Riches await the discovery of near-sesquicentennial wreck
By Skippy Massey
DURING THE CIVIL WAR YEARS, gold was discovered in eastern Oregon and parts nearby. The gold was shipped overland to Portland and then by sea to San Francisco. The gold would then be minted into gold coins at San Francisco, and many would be shipped back north.
On Sunday July 30, 1865, the 220 foot paddle steamer SS Brother Jonathan was on one such trip carrying a cross section of the colorful West as passengers– prospectors, prostitutes, newspaper editors, military officers, farmers, former slaves, and the recently appointed governor of the Washington territory– 244 passengers and crew in all.
Also on board were millions of dollars worth of newly minted gold bars and $20 Double Eagle gold coins. Crates had been loaded on the vessel with the annual treaty payments in gold for Indian tribes, Wells Fargo shipments consigned for Portland and Vancouver, and gold carried on board by the passengers. A large ship’s safe safeguarded valuable jewelry, more gold coins, and gold bars.
The Brother Jonathan had been heavily overloaded despite the strong objections of her captain. The day before she was to sail, Captain Samuel DeWolf told the company’s agent to stop accepting cargo; the ship was already too deep in the water and hadn’t yet begun loading her passengers. The agent refused, and when Captain DeWolf said it was too dangerous to sail in this condition, he was told that if he didn’t take her out they would find a captain who would. The company’s agent then ordered a three-stamp ore crusher weighing several tons aboard, placed over a patched spot in the Jonathan’s hull. Waterfront observers noticed how low in the water the ship rode with its cargo that also included woolen mill machinery, mining equipment, a fire engine, 346 barrels of whiskey, “two camels, some horses and a Newfoundland dog.”
SAILING THROUGH STORMY SEAS for 34 hours from San Francisco’s Golden Gate, the Brother Jonathan took a short port and respite call in Crescent City. Captain DeWolfe left the harbor under nearly clear blue skies and headed for Portland, about a day away. Within 30 minutes of leaving Crescent City, the ship ran into a severe storm with mountainous waves crashing into the heavily laden ship. A couple of hours later, terrified passengers begged the Captain to return to the safety of the harbor at Crescent City. The Captain ordered the ship to turn around.
Shortly after, the Brother Jonathan was again under clear skies but the waves continued to crest at close to 30 feet. As she picked up speed with the wind at her back, one of the shipmates suddenly saw something beneath the water. He yelled back to the wheelhouse in panic and alarm. It was too late. The Brother Jonathan had struck an uncharted reef near Point St. George, eight miles outside of Crescent City.
Waves lifted the Jonathan up and dropped her on a pinnacle of rock rising 250 feet from the ocean bottom. Rocks ripped her hull between the bow and the foremast. The next great wave carried her further, tearing her bottom out all the way to the bridge. The jarring impact sent the nine-story mast through the bottom of the ship, shooting a geyser of water upward. The great weight of the ore crusher dropped through what was left of her hull. Impaled upon the reef and breaking apart, the force of the wind and sea twisted the Jonathan around, pointing her bow towards the shore four miles away. Huge waves washed screaming passengers off the decks of the ship.
“The waves broke over the vessel with terrible force and many people were washed into the sea,” survivor Mary Ann Tweedale said later. “In the uproar of rushing, shouting and praying, it was hard to make out anything clearly except the terrible fact that the vessel was lost.”
Five minutes after she hit the rock, Captain DeWolf knew there was no hope of saving the ship. He ordered crew and passengers to “try and save themselves.”
THERE WERE SIX LIFEBOATS on board the ship. Capable of carrying 250 passengers, they were enough to save all the passengers and crew. However, as the first two lifeboats were launched, huge waves engulfed the small crafts, tossing everyone into the sea. The Brother Jonathan’s Third Mate, Mr. Patterson, launched the third and last lifeboat. Gathering up five women, three children and 10 crewmen, Patterson herded them into the boat. As he began lowering the craft, the Brother Jonathan careened over on its side, hitting the little vessel. He managed to get the damaged boat away with difficulty. The fortunate survivors turned to see the Jonathan go down by the bow, slipping beneath the waves after 45 minutes of her collision with the reef. Three desperate hours later the little boat pulled into Crescent City harbor.
While onlookers watched helplessly from the high bluffs above the town, four boats were launched from shore in rescue attempts, but the storm was too much to bear. All of them had to turn back just outside of the breakwater. It was two days before anyone could reach the site, and nothing but scattered wreckage and an empty sea were found upon reaching the scene. In the end, only Mr. Patterson’s lifeboat with 19 people made it to Crescent City’s shore. The rest of the passengers and crew perished.
For the next few weeks, bodies washed up on shore. Some beached as far away as Cape Sebastian, Oregon, to Eureka and Trinidad Head. Most of the dead were never recovered. Among the bodies found was San Francisco Bulletin editor James Nisbit. A farewell note was found in his breast pocket calmly written in pencil:
“My dear Almira, A thousand affectionate adieus. You spoke of my sailing on Friday — Hangman’s Day — and the unlucky Jonathan,” Nisbet wrote. “Well here I am with death before me. My love to you all– to Caspar, to Dita, to Belle, to Mellie and little Myra — kiss her for me. Never forget Grandpa.”
The Brother Jonathan slipped from the reef, sinking into the depths of the ocean and depositing a small portion of her gold coins onto the sea floor. News of California’s deadliest shipwreck gripped the West. Many mourned while others dreamed. Divers and ships began searching for the sunken treasure two weeks after the disaster, but despite 45 attempts by numerous salvors over 125 years, the ship’s gold and artifacts remained one of the Pacific’s greatest and most elusive secrets.
AFTER YEARS OF SEARCHING, the Deep Sea Research Company located some of the Brother Jonathan’s golden treasure ‘glinting’ on the seabed floor in 1996. They salvaged 1,207 gold coins, most of which were near-mint condition $20 Double Eagles still in their oil skin wrappers. After a long and protracted battle of legal ownership between the company and the State of California, most of the coins were sold at auction for $6.3 million.
In 2000, two other individuals went back to the site and recovered 58 more coins that were scattered individually about the site. No other salvaging operations have occurred since. Legal battles, treacherous currents and storms, rocky passageways and murky visibility have thwarted all further attempts at recovery.
The Brother Jonathan’s treasure is thought to be spread over several miles at a depth of 275 feet. Some believe she was carrying 1.5 tons of gold coins and bullion, worth an estimated $50-$100 million today. The majority of her gold is known to have been cached away in the ship’s safe and four additional chests– none of which have been found to this day.
Ernie’s Place tells more about the Brother Jonathan’s past.
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Although the Brother Jonathan’s riches remain to be discovered, treasure is still being found elsewhere throughout the world: $1 million in gold coins falling from French rafters, and the Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration finding the wrecks of the SS Gairsoppa with its 200 tons of silver worth $230 million and the SS Mantola’s hoard of 20 tons worth $23 million off the coast of Ireland.
These finds, however, pale to the treasure hunter who believes he’s located $3 billion of platinum off of Maine’s Cape Cod. Then there’s the recent discovery of gold, silver, coins, gems and jewels found under a Hindu temple worth an astonishing $11 billion. Yes, you read that right; it’s billion with a ‘b’.