VIPS in the Port of San Francisco

James Mudge Cole


Taken from an account of ?The Cole Family with Random Notes and Charts of the Ten Branches Comprising the family from 1700 to 1971?, published September 1972.

Following is a letter from James Mudge Cole to his brothers in Denbury, Devon, written June 27th., 1853 from Sydney, Australia, while enroute to the mines at Spring Creek Ovens Diggings, Victoria.

?Dear Brothers, I wrote to you about seven months ago from New Orleans. I told you then that I was enroute for` California and expected to start next day. This I did which was the 22nd of December, 1852. I got safely to San Juan del Norte (Central America) in seven days, passed up the river through Lake Nicaragua and twenty miles on mules overland and got to the Pacific at San Juan del Sut in four days more. With eight others, I had taken tickets this far thinking that we might get up cheaper, but in this we were mistaken, for the Nicaraguan Company?s boats are the only ones that came in here and only do so once a fortnight. As it happened this time the boat would only accommodate four hundred passengers with comfort and there were four hundred and thirty who had through tickets, and they were bound to take them, but by no means could we who had no fares, get on. The captain told me that five hundred dollars would not take me through that time so there were eighteen of us left with no hope of getting off for two weeks. I made the best of a bad bargain and went to work painting a house (the best hotel in the place and not a bad one either). I got one dollar and a half a day and board, but of the eighteen, only two of us could find anything to do. The rest had to pay ten dollars a week for board. I stopped there one month and left the third of February. I was glad enough to leave as it was the sickliest place I was ever in but, of the eighteen left there, sixteen became ill the first week mostly with the fever and ague. I stood it longer than any of them, but I got a few touches of it at last and I believe I should have got more if I had not left. As I said I left on the third of February on the Steamer ?Independence?.

We got along very well until the morning of the 16th, running as we were along close to shore. At last it proved too close as we struck a rock, the boat backed off immediately and continued to run along shore.

At first it was doubted if it had injured her, but the water soon showed that she must soon sink. Then of course all was confusion getting ready to go ashore which we expected to do without difficulty by running the boat in where we saw a sand bottom, letting her settle where she could not sink and then using the small boats. We ran along perhaps for an hour when we saw a suitable place and ran in and she struck again when about two hundred yards from shore.

By this time the water had risen so high as to get into the furnaces which caused the fire to rush from the hatchway in a wave of flame and set fire to the place around. Amid the confusion, no notice was taken of it until too late to stop it. The ship, coming from the tropics, was as dry as powder and burned like wildfire. The small boats were immediately launched. The first took some ladies in but was swamped by the surf as it reached the shore but they all got out safely. The boat however, could not return. The second boat also took some ladies and a rope, got ashore safely but the sailors refused to return as the fire was burning so fiercely and they were afraid too many would get into it. However they tied the rope to a rock but before it could be hauled taut, so many jumped on to it that it swayed down into the water and was rendered useless. The third boat also took some ladies but did not return.

We saw that many must die and our hope was to swim or to cling to something in the water. All around the boat on the side toward shore was a sea of heads, almost from the first. It was dangerous to jump out amongst them, to swim lest some of them should take hold of you, and many a good swimmer was taken down. I saw several times, five or six cling to each other, each one trying to get uppermost and finally all go down together sending up such shrieks as those who never heard the death shriek can not imagine. It was useless to throw anything over to float by as someone was sure to get it before you, and generally enough to sink it. Although there was but little wind at the time, the surf broke high ashore and several who had swam ashore were dashed against the rocks and killed.

For my part, I had looked on the scene weighing the chances as composedly as possible given the circumstances. I felt sure I could swim it even through the rough sea if I was naked, but the idea of going ashore on a cold February morning without clothes and dying from cold was almost as repulsive as drowning, so I determined to try it with my pants, shirt and vest on. I stopped on the boat until the fire was very near me and but a few were left on it. There were not many around the boat now, as most of them had drowned. Those who had anything to float on were drifting out to sea. When I jumped over I swam as fast as possible until away from those around the boat, then I took it easily but soon found the difference between swimming naked and with my clothes on. When I got about forty yards from shore the surf began to break over me and I was sometimes above and sometimes below the water. At last I was completely exhausted, my arms dropped and I sank. I thought sure I was going to drown. I was not afraid of death, I never supposed I should be, but when I thought of dying there all alone away from my friends and many other thoughts crowded on me, then did I strike a few more strokes and raised to the surface again. I was still some considerable distance from shore and sank again for what I thought was the last time when big surf engulfed me, turning me over and over in whirls that made me dizzy. I felt my knees touch bottom and when the wave receded I was out of the water. I was too weak to move. Someone ran in and dragged me out and I was safe from drowning at least.

Now I must hasten. The land was an island on the coast of Mexico in 22 degrees north latitude. The Island was perfectly barren and uninhabited, not even a bird or an animal could we see, and what was worse, not a drop of fresh water. We stopped there three days. Of course we suffered a great deal from cold at night and for want of water.

Between the island and the mainland was a bay in which there were whalers. We crossed over and drew their attention, which resulted in their bringing us provisions and water, and took us on board their ships. The ship was then chartered to take us to San Francisco. We were numbered and found two hundred and forty of us were saved and we got the names of one hundred and ninety six lost; probably about two hundred were lost altogether.

When we got on the whale ship we found ourselves so crowded that we had to be put on allowance provisions that twenty three of us took passage to other ships to go to the Sandwich Islands.. There were five ships there altogether. We had seventeen days passage to the Sandwich Islands, stopped five days at Ohyhee, the place where Captain Cook was killed, then went to Oaho where we found vessels from almost everywhere. I took passage in a vessel from San Francisco to New South Wales, touched at several islands in the Pacific, stopped a week at one of the Navigators Islands and got here at Sydney about three weeks ago and have been at work ever since as times are good. I was never as fat or as lousy in my life before as when I left the vessel. I still weigh over 160 pounds, but the lice have evacuated. I expect to leave for the mines tomorrow.

I will write you again as soon as I get settled. Don?t ever think I am dead until you know it. Whatever happens, believe me that I shall ever be your affectionate brother, James M. Cole.?

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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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