You Are There: Shipwreck of the DeLong at HMB, Dec. 1922 (2)


From the Coastside Comet:

“Realizing the hopelessness of the case, members of the crew have rigged up a cable from a high bluff near the wreck to the De Long and the work of salvaging guns, munitions and valuables has started.

“A.T. Gilcrest of Half Moon Bay returning from the scene of the wreck declares that there was no chance of saving the vessel.

“Pumps are keeping the water from advancing as the crew rushed the salvage work.

“Despite the fact that the engine room is flooded and that there is more than six feet of water in the stern much valuable property is being saved.

“The De Long still stands upright and has not commenced to break- up….unexplained trick of fate the destroyed plowed over two rock reefs undamaged and went high and dry on nthe beach within a stone’s throw of dry land. Big breakers sweep towards her from the rear, but the wrecked war vessel is clear of the pounding surf.”

Shipwreck of the DeLong at HMB, Dec. 1922 (1)


From the Coastside Comet:

“The United States destroyer, DeLong probably has found its final resting place on the beach a mile south of Halfmoon Bay.

“Hopelessly grounded in shallow water, with two rocky reefs behind her and hindering her chances of eer being dragged into deep water, Destroyer ‘129’ probably willl remain on the beach to distinegration.

“The powerful sez tugs, Sea Ranger and Sea Monarch, after standing nearby for many hours, have been recalled. They were unable to get a line aboard the stranded vessel. The combined efforts of tugs Sea Ranger, Sea Monarch and Undaunted, and the cruiser Frederick probably would have been futile, as it would be an almost impossible feat to drag the stranded vessel over the two reefs to safety….”

“to be continued…

Adventure Aboard The Steamship Colombia In 1896, Part IV, Conclusion


Pigeon Point lighthouse was the private domain of Capt. Marner–a crusty white-haired sea captain who deeply loved ships. From his “white pinnacle” at Pigeon Point, he had spotted the Colombia before the wreck and thought it was the “tender Madrone”–an offical vessel carrying a lighthouse inspector for an impromptu visit.

“I hallooed to my boys,” Capt Marner said, “and they ran to put on their good clothes to recieve the inspector.”

But he soon realized his error as he witnessed the Colombia “lifted by the roll of the sea and dropped again crunching and grinding its nose on the rocks”.

It was a painful sight for Capt. Marner who talked like a man witnessing a good friend’s death.

“Do ya see how she fights for life? Ah, it’s too bad. She won’t let go of the rock,” Marner said. “She’s afraid of going down if she does. She thinks she’ll hold on and live a little longer. But it’s useless. She can’t live, a big rock sticking straight up in her bow and holding her there while the sea whips her tail and rolls her round like a piece of driftwood.”

By the time Lastreto arrived in Pescadero to wire San Francisco for help, the village was buzzing with excitement. While awaiting reply, he sauntered over to the Swanton House where Sarah Swanton, the inn’s famous hostess, insisted on cooking him breakfast.

Emerging from the hotel, Lastreto saw a stagecoach loaded with Pescaderans and city folks, guests at the Swanton House, all headed for the drama at the beach. They welcomed him abord, and when they arrived at the scene of the shipwreck, the fog had finally lifted.

The city folk passed the day picking up the limes that swept ashore and later in the afternoon, a trio of tugs arrived to transport the calm passengers to San Francisco.

The exact cause of the wreck stirred a contentious debate.

“That fog horn must be out of order,” one of the ship’s officers said, referring to the Pigeon Point lighthouse.

“My fog horn was blowing twice a minute all night,” dissented old Capt. Marner.

“It was as faint as if it were miles away,” the ship’s officer continued, “and it sounded far out at sea. The sound came from the west, not from the north. When she struck, Capt. Clark had no idea where he was. The shore could not be seen.”

“This is one of the queerest accidents I ever knew of,” Capt. Marner said, “and I’ve been 35 years at sea.”

Captain Clark said he confused the fog signal at New Year’s Island (Ano Nuevo) with that of Pigeon Point. The two signals stood not far apart and Clark maintained that he thought he was two miles offshore and some distance north of the lighthouse that marked the final resting place of his ship.

