Shipwrecks Off The Mendocino Coast

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The Schooner Brilliant      The Frolic

The Brilliant  (two masted schooner)                            The Frolic (wind powered brig)

In the early days of logging along the Mendocino coast, roads were very poor along the coast and there were no high bridges to avoid the trek down one side of a gulch and up the other. Traveling inland was very difficult and was by horse or stagecoach. From Fort Bragg to Ukiah by stage took two days and was expensive. With good weather the trip by sea from the Mendocino coast to San Francisco took 14 hours and cost $5 and you got a bunk and a meal.

Between 1850 to 1900 within those 50 years there were a total of 160 shipwrecks. These ships met there doom because of a combination of rough seas and foggy conditions with a very rocky Mendocino coastline when the only way to protect your vessel would of been by a human observer.

Most of the ships lost during the period were a combination of schooners (A schooner is a type of sailing vessel with fore and aft sails on two or more masts, with the foremast being no taller than the rear mast) or a brig (which is a sailing vessel with two squared rigged masts which were seen as fast and maneuverable and were used as both naval warships and merchant vessels. A brig is “generally built on a larger scale than the schooner”)

Little River Wharf                     The schooner "Electra" being launched from the Thomas Peterson shipyards

Little River was a town that had a mill built around 1885, a wharf and a shipyard, (pictured above) and several chutes, for loading lumber. Activity at the port, which once hummed with activity, declined rapidly once the mill closed. Little River Wharf was often the only harbor that ships could dock at for weeks at a time. The Schooner “Electra” (pictured above) was at the Thomas Peterson Shipyard in Little River. The weekly steamship service ended, and the shipyard where, in 1874, Captain Thomas Peterson built full-size schooners phased out. The schooner Little River returned, to be wrecked on the very beach from which it originally departed.

Mrs. Silas Coombs of Little River wrote about one of the worst storms on record which occured between November 17 – 23, 1865, which was published in the November 28th issue of the “Ukiah Herald”. She reported that in one night at Noyo (Fort Bragg) the schooner R. J. Whiting dissappered, and at Caspar the schooner Metis was a complete wreck. In the harbor of Little River, that there were three schooners, Ellen Adelia, Don Leandro and Phoebe Fay were beached and wrecked, and at Mendocino Bay the Storm Cloud and the Golden Gate were wrecked by the storm.

Other wrecks in the late 1800′s were “Bobolink” March 22, 1898 at Mendocino Bay. Also the “Brilliant” (pictured at the top of the page) was lost on December 22, 1873 also at Mendocino Bay, and the “Ella Florence” was also lost in March 1872 at Mendocino Bay. The “Cora” lost at Caspar on April 12, 1874 plus the “Elvenia” was wrecked on April 4, 1897 at Caspar. The “Don Leandro” was lost in 1883 at Little River.

Breeches Buoy

Breeches Buoy: For The Ride Of Your Life

As a ship was facing certain doom from a watery grave, some sailors and passengers were saved. Of Those that were saved more than a few owe their lives to this simple device called the Breeches Buoy. It proved expedient and reliable, though the less daring souls may not have cheerfully popped their legs into the thing and be whisked over a raging surf to a distant, unknown shore. It was state of the art more than 100 years ago when introduced.

How the device was rigged and what was the procedure: A seaman would prepare to catch a heaving line shot from shore to ship. A line throwing gun fires a line and it would land, draping itself across the slippery deck. By pulling on this heavy line a much larger rope (called a hawser) is dragged aboard. With it comes a large parcel of equipment, the entire breeches buoy apparatus is now ready to be rigged. The big hawser, about 3 inches in diameter, is fastened to the mast. It is one end of continuous “endless” line with which to pull the breeches buoy ashore and back again to rescue the passengers and crew.

Tall ship Lynx and Coast Guard Boat passing Point Cabrillo Lighthouse

With the dangerous and rugged landscape which the coast was known for with the sailors of the time it was needed to erect lighthouses on the Mendocino coast. The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse and after the great earthquake the Point Arena Lighthouse had a second resurrection.

Point Cabrillo, the sandstone headland on which Point Cabrillo lies, was named in 1870 by the United States Geological Survey after the Portuguese explorer Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho, although Cabrillo’s voyage of exploration on behalf of Spain along the California coast did not reach as far north as the point. Because Spain controlled early California, the Spanish derivation of his name is the one used today. The opium trading brig Frolic (pictured at the top of the page) wrecked on a reef near Point Cabrillo in 1850.

In 1873, Point Cabrillo was surveyed as a potential site for a lighthouse; however, no lighthouse was built at that time. By 1904, many shipwrecks later, the United States Lighthouse Service recommended that a lighthouse be placed at the point. The lighthouse was constructed by the Lindgren Company beginning in 1908, and began operation in 1909.

The Point Arena Lighthouse

The lighhouse at this site was constructed in 1870. The brick and mortar tower included ornate iron balcony supports and a large Keeper residence with enough space to house several families. In April 1906, a devastating earthquake struck the Light Station. The Keeper’s residence and Lighthouse were damaged so severely that they had to be demolished. The United States Lighthouse Service contracted with a San Francisco based company to build a new lighthouse on the site, and specified that it had to be able to withstand any future earthquakes. The company chosen, normally built factory smokestacks, which accounts for the final design for the new Point Arena Lighthouse; featuring steel reinforcement rods encased in concrete. This was the first lighthouse built this way. The new Lighthouse began operation in 1908, nearly 18 months after the quake. It stands 115 feet tall, and featured a 1st Order Fresnel Lens, over six feet in diameter and weighing more than six tons.

Reference material from Wikipedia, Mendocino Coast  Model Railroad & Historical Society, and the Point Cabrillo website.

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