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Shipwrecks On The Mendocino Coast

As a historian I’ve always been fascinated by shipwrecks, but not in the conventional manner. Yes, there is drama in the ship crashing on the rocks and the exciting rescue of the crew and passengers, but what I like to read about is what washed up on shore.

The story of the Mendocino Coast and its settlement starts with a shipwreck. The trade vessel “Frolic,” loaded with merchandise destined for San Francisco during the Gold Rush, in the early 1850’s crashed on the rocks in a cove near where the Point Cabrillo Light Station now stands. While the crew survived, and in a small boat made it to Bodega and on to San Francisco, they had to tell the owners the ship went down.

Frolic (courtesy Kelley House Museum)

Salvage is the process of sending examiners to a wreck site to see if the ship’s contents are retrievable and if the ship can be refloated or repaired. This salvage crew for the “Frolic” arrived to find Pomo natives wrapped in silks eating candied ginger on china plates. The ship and contents were unsalvageable but the salvage crew saw timber growing to the shoreline and went back to San Francisco suggesting someone ought to establish a sawmill up there as lumber was in high demand. A sawmill back east was taken apart, the pieces sailed around South America, and reassembled in what would become Mendocino City. Our modern history starts there, thanks to a shipwreck.

In an interesting “pre-history” note archaeologist Thomas Layton was investigating a Pomo village site west of Willits on Three Chop Ridge and found Chinese pottery shards. His curiosity about how natives came to possess these lead him to author three books including “Voyage of the Frolic” and “Treasures of the Celestial Kingdom” and an excellent video “Impact of the Frolic” that can be seen at on the internet.

Settlers along the coastlines looked at shipwrecks as a gigantic “Free Box”.  Once locals had done the proper thing and rescued anyone still alive they made sure that anything that was useful had vanished by the time the salvage crew showed up. Along the north coast settlers went to help at a shipwreck with a horse and wagon. Lumber schooners in rough weather frequently lost their loads of boards piled on the deck and the timbers floated on shore. Many a coastal ranch had a construction boom after “free” wood floated up on a beach and was hauled off.

What turned up on the beach other than lumber? Often tons of stuff if it floated ashore. The sacks of soggy U.S. Mail were returned to the postal service. Sacks of grain tainted by seawater could be ground into animal feed. Wells Fargo Express packages might be sent on. The Ukiah Republican Press newspaper in 1938 reported a wrecked steamer at the mouth of the Gualala River had “enough coffee to last the residents of Mendocino County for some time to come…” as coffee in two, four and 14 pound cans, 20 tons of it, that was salvaged and resold to general stores. Other shipwrecks resulted in cases of hundreds of cans of condensed milk, or canned Monterey sardines, washing ashore.

So say a coastal rancher has a shipwreck on his shoreline. What’s worth climbing down the bluff, braving the surf, and trying to save? Masts, spars and rigging rope? Dishes, cutlery, glassware pots and pans, wine and whiskey? How about the ship’s bell? Was it hauling canned goods in its cargo? Could you use the deck planking? Fabric, toys, rugs, nail kegs? Look at the door knobs and ax handles intended for a general store littering the shore! Did you know potatoes can float?

Some rough weather incidents were spectacular. In 1912 a ship was carrying a pedigreed stallion worth $2,000 that Union Lumber Company had purchased for a stock farm east of Fort Bragg. It succumbed to seasickness and was buried at sea. A cargo of Peruvian sheep washed off a ship’s deck in 1920 but swam to shore and escaped into the hills.

The worst shipwreck in north coast history happened up by Crescent City in 1865 was the “Brother Jonathan.” Of 244 people on board only 19 survived and lost were two camels, a Newfoundland dog and five million dollars (today’s value) in gold coins. It took treasure hunters 130 years to retrieve the gold and the Point Saint George Lighthouse was built at the site of the wreck.

Two books that can give an interesting look at shipwrecks that I enjoyed were “Tractors, Trains &  Shipwrecks” by Donald R. Richardson and “Shipwrecks of the California Coast” by Michael D. White. The first is set at Stewart’s Point and I found it on the Mendocino County Bookmobile. The chapter “Wreck of the Steamer Klamath” recounts how every object of value, from the 4” thick red velvet cushions from the ship’s lounge to the sinks in the staterooms, were retrieved. White’s book looks at famous and infamous disasters and is available in independent bookstores.

In closing I’d like to imagine I’m a little kid on a coastal ranch a hundred years ago, watching the clean up of a shipwreck. I’m coming home dragging a gunny sack of coconuts behind me and asking my Mom “What are we going to do with these?”

One Comment

  1. Annette June 15, 2017

    When I was a child we stayed at Stinson Beach in the summer. In 1951 a hospital ship and tanker crashed just outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Lots of tar and oil and other things washed up on the beach. We found a wooden box of plasma in glass bottles. Our parents told us to take it to the lifeguard station. It took us most of the morning to drag it down the beach. We were about 8 years old and felt like real pirates. One of my best beach memories.

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