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 noted because of a 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 that 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 passing
through dense fog and under full steam when it ran hard aground off 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 fog
because he wanted to save time. He thought he was familiar with the area and this 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
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 to sink.
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
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 beyond 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 lighthouse
on Anacapa Island. The facility was not completed, due to lack of funding, until 1912, and the lighthouse was not put in operation
for another 20 years after that.
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 problem on San Miguel Island to this day. The United States has spent 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.