during one of the most turbulent eras in the history of travel. Real-life drama endured by those caught in the terrifying midst of disaster at sea and the causes behind the tragedies. Well researched, the shipwrecks accounted for here include:

  • 1854: the Yankee Blade runs aground. Twenty-eight passengers lose their lives.
  • 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.
  • 1875: The old side-wheeler Pacific rams another passenger ship off the coast of Cape Flattery, Washington. Two hundred and seventy-seven people perish when her rotting hull gives way.
  • 1906: The Valencia strikes a reef off the Washington coastline. Before dozens of dazed onlookers on the shore, the ship goes down taking 117 passengers and crew with her.
  • 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.e Organization of American Historians. Benefitting from hundreds of primary sources, dozens of captivating images and reflective of the latest trends in the field.


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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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