The Pescaderans took full advantage of the wreck as a reat quantity of eastern white lead, the prime element of paint, was recovered from the ocean bed. Shortly it was trading at four cents a pound–and according to legend, every house in Pescadero boasted a fresh coat of white paint.

Hundreds of feet of white and gold moulding stripped form the steamer’s staterooms were later fashioned into frames. The salvaged copper wire was used for clotheslines from which hung bolts of satin, blue eans, woolen blankets and quilts. Hat racks, writing desks and other furniture from the Colombia furnished nearby Coastside homes. Kitchen tables were weighted down with granite ware, pots, kettles and tin ware, all from the dead ship.

“The wreckage was so profitable,” a newspaper reported, “that one of the salvagers was able to buy a home in Spanishtown [Half Moon Bay].”

Three months later cases of olive oil still floated ashore. When the Colombia was finally dynamited, Pigeon Point lighthouse’s Capt. Marner grieved for the steamer, telling anyone who would listen: “She was too young to go.”


Story by John Vonderlin

Email John ([email protected])

Hi June,
You might want to add this story from the July 19th, 1896  issue of the San Francisco Call to your Colombia shipwreck info collection. I’ve got a few others I’ll send along about the scavenging, sightseeing boat excursions, etc. I’m glad the name Colombia Cove didn’t stick. Enjoy. John.

