Project Canterbury

Early Days of My Episcopate
by the Right Rev. William Ingraham Kip, D.D.

New York: T. Whittaker, 1892.

Chapter VI. Wreck of the "Golden Gate"

WE entered the harbor of San Diego at about one o'clock on Wednesday morning, the 18th. It was a calm and beautiful day, that dawned upon us with the softness of atmosphere characteristic of this climate. The air was as warm as that of June. On coming on deck, at sunrise, we found ourselves in a deep bay, around which we looked in vain for the town of San Diego. The landing, or Plaza, opposite to which we had anchored, has only three or four houses, including a drinking-shop and the Custom House. Along shore stand some old hide houses, mentioned by Dana in his "Two Years Before the Mast," which, at that time, were the scene of his labors. On the rising ground behind them are some thirty or forty graves, with a wooden paling to each, most of them being the last resting-places of our countrymen who had died on board the steamships which stop here. The town of San Diego is about four miles distant, at the head of the bay, but almost concealed from view at the Plaza, by the rising ground which intervenes.

The Captain, at daylight, rode up to the town, and succeeded in procuring about fifteen miserable bullocks, for which fifty-five dollars apiece were paid, the proper value being from twenty to twenty-five dollars. They were driven down to the beach, killed, and taken on board, with some other provisions hastily collected; so that by noon we were ready to sail.

At three o'clock they got up steam, and we prepared to leave the harbor. About the same time, a small steamer, the Goliah, trading between this place and San Francisco, which also had arrived early in the morning, weighed her anchor and set out on her return. While the Golden Gate was swinging around by a hawser from an old hulk anchored near the shore, the cable broke, and we were left in the stream, before she had headed the right way. Down we floated, sometimes sideways, sometimes straight, the single wheel which could be used not having power enough to bring her round. The channel is narrow and winding, with a reef of sand near the entrance of the harbor. Under all these difficulties, the Captain managed the vessel, as all allowed, in a masterly way, availing1 himself of every eddy to sweep her around, until we were five miles from the landing, and apparently just entering the ocean. Just at this moment, the tide carried her around, and we felt her stern slightly strike the bar. With full power in the engine, she would at once have been freed, but with one wheel this was impossible. The engine could not act upon her with sufficient force; and after striking several times, she grounded firmly, with her bow swinging clear.

The Goliah was at this time about a mile from us. Our flag was at once run up with the union down, as a signal of distress, and she came to us. A. boat was sent off to her with a heavy hawser, and her engine was put in motion to drag us off. After straining the hawser to its utmost capacity, without moving us, it suddenly parted. Another was sent off, which also snapped, in a short time, with the same ill success. The tide at this time was rapidly falling; and it became evident that it was of no use at present to repeat the experiment. Captain Haley (of the Goliah) therefore sent word that ho would return at evening, when the tide rose, and could then probably succeed in bringing us off.

With the close of the day, most unexpectedly came signs of a change of weather. The sea became very rough, and the swell of the surf around us gave token of a wild night. The Goliah, however, which was anchored near us, about six o'clock took another hawser, and for some time renewed the attempt. But after several efforts, which produced no effect, the cable broke like the others. Seeing it to be a hopeless case, with the storm every moment increasing, and the sea then so high that no boat could pass between the two steamers, the Goliah abandoned us, and went up the harbor, to take refuge for the night at an anchorage protected from the wind and sea.

Some six months afterwards, I had occasion to go with Captain Haley in his steamer, from San Francisco, down the coast to Monterey. I asked him what he thought of us that evening, when he went off. He said, "that for two hours he thought of nothing but himself, that ho had never been in such a hurricane, he could not see his course, and did not know to that day how he found his way up the harbor. When, however, he had time to think of us, he gave up all hope of ever seeing us again."

As the hawser parted, the gale struck us with its full violence. It was utterly unlike anything I had ever experienced. It seemed to grow dark at once. It was indeed one of those tornadoes which occur but once in twenty years on the Pacific, but which when they do come are fearful in their strength. As it struck the Golden Gate, the steamer swung round, and was dashed broadside upon the reef, in the very midst of the breakers. We were then about a mile and a quarter from shore, surrounded on all sides by the breakers, the night exceedingly dark, and the sea sweeping over us. The rain, too, was falling in sheets, while the gale had broken upon us with hurricane violence. I have been in some of the worst storms of winter, off the coast of France, and was once in one of those terrible gales, which briefly, but with such violence, sweep over the Mediterranean, but I never witnessed anything, in its effects, equal to this. Nor is this opinion the exaggeration of my own fears, arising from our perilous situation. We were told afterwards, by those on shore who were residents here, that they had not for years experienced a storm equal to it in violence. While at one time the waves swept over us, at another, as they dashed by us in huge masses, seething in foam as far as we could see, the whole surface of the ocean seemed flattened down by the violence of the wind.

Another difficulty of our situation arose from the fact, that we had nearly one thousand persons on board. Most of these, from character and want of self-discipline, could not exert over themselves the control necessary at a crisis of danger, when the strict government of a ship-of-war was requisite. When, therefore, our ship first went upon the reef, as she keeled over on one side, throwing passengers and everything movable to the windward, there was such a scene of terror as I never before bad witnessed. The crowd rushed wildly into the great saloon, clinging to everything which could prevent falling, and exhibiting every possible variety of character.

