Point Arguello has haunted the nightmares of ship captains and navigators for centuries. As recently as 1963, a 1500 ton freighter ran aground there. In 1923, twenty-three sailors were killed with seven U.S. Navy destroyers piled up on the rocks at Point Honda.
In 1854 the Yankee Blade steam paddle ship was southbound carrying $153,000 [$3.7 million in inflation adjusted 2010 dollars] in gold and $60,000 in cash. It also had 1,200 souls aboard en-route to Panama from San Francisco. The 274 foot ship was sailing in an overcast that made land barely visible. The ill fated ship was on only it’s second trip between boomtown and the isthmus.
The vessel struck rocks less than a mile from shore and the reef tore a gash one foot wide and 30 feet long. The Yankee Blade was doomed.
As history has shown, more experienced sailors with newer vessels crashed upon the rocks there, but some say the shipwreck was no accident.
California had attracted a large number of lawless men who had been unable to find fortune via back breaking mining.
The four year old state had ineffective law enforcement at best. Easy money may have been the motive for a band of men who boarded with the homeward bound ex-miners.
It would be a shame if the vessel, owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, met with an accident. A real shame.
Early in the crisis the Captain Randall and first mate were reported to have deserted the vessel leaving the 812 passengers and remaining of the 122 crew members to fend for themselves.
Major. C.F. Spearman, passenger on the ill fated vessel was about to have lunch when the ship shuddered. He ran on deck to find the ship taking on water. He was unable to get back to his stateroom and spent at least 25 hours on the crippled vessel. Survivors had climb down the anchor chain to lifeboats and through heavy breakers to the shore. At least 200 survivors were sheltered at a ranch house by an early Spanish settler near Jalama Creek. On the second day another vessel provided lifeboats to finish the evacuation and many were taken to San Diego aboard the Brother Johathan, after evacuation was completed by dark.
Accounts of the ordeal use phrases like ‘reign of terror’, ‘plunder’, and ‘direful’.
Some accounts say that 15 died in the wreck and some surviving passengers fruitlessly protested at the offices of the ship agency in San Francisco.
The wreck predates founding of The Tribune by 15 years. In 1969 a trio of divers had rediscovered the wreck. Not far from the tragedy at Honda the vessel may have been salvaged by divers in the 1920s working on the nearby wrecked destroyers. Today the vessel is on the national Register of Historic Places and access to the area is restricted by heavy surf and the security measures at South Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Please post a comment if you know of a display of artifacts from the wreck.
Sinking in 1854
Old ship cannon found
An eight-hundred pound fancy brass cannon that was on view in the 1853 New York World’s Fair was brought up Saturday from its 115-year old burial ground off Point Arguello.
The cannon had gone down with the paddle wheeler Yankee Blade on Oct. 1, 1854.
The vessel was carrying $154,000 worth of gold, but that was all salvaged within two years after the wreck, said Richard Smith of Lompoc.
“As far as we know, the cannon is the first salvage from the shipwreck since about 1856,” Smith said.
Smith, 40, and a pair of salvage mates, Harvey Clemens, 49, and H.W. (Andy) Anderson, 39, brought the cannon up by the use of inflatable bags and hauled it into Port San Luis.
Point Arguello is near Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The cannon, which served as an ornament aboard the old sidewinder, is one of the few remaining portions of the ship. The wooden hull has long since deteriorated and only the anchors and some pieces of machinery remain, Smith said.
The Yankee Blade, which was on only its second trip between San Francisco and Panama, wend down in bad weather.
It was loaded with 1,200 passengers, said Smith, who has been doing research on the sinking since 1966. The $153,000 gold estimate came from the ship’s register, he said.
Best estimates are that all but 15 passengers made it safely to shore.
“After all the gold had been removed by the ship’s captain, the vessel ceased to be an object of salvage and was forgotten,” Smith said.
The Yankee Blade, built in New York and ferried west, got in on the tail end of the California Gold Rush.
During its last trip, it was hauling mostly persons who were headed back to the East Coast after the real rush was over. Most of them, Smith said, had intended to make connections in Panama for the final leg of the trip east.
The ship was 274 feet long and its paddlewheel measured 38 feet in diameter, according to Smith.
The tree salvagers are all expert divers and are employed by General Dynamics Convair at Vandenberg. Anderson and Smith are test conductors and Clemens a mechanic. All live in the Lompoc-Santa Maria area.
Exactly where did the Yankee Blade go down?
“We’re not releasing that information at the moment,” said Smith. The only clue is that the cannon was 80 feet below the surface.