The   Undoing   of   a   Stranded
Liner   Viewed   by   Crowds
of   Sightseers.
Souvenir-Hunters   Besiege   the   Vessel
in   Search   of   Relics   of   the
ashore   off   Pigeon   Point   Light   (via   Pesca –
dero,   Cal.),   July   18.―The   wrecking   of   the
steamer   goes   on,   though   tbe   bay   (they
call   it   Colombia   Cove   now)   is   calm   and
the   breakers   stilled.   The   ship’s   people
know   that   at   any   time   the   waves   from   a
local   blow,   or   a   mountainous   swell   boating
in   from   some   far   off   gale   will   drive   tbe
crew   ashore   and   finish   the   work   of   the
Everything   that   can   be   moved   and   re –
moved   to   the   schooners   alongside   is
wrenched   and   torn   from   its   fastenings   and
hoisted   over   tbe   rail   with   the   still   useful
That   donkey-machine   has   immortalized
itself.   While   the   great   main   engines   of
the   ship   lie   dead   and   corroding   under
water,   the   donkey-boiler,   perched   above
the   sea,   is   in   action,   and   Fireman   Collins
is   the   sooty   Casablanca   who   stays   by   the
When   the   tide   registers   high   on   the
liter-marks   on   the   bulkhead   and   his   fire
sizzles   out   he   drops   his   shovel,   washes   his
face   in   the   flood   that   chases   him   from   his
post   and   goes   up   the   ladder.   Though   Col –
lins   is   a   king   in   a   small   way.   he   can   stay
the   sea   no   more   than   did   Canute   ages   ago;
but   he   gets   a   good   head   of   steam   on   before
the   water   laps   over   the   gratebars   and   the
faithful   “donkey”   runs   until   the   tide   falls.
Then   Collins   again   starts   his   fire   and   lor
a   season   defies   the   waves.
One   of   the   foremost   laborers   in   the   work
of   stripping   the   steamer   is   Ship-Carpenter
Wheaton.   He   assisted   in   building   the
Colombia   and   is   now   engaged   in   undoing
his   work.   With   chisel   and   crowbar   he
ruthlessly   wrenches   mirrors,   desks,   wash –
stands,   racks   and   lamps   from   their   places
and   tosses   them   out   onto   the   deck   to   be
hoisted   aboard   the   awaiting   schooners.
He   removed   the   piano   from   the   saloon
yesterday,   but   with   more   care   than   he   be –
stows   on   his   other   plunder.   There   are
three   other   pianos   down   in   the   flooded
The   only   idle   person   aboard   the   Colom –
bia   is   Customs   Inspector   O’Leary,   who   is
here   to   see   that   nothing   dutiable   washes
out   through   the   holes   in   tie   hulk   without
his   chalkmarks   thereon.   As   he   has   no
diving   suit   he   is   unable   to   get   down   into
the   hold   and   prevent   the   landing   of   the
cargo,   and   consequently   he   is   in   a   quan –
dary.   He   trusts   that   Deputy   Collector
Bam   Rudell   will   understand   the   situation.
The   only   foreign   importations   that   have
escaped   him   thus   far   are   about   40,000,000
limes   that   have   gone   bobbing   merrily   one
by   one   through   the   breakers   to   the   beach
without   permission   lrom   the   Treasury
Department.   Inspector   O’Leary   has   missed
several   cases   of   men’s   trousers   from   the
ship,   which   have   gone   out   through   the
shattered   bottom   and   have   disappeared.
The   souvenir   fiend   has   come   down   upon
the   helpless   ship.   Every   article   worthless
for   practical   uses   has   been   picked   up,
whether   floating   or   beached,   and   borne
away   to   be   exhibited   in   after   years   as   a
memento   of   Colombia   Cove’s   last   victim.
One   woman   tourist   from   Boston   found   on
the   beach   a   sardine   can   which   Joe   Levy   of
Pescadeo   had   thrown   away   after   eating   its
contents   on   the   bluff   the   day   before.
An   old   gentleman   hailing   from   Belve –
dere   secured   a   driftinc   beer-bottle   and
carried   it   away   in   triumph,   nor   recogniz –
ing   it   as   having   accompanied   him   to   the
locality   that   morning.   A   sweet   Stanford
co-ed   risked   her   life   snatching   from   the
salt   sea   waves   a   pocket-comb   which   her
escort,   a   football   savage,   had   lost.   He
had   been   combing   his   long,   Samsonian
tresses   behind   a   rock   a   la   mermaid   and
had   dropped   it   overboard.
The   country   swarms   with   midsummer
campers   and   the   shipwreck   is   an   addi –
tional   attraction   for   them.   They   come
down   tbe   beach,   sit   on   the   rocks   and   take
in   the   marine   drama,   with   the   poor   Colom –
bia   occupying   the   center   of   the   stage.   A
bright   sun   lights   the   scene,   and   the   or –
chestral   breakers   play   an   eternal   mono –
chord.   Other   ships   pass   and   repass   tbe
little   bay.   gliding   smoothly   over   the   quiet
sea,   and   their   freedom   makes   the   condi –
tion   of   their   luckless   sister,   bound   as   she
in   to   a   rock,   all   the   more   pitiable.
“I   was   listening   to   the   Ano   Nuevo   fog
signal   sounding   off   the   starboard   quarter,
and   had   not   the   slightest   idea   ol   danger,”
said   Captain   Clark   to-day,   in   discussing
the   recent   disaster.   “I   was   sure   that   it
was   the   Pigeon   Point   warning,   and   as   it
sounded   so   indistinct   in   the   thick   fog   I
believed   it   was   miles   astern,   and   so   kept
on,   with   this   result.   What   was   my   sensa –
tions   when   I   felt   the   reef?
“Well,   it   was   as   if   a   knife   was   going
through   me.   I   did   not   know   where   I   was,
and   the   shock   of   finding   myself   on   the
rocks,   when   I   thought   myself   well   at   sea,
bewildered   me   for   a   few   seconds.   Then   I
thought   of   the   passengers   and   crew;   of
myself   I   had   no   thought,   except   that   I
desired   to   go   down   on   those   rocks   and   be
ground   to   fragments   with   my   ship.
“I   have   sailed   probably   six   times   a   year
for   six   years   out   yonder,   going   up   and
down   this   coast.   I   knew   that   this   was   a
spot   to   shun,   and   that   it   was   the   burial
place   of   several   vessels   that   had   wandered
in   too   near   the   reefs.   Can   you   not   im –
agine   how   anxious   I   was   when   the   fog
came   down   upon   me,   and   a   danger   signal
horn   on   shore   was   sounding?   I   never
THE   SAN   FRANCISCO   CALL,   SUNDAY,   JULY   19,   1896.
heard   the   Pigeon   Point   signal,   though   it
was   so   near.   If   I   had   caught   a   note   of
that   whistle,   how   quickly   I   would   have
steered   for   the   open   ocean,   and   have   pre –
vented   this,”   and   the   captain   motioned
toward   the   hull   that   reeled   uneasily
beneath   our   feet.
“This   is   my   first   mishap   and   no   one   can
know   how   it   takes   me,”   he   continued.
“My   wife   and   my   daughter,   the   latter   of
whom   has   just   graduated   from   the   uni –
versity,   are   in   Massachusetts.   They   will
immediately   return;   their   pleasant   visit –
ing   is   quickly   brought   to   an   end.
But   I   have   one   consolation,   and   that
is   that   no   lives   were   lost.   There   is   no   sad –
ness   in   any   home   but   my   own.   I   wish
this   vessel   could   be   saved.   She   is   too
good   a   ship   to   be   lost.   She   was   so   perfect
in   every   way   that   every   one   who   sailed   in
her   became   attached   to   her.
“Even   now   the   Colombia   could   be   saved
if   the   proper   appliances   were   at   hand.
The   water   is   deep   around   the   narrow   ledge
of   rocks   on   which   she   lies   so   easily.   Ves –
sels,   lighters,   pontoons   of   any   draught
could   be   moored   alongside   of   her   and   her
hull   lifted   clear.   If   she   had   gone   ashore
within   forty   miles   of   New   York   or   any
large   Atlantic   seaport   she   would   not   have
been   abandoned   to   become   a   scrap-iron
heap   on   the   beach.   When   somebody   pro –
vides   a   modern   and   effective   wrecking
outfit   the   Pacific   coast   will   cease   to   be   a
graveyard   for   ships.”

