Ocean City Life Saving Station Museum
Shipwreck of the Whaling Bark, ATLANTIC
by Suzanne Hurley
From the 1887 Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service

San Francisco, California

Edited by the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum
*Minor editorial privileges were taken to clarify the text and writing style of the period.


One of the most melancholy and disastrous wrecks of the year was that of the whaling bark Atlantic, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, which occurred on the 17th of December, 1886, just outside the harbor of San Francisco, California. The vessel was totally destroyed, and out of a crew of thirty-eight men twenty-seven were lost. The following account is compiled from the report of the District Superintendent Thomas J. Blakeney, San Francisco, California. . The Atlantic was a staunch, well-built craft of two hundred and ninety-two tons register, engaged in the whale fishery. She left San Francisco under the command of Capt. T. H. Warren, at 2:30 in the afternoon on December 16, on a voyage to the whaling-grounds of the Pacific. The harbor tug, Sea Witch, towed her beyond the heads, and left her at 4:00 p.m. near the nine- fathom buoy, two and three-quarter miles beyond Point Lobos. This was about the same distance inside the bar, which extends in a crescent shape across the mouth of the harbor from Point Bonita on the north to a point some miles below Point Lobos on the south.

When the bark made sail the tide was at its height, and Captain Warren expected, although the breeze was light from the west-north-west, that the ebb tide just beginning to set out of the bay would aid him in making a good offing before dark. This expectation was, alas, not realized. In less than twelve hours after the affable good-byes were exchanged with the crew on the tug, the bark was broken into fragments and her twisted and shattered timbers lay scattered along the shore a mile or two below Point Lobos.

Upon casting off from the tug she had filled away to the southwest on the starboard tack. All would have gone well if the breeze had lasted, but it died out to a dead calm. A heavy groundswell soon began rolling in from seaward. This swell increased so rapidly that its heave shoreward counteracted the strength of the ebb-tide, and the bark was unable to even reach the bar. To make matters worse, a fog shut in soon after dark, so dense and impenetrable that it was impossible to discern objects half the ship s length away. The vessel drifted steadily shoreward, and about 8 o clock, as the soundings alerted the captain that he was shoaling (getting into shallow waters) the waters very rapidly, he dropped an anchor in seven fathoms. This was scarcely done when the danger of the situation became alarmingly apparent, for as soon as the bark was held in check by her ground tackle the seas began tumbling in over the bow and flooded her deck.

At about 10 o clock, when a light breeze sprang up, the captain lifted his anchor in hopes of clawing off into deeper water. This proved futile, as there was not enough wind to give the bark steerage-way. At midnight, when the wind again died out, the anchor was again let go in six and a half fathoms of water, and the chain veered to a scope of sixty fathoms. The swell had become so powerful, that the anchor would not hold. At 1:00 a.m. a second anchor was dropped. This, had no effect, and at quarter past 1 on the morning of the 17th the Atlantic grounded, stern first, in the breakers, and the terrible work of destruction began. She had stranded off Golden Gate Park, about a mile and quarter below Point Lobos, and not more than a quarter of a mile south of the Golden Gate Park Life-Saving Station, (Twelfth District.) Immense seas poured over the bark, and her crew seeing no means of escape became extremely anxious. Strange as it may seem, no signals were made, not even the firing of a gun to alarm the people on shore. In fact the watch below was not called on deck, nor does there appear to have been any organized effort on the part of the crew to escape the present dangers. The bark lay hard and fast in her sandy bed two hundred yards from the shore, from which she was completely hidden by the misty darkness.

The evidence of the survivors shows that very soon after she struck the sandbar an heavy sea swept several of the crew overboard, stove the starboard bulwarks, smashed all but two of the boats, and wrought such havoc that the vessel immediately began bursting open. This is not to be wondered at, as she lay directly in the outer or heaviest line of breakers. Then and not until then were the men below were summoned on deck and an effort made to clear away and lower the two remaining boats, one of these hanging from the quarter and one at the waist, or amidships. Even under these circumstances some of the off-duty crew refused to obey the command and persisted in remaining below.

