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Taken by the Sea: 11 Real-life Shipwrecks


9
The Brother Jonathan
Clockwise from top left: Brother Jonathan before 1852 retrofit; Brother Jonathan after 1861 retrofit; steam cylinder from Brother Jonathan; port paddlewheel drive shaft and hub from Brother Jonathan
Clockwise from top left: Brother Jonathan before 1852 retrofit; Brother Jonathan after 1861 retrofit; steam cylinder from Brother Jonathan; port paddlewheel drive shaft and hub from Brother Jonathan
Photo courtesy California State Lands Commission, San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, Doris Chase Collection

The cargo steamship Brother Jonathan ran a route from Northern California to the Northwest and Canada for the California Steam Navigation Company. In 1865, a man named DeWolfe was her Captain, and as the ship sat at the San Francisco harbor loading cargo, DeWolfe noticed that the Brother Jonathan was sitting dangerously low in the water -- and her 190 passengers hadn't even boarded yet. DeWolfe told the owner's representative that cargo loading had to stop or else the ship wouldn't be seaworthy. The agent told DeWolfe that he could either allow the loading of all available cargo or turn the ship over to another captain. When dock hands then loaded a several-ton ore crusher, they placed it right on top of a portion of the hull that had recently been repaired after an accident.

When the ship attempted to set sail, the captain and crew discovered that she was so low in the water she was actually stuck in the mud. They had to wait for high tide and a tug to get moving, and when she did, she sailed right into a storm. By the next day, the storm had picked up and the Brother Jonathan was faring badly. The captain decided to head immediately to safe harbor. When a mate went to prepare the anchors for arrival, he saw it: an uncharted rock pinnacle just under the surface of the water. It was too late to avoid it. Within seconds, a wave lifted the ship and sent her crashing down onto the 250-foot pinnacle (now called Jonathan Rock). It tore through the hull and held the ship while the waves continued to crash into her, driving her around on the rock. The lower portion of the ship was breaking up. When the ore crusher dropped right through the weakened spot of what remained of the hull, DeWolfe issued the order to abandon ship.

The raging storm and the ship's position on the rock made evacuation almost impossible, and rescue boats couldn't get to her through the rough seas. The Brother Jonathan sunk to the bottom of ocean off the northern coast of California, and only a single lifeboat made it safely out carrying 19 people. The rest of the passengers and crew, 225 people, died in the wreck.

In peacetime, the most disastrous shipwrecks usually result from some combination of bad luck and bad planning, as was the case with the Brother Jonathan. But when the poor planning is in the form of overloading passengers instead of cargo, the consequences can be even more devastating.