Adventure Aboard The Steamship Colombia In 1896, Part III

Lackaye.jpg Photo: Actor Wilton Lackaye

Nationally known thespian Wilton Lackaye had awakened in his cabin aboard the steamship Colombia and was dressing for breakfast. Lackaye was a character actor, famous for developing the role o Svengali, the malevolent music teacher who turns an innocent, young milk-maid into a great diva under his hypnotic tutelage. He was en route to San Francisco to do his Svengali in the acclaimed play based on “Trilby”, George du Maurier’s popular romantic novel.

“I knew what had happened,” the 34-year-old Lackaye said, “but I didn’t feel the slightest bit alarmed. Neither did my wife. She knocked on the door and said the ship’s journey was at an end, but that there was no danger.”

While the shipwreck sorely inconvenienced all, there was no panic and no casualities among the 36 cabin and 26 steerage passengers. It was as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

Capt. Clark was philosophical. “As it was destined that I was to have an accident, I thank God that I had such a splendid lot of men and women on board. Why, all I did after I saw we were all right was to tell the ladies that their coffee was waiting beflow and every one of them went down.”

Lackaye seconded the captain’s opinion. “I declare,” he exclaimed, “I never saw such a lot of women in my life. There wasn’t a scream, not a faint, not a prayer, but to tell you the truth, I’ve seen more excitement at the ordinary fire drills at shipboard.”

While meals were served to the stranded passengers, the coffee importer Carlos Lastreto headed toward the stern. He heard the slap, slap, slap of oars on the water, and through the ghostly mist detected the shape of a man in a fishing boat.

Lastreto said, “I hailed the barely visible boatman through the fog.” The man in the boat was a Portuguese fisherman who claimed that he, too, was lost in the fog and he proceeded to climb aboard the Colombia.

After consulting with Capt. Clark, it was decided that Lastreto should accompany the fisherman back to shore and telegraph San Francisco from Pescadero with news of the wreck.

“Luck was with us,” Lastreto later said. As he looked back from the fishing craft, he realized the Colombia had narrowly missing crashing into Pigeon Point itself.

…To Be Continued…

Adventure Aboard The Steamship Colombia In 1896, Part II

By the time the new steamship Colombia (sailing from Central America to San Francisco) neared Pigeon Point lighthouse, south of Pescadero, the fog was thick–so soupy that it was hard to tell whether it was dawn or dusk.