At the instant the quarter-boat was lowered, with six of the crew in it, the craft was swamped and stove under the bark s counter, and four of the men were lost, the other two Antonio Margarita, acting fifth mate, and a boat- steerer named Joseph Anton Santos succeeding in swimming to shore. Captain Warren then ordered the remaining boat cleared away, and with the second mate, James B. Ring, a boat steerer named John Lombo, the blacksmith, L. H. Walling, and two foremast hands, he shoved off. It was soon discovered and by then too late, that in the excitement they had neglected to equip the boat with oars. As they drifted away from the ship, there was no opportunity to rectify this mistake, and a moment later the boat was struck by a sea and overturned. The boat equipment, it appears, had been, as is customary, stowed away while the vessel lay in port, and all of the boats had not been put in trim for use the previous evening upon leaving the harbor. The captain, the second mate, the blacksmith, and the boat-steerer, Lombo, managed to reach the shore safely, but two of the sailors were drowned.

To those still on board, surrounded by the impenetrable fog and darkness, with the spars and rigging tumbling about their heads, the stout timbers crunching and splitting like matchwood, and the ceaseless roar and turmoil of the surf as it swept the wreck from one end to the other, the situation was appallingly dreadful, and many of the crew were doubtless killed outright, while others gave up in despair and became an easy prey to the remorseless waves.

The six men, including the captain, who had so miraculously escaped these terrors, and were drenched, shivering, and exhausted, as soon as they recovered strength enough, set out in quest of aid for their fellows on the wreck. By following the beach northward they found the life-saving station a few minutes after 2:00 a.m, and there reported, what until that moment was unknown to the life-savers--the wreck of the vessel Atlantic. The fact that the wreck had not been discovered by the government's surfman/lifesaver was that the patrolman, William Last, who set out from the station on foot at midnight, had passed the locality of the wreck at least one hour before the vessel struck. The fog was still so dense that it was impossible to see objects more than forty or fifty feet away, and it is therefore not surprising that the patrol, in the absence of any signals, failed to see the vessel. He could not have done so had he been abreast of her when she struck, instead of a couple of miles distant, as was actually the case. He was, in fact, on his way back to the station house, with a mile and a quarter yet to travel before reaching the fatal spot, when he saw for a moment the faint gleam of a light though the fog. He thought but little of this, but a few minutes later, when the sharp boom of the station signal gun sounded on his ears, he knew there must be a wreck near the station, and quickening his pace to a run he arrived on the scene soon after 3 o clock, in time to assist some of the people out of the surf and to places of shelter.

As soon as the men at the life-saving station were aroused they set out with the beach apparatus cart and, with Captain Warren and Boat-steerer Lombo as guides, they soon got abreast of the wreck. This was twenty minutes to 3 in the morning. The vessel could not be seen, the only indication of her proximity being the fragments of the boats, casks, and other wreckage strewn along the shore. Two Coston signals (flares) were burned by Keeper Kroger and these were evidently seen through the gloom, as the shouts of the remnant of the crew still on board were faintly heard above the din of the surf.

Twenty minutes later there was a slight rift in the fog, just enough for the life-savers to catch sight of the bark, as a dark object out in the breakers. The gun (The Lyle gun was a line throwing gun), which in the mean time had been loaded and placed in readiness, was immediately trained on the vessel and fired. There being no wind, the line reached its goal with unerring precision, and the crew of the America began hauling it towards them in order to obtain possession of the all important whip line. Some twenty-five or thirty fathoms of the line had been drawn out from the shore when its progress suddenly ceased. It had fouled between the shore and the ship. Efforts were promptly made to clear it, with the result of breaking the shot- line in the hands of the bark s people, and the whip was cast back upon the shore. The line had been cut in twain by the floating wreckage, and communication was thus severed. Before another line could be fired the America, broke completely in pieces, and the few men left on her were swept into the boiling surf.

Just before this, while the life-savers were trying to extricate the entangled line, one man, Manuel de la Rose, reached the shore by clinging to a box. He was fortunately uninjured, and in the company of Captain Warren and boat- steerer Lombo was sent by the to the Seal Rock House, a short distance north of the station, where Mr. Hochguertel, the proprietor, gave them shelter and attended to their wants. Another boat-steerer, Andrew W. Look, was also washed ashore while the life-savers were endeavoring to free the line. He was badly hurt, and unable-to help himself, and would have drowned in the swash of the surf if not for Surfman Timmerman, who ran to his aid. He was assisted by a party of ladies and gentlemen who had arrived on the scene in a carriage. They dragged him to a place of safety beyond the reach of the surf.

