Wreck Of The Steamship
General Winfield Scott
By James Donahue
The loss of the steamship
General Winfield Scott on Anacapa Island along the Pacific Coast of North
America, is perhaps the most famous of the shipwrecks in that part of the world. It wasn't famous for loss of life, since
over 300 passengers and crew got away safely. The ship is remembered because it was carrying an estimated $1 million in gold
bullion from San Francisco, bound for Panama
and then on to New York.
Thus the wreck became
a treasure ship and it captured the attention of the newspapers of that day.
The Scott, a 225-foot
side-wheeled steam barge owned and operated by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, was running in dense fog and under full
steam when it ran hard into the side of Anacapa Island early in the morning on Dec. 2, 1853.
The vessel was carrying
lots of gold because the time was in the midst of the Great California Gold Rush, and it was hauling not only successful miners,
businessmen but rich cargo from San Francisco.
Before the construction
of the Panama Canal, travelers moved across the land by horse and buggy, and later by railroad.
The alternative routes were long trips by sea around the horn of South America, or covered
wagon across the continent.
The General Winfield
Scott was one of many vessels to pile up on Anacapa Island in those days. The island was in the midst of the Santa Barbara Channel shipping
lane and a waiting trap for unwary pilots.
On the night of the wreck,
Captain Simon F. Blunt chose to pass through the dangerous Santa Barbara Channel in dense fog because he wanted to save time.
He was familiar with the area and it led to a mistake that cost him his ship. Believing he had passed the islands, Blunt ordered
the ship turned southeast, right into the side of Middle Anacapa at full steam.
The crash rammed two
holes in the bow. Then the steamer swung around, striking her stern and knocking away the rudder. After that the ship began
Blunt did what any skipper
in that situation would have done, he gave the order to abandon ship. Everybody got off safely but most of the survivors were
forced to camp on the island for about a week before help arrived.
The steamship California saw smoke from the fires the next day and stopped. But the
California, on route to San Francisco,
was already laden with passengers and did not have room for 300 people. Only the women were taken aboard and returned to San Francisco.
The California returned on December 9 and removed the rest of the passengers and crew.
Luckily the ship struck
a slanting ledge of rock, thus missing a vertical rock wall just 200 feet in front of it. She remained jammed on that ledge
long enough to give the passengers and crew enough time to abandon ship and the owners even managed to salvage much of its
cargo before it slid off the ledge and sank in deep water.
The wreck attracted numerous
salvage operations over the years and has been subsequently stripped of just about anything of value. Yet remnants of the
vessel, including its engine, are still there for sport divers to visit. The wreck is marked as part of the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary,
and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There were two significant
changes caused by this particular shipwreck.
The publicity following
the loss of the Scott led to construction of a permanent lighthouse on Anacapa Island. The
facility was not completed, due to lack of funding, until 1912, and the lighthouse was not completed for another 20 years
Also the Winfield Scott
was carrying black rats in its hold. The rats escaped to the island and became a major disruption to the local wildlife. They
remain a p roblem on San
Miguel Island to this day. The United States has spend nearly $1 million in an effort to
eradicate the rats.
The ship was launched
in New York and put to sea in March, 1850. It bore the name
of a celebrated U.S. Army general of that day. In fact, the stern of the ship was carved as a bust in Scott's likeness.
The steamer was first
owned by Davis, Brooks and Company and carried passengers between New York and New Orleans. When the ship was acquired by another line the following
year, it was placed on the route between Panama and San Francisco.