A foghorn moaned regularly and thinking he knew the route well, the coffee importer Carlos B. Lastreto warne Capt. Clark, the steamer’s captain, that they were fast approaching Pigeon Point–although the fog made it impossible to actually see the lighthouse.

Evidently Capt. Clark thought otherwise. He was convinced the foghorn they heard came from another ship–and Clark briskly walked away, terminating their discussion.

Still sensing trouble, Lastreto wandered forward where he met an old acquaintance, a Pacific Mail Line representative. The two men did not speak but exchanged troubled glances as the heavy gray mist cut off all view of the sea.

When Lastreto heard the repeated distinct sound of the foghorn, this time closer yet, he tensed. The two men turned toward each other, once again without exchanging a word, then walked to opposite sides of the deck expecting the worst.

As the horn blew louder still, grim visions filled Lastreto’s mind. Perhaps seeking safety from what was to come, he headed back to his cabin.

Simultaneously, Capt. Clark realized that the Colombia was indeed in trouble–and that she was heading straight into the breakers.

“Reverse engines,” shouted the captain.

When Lastreto opened the door of his first-class cabin, there was a terrific lurch and the sound of metal grinding on rock as he was flung against the doorjamb.

It was 8 a.m. on July 14, 1896 when the Colombia’s bow creaked to its final resting place on the rocky bottom–300 yards from the beach. The Colombia had become wedged between teh rocky claws of a reef half a mile from the Pigeon Point lighthouse.

From the beach, the steamers appeared to be lying at anchor but upon closer inspection, a serrated tear had ripped across the bow–and seawater flooded through the open gash and into the forward compartment.

An avalanche of small limes tumbled out of barrels and floated toward shore.

…To Be Continued…

Photo: courtesy San Mateo County History Museum. Please visit the new galleries at the museum located in the historic Redwood City Courthouse.

Adventure Aboard The Steamship Colombia In 1896, Part I


Coffee importer Carlos B. Lastreto frequently commuted aboard Pacific Mail steamers between Central America and San Francisco, all safe, smooth passages. But in the summer of 1896 that changed as the voyage on the new steamer Colombia turned into an odyssey for the future Atherton resident.

Even before Lastreto arrived at the dock in Guatemala to board the Colombia, the prominent 29-year-old San Francisco businessman experienced a dose of bad luck. The evening prior to the voyage his wharfside hotel burst into flames. His clothing, documents and cash burned in the conflagration and spectators suppressed their smiles as the young American fled in his pajamas.

Fortunately, Lastreto had checked a small trunk with the steamship company. Neatly packed in the suitcase were a pair of shiny dancing pumps and a dress suit. During the early part of the sea adventure that awaited him, this formal outfit was all he had to wear, drawing gentle jibes from his fellow passengers and the Colombia’s friendly crew. Lastreto was becoming accustomed to sidelong glances.

From the beginning the weather inhibited the Colombia’s maiden voyage as the journey was immersed in a thick blanket of fog from Cape St. Lucas, at the southern tip of Baja California, until the voyage’s unexpected conclusion. The water and sky seamlessly blended into a wall and vision was limited to 100 yards as the Colombia inched up the California coast to San Francisco, its scheduled destination.

By the time the Colombia neared Pigeon Point lighthouse, south of Pescadero, it was almost 8 a.m. but without a clock it was hard to tell the precise time of day.

…To be continued…

1860 Shipwrecks & A Cemetery in the Sand Dunes, Part II-Conclusion (short version)

bones1.jpgPhoto taken in the 1970s.

As night fell, the crew believed they were 40 miles offshore–but soon discovered they were in the midst of crashing breakers. The “Coya” rammed a reef, rolled over and sank instantly.

Twenty-six of the passengers, including the crew, drowned. Two men and a boy managed to survive by clinging to a rock, then swam ashore for help.

Two years later in November, 1868, a combination of a steel gray sky, gusty, unpredictable winds and heavy seas blinded the ship “Hellespont” as she struggled up the coast carrying one thousand tons of coal.