At the same time Timmerman heard cries for help a little further south. Leaving Mr. Look in the care of the carriage party, he hastened to the assistance of a second man, who proved to be a Kanaka or Sandwich Islander, named Louis Tahiti. This man, in reply to Timmerman s hasty inquiry, said he was all right, and with a little help he soon gained his feet. Tahiti and Look were carried to the house of Mr. Danehy, near the station, by Surfman Dorow and Surfman Last, the two patrolmen who had but recently arrived from their respective patrols. Mr. Danehy and his good wife ministered faithfully to their necessities, especially to Mr. Look, who suffered great agony and was for a time thought to be dying. He rallied, however, under proper treatment and in a few hours was in a fair way towards recovery. Shortly after the rescue of the Kanaka, a portion of the stern washed ashore with a seaman named Edward Kuhn clinging to it. He was almost nude and was taken to the station at once by Timmerman. Another rescue was that of one of the green hands named Carroll. He was found entangled beneath some wreckage in an "insensible" condition by Keeper Kroger and Surfman Smith. He was carried on the backs of the men to the station, where all possible attention was bestowed until an ambulance could be telephoned for to convey him to the Marine Hospital for treatment. This man was the last to reach the shore alive. The lifeless body of Joseph Siedely was recovered at about the same time. Efforts at resuscitation were made both on the beach and at the station for two or three hours, but without success. The residents of the locality acted with the greatest humanity and vied with each other in extending to the rescued men all the aid and comfort in their power, Mr. and Mrs. Danehy bestowing personal attention upon Look and Tahiti and furnishing them with everything needful for their recovery, while Mr. Hochguertel, of the Seal Rock House, was equally kind to such of the survivors as sought shelter under his roof. Mr. Adolph Sutro, of Sutro Heights, a gentleman of great wealth, hastened down to the shore as soon as he learned of the wreck, while it was yet dark, and generously distributed dry clothing to the needy as well as donations of money. The men of the life-saving station also contributed from their scanty wardrobes and did everything that lay in their power.

None of the bodies of the lost men, excepting that of Siedely, had at last accounts been recovered, although the beach was patrolled by wagon for days after the wreck. They were doubtless carried seaward by the ebb tide. The following are the names of the men lost: Zenas H. Doty, first mate; Antonio Perry, third mate; Charles Stember, Peter Nelson, Antonio Gonsalves, and John Anthony, boat-steerers; J. M. Kelanos, steward; James Henderson, cook; Alfred E. McCracken, cooper; John J. Nye, engineer; W. Laugfield, assistant engineer; Thomas Forsberg, carpenter; William J. Colbert, assistant blacksmith; Edgar Lea, cabin boy; Charles Indies, and Charles Chasterton, steerage boys; William Thomas, Joseph Antone, Thomas Ryan, Charles Berden, Thomas Brown, William Hanegan, and J. Moore, seamen; and Patrick Larelle, Edward Tracy, Joseph Siedely, and E. J. Brown, green hands; making twenty-seven in all.

The earliest accounts of the wreck published by some of the San Francisco papers were highly sensational, and the life-saving crew were roundly blamed for inefficiency, but when all the facts were known public sentiment underwent a marked change, and the men were accorded the highest praise for their intelligent and active efforts in the cause of humanity; the thorough and impartial investigation of the affair demonstrating very clearly that the Keeper Koger and crew of life-savers did all that could possibly have been done under the peculiar circumstances of the case, and. that they acted throughout with credit to themselves and to the Service. The bark was firmly held by her anchors far out from the beach where the waves were heaviest and where she was entirely hidden by the fog. Few vessels could have withstood the onslaught of such a surf, and as strong and stout as the Atlantic was, she was literally battered to pieces, while the people on shore were powerless to do anything. When the lines were severed by the floating wreckage all hope of saving the people by means of the breeches-buoy was lost, and to have launched a boat was utterly impracticable. Had the bark slipped her cables when it was seen that she was doomed, she would without doubt have driven well up on the beach, and all or nearly all of her crew would have escaped.