Early Shipwrecks of Los Angeles Harbor

Photo of ship wreck off Palos Verdes Peninsula, 1965. Photo by Robert Boser

Huge ships glide with seemingly no effort into and out of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach every day, many not even requiring the assistance of tugboats. And all have professional pilots on board who offer advice and guidance to the ships’ masters because, despite appearances, bringing a ship into or out of a harbor can be a dangerous undertaking if it’s not in the right hands.

The ships dock quietly alongside and get right to the work of unloading and loading cargo, containerized, self-propelled, break bulk, and other manner of goods. They’ve come through their ocean voyages generally unscathed and San Pedro Bay, the area that extends from Pt. Fermin on the west to the Long Beach Peninsula on the south, appears to the average viewer to be a benign place. Wave action is minimal within the confines of the long breakwaters built by the U.S. government prior to and after World War II.

It hasn’t always been so tranquil a place and ships haven’t always had such an easy time making their way to port—or even in port.

When a southeastern gale blew in on San Pedro Bay on Christmas Eve, 1828, there wasn’t much on shore or sea to be in peril. There was no Los Angeles Harbor; it was a mud flat surrounded by thickets of tulles. But there was the British brig Danube, a two-masted square-rigged sailing ship. And she was driven ashore and wrecked. Fortunately, and perhaps miraculously, all 28 crew members were saved.

The exact location of her grounding is not clear from the records, but there was at least one person around what was then a forsaken wilderness who saw what happened because word of the accident spread to Los Angeles, 30 miles to the north. A large group of caballeros riding mustangs came to assist the shipwrecked sailors.

With no facilities of any kind to speak of at San Pedro, the rescued seamen would have to be transported to Los Angeles for food and recuperation.

Unfortunately, the sailors were not horsemen and at that moment the only means of conveyance for them to Los Angeles was on the backs of the still semi-wild horses the locals were riding. After several of the rescued seamen were thrown to the ground by the horses, the rescuers found some ox carts, loaded up the dazed ship crew, and headed to the home of Antonio Rocha, the largest in the pueblo.

But that was not the end of the Danube, even though it was broken up on the shores of San Pedro. Indeed, in a manner of speaking, it was the beginning of the Southern California shipbuilding industry since it provided needed materials not readily available in the area.

A Father Sanchez at the San Gabriel Mission had coveted the opportunity to cash in on sea otter hunting along the coast, as the Russians and Americans were doing. But the padre had no boat and no money to buy one. Further, while there was plenty of timber, there was no iron or copper available for the ship’s bottom.

So, he established a shipyard in landlocked San Gabriel, some 40 miles away from the water, dragging timber down from the Sierra Madre and San Bernardino Mountains that would be used in hull construction. The timber was shaped into lumber at the shipyard then taken by carreta (a two-wheeled ox cart with stake sides) to the plaza in San Pedro where it was constructed into the ship Guadalupe, a schooner reported to be somewhere between 60 and 90 tons.

 

It is said that people came from hundreds of miles to see her launched in 1831. She did then begin otter hunting, but later made several voyages to Mexico before herself being wrecked somewhere on the south coast.

There were other shipwrecks along the coast through the last half of the 19th Century, notably the Respergeqadera, a British ship which in 1888 got tangled in kelp just off Point Fermin and hit the rocks.

The steamer Newbern also hit rocks, but farther north near Point Vicente, in 1893.

But further evidence that the Port of Los Angeles has actually prospered, and in some ways is built upon, the wreckage of doomed ships comes from looking at Capt. Augustus W. Timms.

After coming from his native Prussia, but before settling in San Pedro, Capt. Timms started a goat ranch on Catalina Island, which became known as Timms’ Cove or Timms’ Landing. Today this area is Avalon, the island’s only city.

This was probably after his service in the Spanish-American War.

Eventually he settled in San Pedro and, among other ventures, ran a stagecoach in competition with the man who is most widely known as the father of Los Angeles Harbor, Phinneas Banning.

The details are conflicting, but at some point, Capt. Timms either dragged the wreckage—specifically the intact wheelhouse—of his own ship or someone else’s ship ashore and set up housekeeping in it. The ship’s remains became his home on the shore near what used to be Ports O’ Call Village, around Berth 78 in the Port of Los Angeles.

Capt. Timms reportedly upgraded his home by salvaging wheelhouses from other, presumably larger, ships that met their unfortunate end in and near San Pedro. He is said to have finally built a home after his wife tired of the wheelhouses and insisted on a structure especially built as a house, not a wheelhouse.

Actually, he ended up building a two-story mansion. Later, he started what would become one of the world’s largest lumber companies, eventually selling it as a profitable operation. In its early days, and in part because of Timms’ entrepreneurial efforts, Los Angeles Harbor was a leading lumber port. And jetsam lumber from ships or shipwrecks along the coast from Pt. Fermin to Pt. Vicente provided building materials for many beachcombers.

While living in the wheelhouses, though, Capt. Timms also established the first commercially viable wharf on what would become Los Angeles Harbor. He bought what was formerly the Diego Sepulveda wharf and developed into Timm’s Landing, in addition to building a hotel and bath house, warehouse, store, corral, and some additional houses.

Deadman’s Island is relevant to the discussion of San Pedro shipwrecks because it was eventually, in 1928, removed as a hazard to navigation. Some sources report that it was “dredged away,” while others note that it was blown up. Photos from the era seem to support both means of destruction.