Captain Soule, a native of Brooklyn, New York, mistakenly believed he was 20 miles off the coast when the “Hellespont” was engulfed by the breakers and crashed into the black reefs.

As the breakers swung the “Hellespont” around wildly, the ship split in half–and the main deck was carried out to sea.

Captain Soule and seven of his men perished. The rest of the crew reached help at the Portuguese whaling station at Pigeon Point.

The tragic loss of lives aboard the three vessels contributed to a popular, local movement seeking construction of a lighthouse at Pigeon Point, a project completed in 1872.


The Cemetery in the Sand Dunes

In the summer of 2001 something white in the sand caught the eye of a hiker as he walked among the wind-eroded dunes near Point Ano Nuevo. There was something about it that made him start digging.

He quickly uncovered a shocking discovery that made him think violence had happened here: Murder.

For there, only inches beneath the sand in front of him, he later told the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department, there was a skull.

Actually, the sheriff’s investigation would find there were many skulls there and many leg and arm and back and rib bones. Dozens of them. Enough to fill a cemetery.

And indeed, that’s what the hiker had found, a cemetery lost for decades among the shifting sand dunes.

While wrong about this being a murder scene, the hiker was right in surmising that these unfortunates had died violently and the clue was in the roaring of the surf that pounded the nearby beaches.

The sound of the surf is probably the last thing these poor souls heard and is precisely why most of them died.

These dead people had once strode the decks of sailing ships such as the “Sir John Franklin”, the “Coya” and the “Hellespont”.

All perished in the 1860s when their ships, blinded by the heavy fog, struck reefs between Pigeon Point and Ano Nuevo and sunk wuth heavy losses of life. The dead were buried side-by-side in a dunes area originally fenced off and marked with headstones.

The remains of ship’s officials were generally not found at these sites as relatives often claimed them for burial in family plots.

Overtime the strong winds disturbed the sand dune environment, exposing the cemetery site. the shipwreck victims had been buried in redwood coffins–but even this superior wood could not withstand the effect of the sometimes brutal weather and the coffins are now the consistency of wet cardboard.

When I last worked on this story, park rangers were working to stabilize this historical shipwreck gravesite so not to disturb the human remains. A pedestrian boardwalk was to be built with interpretive signs enabling the visitor to learn about the cemetery (and at the same time they will be advised of the laws against disturbing archaeological remains).

1860 Shipwrecks & A Cemetery in the Sand Dunes, Part I (short version)

Thick fog often hugs the rugged coastline near Point Ano Nuevo–but since 1872 the lighthouse at Pigeon Point has warned ships away from the nasty reefs that had once doomed many a vessel.

Before the lighthouse existed, many ships perished in the fog along that perilous coast, including the sailing vessels “Sir John Franklin”, “Coya” and “Hellespont”.

Without the warning beacon of a lighthouse, all three captains believed they were far enough out at sea, safely away from the spectacularly beautiful but dangerously deceptive coastline.

Carrying a cargo of pianos, dry goods and liquor bound for San Francisco in the winter of 1865, the Sir John Franklin lost her bearings in a dense fog and mopuntainous sea.

The weather cleared–but it was too late to save the “Sir John Franklin”. Caught by the fast moving breakers, the vessel screeched loudly as she slammed into the open fist of the reefs. Upon discovering a gaping hole in the vessel’s hull, all aboard abandoned ship.

The captain, first mate and eleven crew members struggled against the powerful surf but all met a watery death.

…To be continued…

Photo (1970s): courtesy Raymond E. Watson

Update on Shipwreck of San Juan (1929)


A few posts back I wrote a three-part story about the shipwreck of the San Juan near Pigeon Point in the summer of 1929. Some 72 people died when the San Juan, a vessel that commuted between San Francisco and L.A., was struck by an oil tanker.

It was a horrible tragedy taking the life of Mountain View resident, Emma Granstedt, a wife and mother. Her husband, Theodore, survived but perhaps in a much grimmer way (if that’s possible) than what I found during my research .