And then, every few moments the sea would raise the immense mass and throw it still farther among the breakers, where it would come down with a crash. This was repeated again and again, and followed by a cracking and straining beneath our feet, which seemed to the uninitiated as if it were parting at midships. Then every one would hold his breath for a minute or two, till he saw whether the ship wore going to pieces, and when he found she had survived that shock, would catch it again with a long gasp. Every time, too, that she thus struck on her side, there would be a wreck of everything breakable, the very noise of which added to the confusion and fear. Even the dining tables and settees, which were clamped down with strong iron fastenings, were torn up and hurled to the other end of the saloon.

The question, indeed, on which everything in regard to us rested, was, whether or not the steamer was strong enough to bear all this thumping through the night, without going to pieces. Had it broken up, few of us could have reached the shore, from which we were more than a mile distant, with wild breakers intervening. As it was, providentially for us, our steamer was built with the strength of a frigate. The Captain, next morning, said, that "there was not another steamer on that coast, that could have left at daylight more than a few planks scattered along the shore." A shipmaster, too, who was at the landing, told us he Watched us through the early part of the night, by the lights dancing up and down as the vessel struck, and finally went to bed with the feeling that before morning we should be entirely broken up. With those indeed who realized that this was likely, it was a fearful night.

There was another danger, too, even if she held together, which was foreseen, and feared by those who were experienced in such matters. The steamer (as I have stated in a previous diaper), has an upper saloon, the staterooms of which are built on the guards, which extend ten feet over the sides, and form, therefore, the floor of those rooms. At one o'clock in the morning, the sea commenced tearing up these guards, as she lay over on the windward side, so that as the waves breached over her, they dashed through the staterooms into the saloons. As she was settling more and more on that side, it was feared that the staterooms and upper works would be entirely carried away, when the sea would necessarily pour down into the lower cabin and fill it. In this case, even if she held together, the thousand persons on board would be driven forward, to take their stand at the bow, a place which afforded hardly foothold for such a crowd.

Attempts were made during the night to right her, by getting up some sails, but they were at once blown to ribbons, and the foremast cracked in such a way as to be useless. The engine was kept going, to avail ourselves of any favorable change in the position of the vessel, until the water rose to the furnace gratings, when the fires were necessarily put out. The passengers were then all summoned to take their stand upon the starboard guards, to try and trim her by the counterbalance of their weight. There they remained for hours, exposed to all the storm, and drenched to the skin.

And thus the night,--to many the most anxious they had ever passed--wore away. Our hope was, that when, towards morning, the tide turned, the gale, as frequently happens, would abate. I confess, I never in my life so often consulted my watch, or looked so earnestly for the dawn of day. About three o'clock, after some thumping and straining, the steamer seemed gradually to right herself, so that one danger was lessened. Why this favorable change occurred, I have never found any one able to give an explanation. Probably, as she was driven further upon the reef, she worked her way down into the sand, and got into a more even position. Happily for us, the reef was entirely of sand, for had there been a single rock beneath her, she would have gone to pieces in two hours. Towards morning, as we had hoped, the gale abated. Looking over our beautiful saloon, more than a hundred feet long, I was struck with its changed and desolate appearance. It was thoroughly drenched, as the sea had swept through it; while tables and settees were torn up and piled against the openings which the waves had made. On the floor, the passengers were lying in every attitude, having sunk into sleep from utter exhaustion.

There is one consideration, however, connected with this night, which we could not but bear in mind. It is admitted by all with whom we have conversed, that our grounding on the Zuninga Shoal was providential for us, and probably saved the lives of hundreds. Had we not done so, we should, m a few minutes more, have passed Point Loma, and been cut to sea. It would have been impossible for us to have made offing enough to have been clear of the coast before the gale struck us. With the comparatively little power we possessed, we could not have kept off the land, and would probably have gone ashore some distance farther up the rocky coast. In that case, the immediate destruction of the vessel, and of course of the greater part of the passengers, would have been inevitable.

When the next morning dawned, the wind had abated, and the gale had evidently passed over, though the sea was still exceedingly high. At eight o'clock, the Goliah came down to within a mile of us; but after reconnoitering our situation, and seeing that she could be of no use to us, she returned up the harbor. It was evidently impossible for her to hold any communication with us, as we were at least a hundred yards upon the shoal, and entirely surrounded by breakers, among which a boat could not live. Great, therefore, as was naturally the desire of the passengers to get to land, they found they must wait till the sea went down, and probably spend another night on board. The day, however, passed quietly; for the steamer seemed to have become so firmly bedded in the sand, that the return of high tide did not move her, or lift her so as to renew her thumping. It was evident, too, that she had filled with sand and several feet of water, which tended to keep her more steady. She was what sailors call "hogged.''

During the next night, which, providentially for us, was perfectly calm, she did not move in her position, except to list over farther on her ride. This was probably caused by the shifting of the water in her; and towards morning, the sea having gone down, the guns of the steamer were fired, as a signal to the shore. This brought down the Goliah, and the Southerner (which had arrived the day before from San Francisco); and, the breakers having subsided, their boats were all put into requisition to remove the passengers. In the course of the morning this was safely effected, and we were all crowded into the other two steamers. We left our noble vessel with deep regret, as we beheld her lying over on her side. It was reported she had five feet of water, and that the pumps were out of order. The general opinion, among those acquainted with such matters, was that she had bilged, and it would probably be impossible to get her off; an opinion, which the result happily did not warrant.

In the afternoon, after taking on the passengers, with a portion of the baggage, the Goliah and Southerner returned up the bay to their former anchorage, and before night all were safely landed on the Plaza, rejoiced once more to set foot on terra firma.

Project Canterbury