Some of Theodore Granstedt’s descendents, including granddaughter Annette Granstedt, read the story at my website and she kindly emailed me the following:

“I was told that my great-grandmother did not want to go on the boat and that when
it wrecked my great-grandfather was found ashore and that he was put in a pile
with the other dead and that someone walked by and noticed he was breathing.”

Annette’s version has the ring of truth.

Could this be movie material?

Summer 1929: Tragedy at Sea Near Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Part III

The rescue ships carried the injured, stunned and stricken survivors back to San Francisco where they were created at the emergency hospital.
Rumor had it that attorneys for the San Juan and the S.C.T. Dodd scurried among the shocked survivors, urging them to keep quiet and avoid reporter’s questions. Clearly the attorneys were less interested in the passenger’s welfare than the liability of the ship owners.

Despite painful abdominal and spinal injuries, Theodore Granstedt could not be dissuaded from talking, charging cowardice on the part of the San Juan’s crew.

“When the crash came, the entire crew deserted their posts and saved themselves. They made no effort to launch a boat or save a soul,â€? Granstedt said before nurses on the scene convinced him that he was seriously injured and needed to calm down and rest.

Theodore Granstedt had survived what the San Mateo Times called “the worst maritime tragedy the Pacific Coast had experienced in more than a quarter century.â€?

The Times noted that 72 people—most of them passengers, many women and children—met watery deaths as the Standard Oil tanker S.C.T. Dodd rammed the San Juan 12 miles off the San Mateo County coast.

The following day Sheriff James J. McGrath and his deputies patrolled the coastline. Hundreds of curious county residents lined the shore as Coast Guard cutters continued a futile search for more bodies.

As the facts were gathered, the tragic story emerged.

According to survivors on deck at the time, the San Juan was sheared almost in half by thee heavy stern of the tanker Dodd and sank beneath the sea before most of the passengers in their staterooms, and the crewmembers in their bunks, had an opportunity to realize the vessel had been mortally struck.

There were indications that a terrific hole had been torn in the side of the San Juan by the impact and she started sinking at once. When the swirling waters reached the engine room, there was a hissing of steam and then the boilers exploded—shattering the ship from stem to stern.

Most of those fortunate survivors were on the deck or in the saloon at the time of the disaster. Those below in their berths or bunks were doomed.

“It was not a matter of four or five minutes before the ship sank,â€? Charles J. Tulee, the San Juan’s First Mate said. “It was a matter of only a few seconds.â€?

The second mate backed up Tulee’s version, adding that the vessel sank as he attempted to help some women and children into one of the lifeboats. That lifeboat was the only one that might have been launched—but it was shattered in the boiler explosion, hurling the women into the air, injuring many seriously. Only a few survived.

Until the results of an official investigation there was the usual finger pointing. The owners of the San Juan blamed the tanker Todd, listing the heavy blanket of fog that covered the Pacific at the time as a contributing factor.

Just as insistent was the Dodd’s Captain Bluemchen, who reported that in spite of the fog, the San Juan’s lights were visible, and that she suddenly changed her course, cutting across the Dodd’s pathway.

As Captain Asplund had perished in the disaster, the authorities would never know his version of the events.

Some critics opined that the San Juan was too old to go to sea, but others commented that the steamer’s hull had been inspected by officials and pronounced seaworthy.

Captain Frank Turner, a federal steamship inspector, added that the Titantic was a new ship but she sank almost immediately upon receiving a blow comparable to the one suffered by the San Juan.

The bickering and accusations continued until the official inquiry, including a trial, was completed.

According to reports, the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service Board found the San Juan inshore of the Dodd, tried to cross the oil tanker’s bow, was rammed and sank within a few minutes on August 29, 1929.

In other words, responsibility for the San Juan disaster was placed squarely on the shoulders of Captain Asplund. This decision did little to mitigate the suffering and loss of life.

The sinking of the San Juan remains one of the worst maritime tragedies that ever occurred off the San Mateo County coastline.

(The End)

Photo: The steamer San Juan, courtesy San Mateo County History Museum, Redwood City