The island got its name when deceased soldiers from the Battle of Dominguez Ranch (or Rancho) were interred there. The battle happened over two days, October 8 and 9, 1845 in the midst of the Mexican-American War when a small group of California Troops successfully stopped U.S. Marines from capturing the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Fourteen of the Marines were killed during the battle and their remains interred in the rock outcropping of Deadman’s Island, hence its name.

Indeed, Deadman’s Island was a hazard in 1863 and figured somewhat into not a shipwreck but a ship explosion.

The Los Angeles Harbor channel was still a fairly shallow mudflat, and with the added hazard of Deadman’s Island, oceangoing ships had to anchor a mile outside and use rowboats or similar vessels as tenders to bring cargo and the occasional passenger to and from ship and shore.

Eventually, though, Phinneas Banning assembled a fleet of tenders that served the anchored ships, moving goods to Timms’ Landing and farther up the channel in Wilmington to Banning’s Landing.

Gen. Banning had made his way from the Delaware town of Wilmington, giving the name to his new home in Southern California. He foresaw the potential of the protected, yet still undeveloped, harbor at San Pedro and Wilmington as the West Coast’s greatest port and potentially one of the greatest in the world. He also controlled part of the business to move freight and passengers onward to Los Angeles. Capt. Timms was his main competition. He had been made a general in the Union Army during the Civil War.

His plans to develop the port were moving along well on April 27, 1863. While conditions were certainly tense with the Civil War raging in the eastern and southern states and the Union Army present in a variety of camps around Southern California—to guard against any actions in the generally Confederate-leaning region—the area was growing in population and commerce.

It has been reported that Gen. Banning saw the opportunity for a respite from war and business when he happened to encounter Capt. Seely, master of the Senator, a coastal steamer that sat about a mile offshore waiting to sail that evening for San Francisco.

Capt. Seely agreed to arrange for Gen. Banning and some of his friends and family to sail out to the Senator for a bon voyage party on deck, going out on board one of Gen. Banning’s own tenders, the Ada Hancock, that would be transporting some of the Senator’s passengers to the ship.

As the Ada Hancock made her way with the party on board headed toward the Senator, and about a half mile away from its wharf, an explosion suddenly ripped her apart. Newspaper reports some years following the explosion attributed it to seawater engulfing the boilers.

Whatever the cause, 26 of the 50 or so passengers on board were killed and all but three were injured. Gen. Banning and his family, who were said to be on the stern of the ship, were thrown free into the water and survived, but not without serious injuries.

Among those who were killed were Capt. Seely of the Senator and Capt. Bryant, master of the Ada Hancock. Also among the fatalities was a courier for Wells Fargo & Co. There has been speculation, but no confirmation, as to what he might have been carrying and nearly a century and a half later records are scarce.

Ironically—or perhaps not so—the telegraph line to Los Angeles had been cut about midway between the port and the city. Thus, help was delayed in coming.

Soldiers from Wilmington’s Camp Drum did hear about the explosion—and likely heard the explosion—and came to help, rowing out in small boats to rescue as many survivors as they could. They were taken to Camp Drum to be attended by medical officers. And most reported that they had heard gun shots before the explosion.

And so, the twist to the story comes into play.

One of the passengers scheduled to sail on board the Senator was a man with the last name of Ritchie (or Ritchies; various sources report the name differently). He was a messenger for Wells Fargo Company and was to deliver a shipment of gold, $25,000 (now about half a million dollars’) worth, to the San Francisco Mint. 

Wells Fargo was very concerned, of course, that both its messenger and gold were missing. More concerned than might at first be expected. For some reason, Mr. Ritchie had received not only the original $25,000 worth of bullion to transport, but an additional $100,000 worth was missing. This represented the entire gold reserves of Wells Fargo’s Los Angeles operations.

Investigators found that Mr. Ritchie had met with a man named Louis Schlesinger on the day of the ship explosion. Actually, they met twice. Mr. Schlesinger was reputed to be a loan shark, who was also a messenger for Wells Fargo. To add to the intrigue, the investigators found that Mr. Schlesinger had begun selling off his properties and loans, with some of the loans discounted by half.

And on the 27th, the day the Ada Hancock exploded, Mr. Schlesinger had withdrawn in cash all of the money he had deposited in his accounts with Wells Fargo.

Mr. Schlesinger was reportedly seen by a deckhand later in the day on board the Ada Hancock. The deckhand said Mr. Schlesinger looked angry.

The Wells Fargo investigators concluded that Mr. Ritchie and Mr. Schlesinger were involved in a plan to steal all that gold from the bank, that Mr. Ritchie had double-crossed Mr. Schlesinger, and that Mr. Schlesinger was on board the ship to get his money back and had fired gunshots at Mr. Ritchie that caused the explosion. Most of the survivors said they smelled gunpowder in the air about the time of the explosion.

Mr. Ritchie’s body was recovered; Mr. Schlesinger’s was not. Neither was all that gold. It went down in the harbor.

But gunfire did not cause the Ada Hancock to explode. It was a gust of wind.

One of Gen. Banning’s employees said the boiler on the Ada Hancock was defective. It was also apparently underfilled with water on that fateful day, which would have caused the boiler walls to become very hot and susceptible to failure if colder water hit them.

The gust of wind caused the ship to yaw over. The water in the boiler hit the superheated sides and created excessive steam—and pressure—causing the defective walls to explode. Or perhaps seawater came over the gunwales as the ship yawed, hitting the boiler and causing a sudden change in temperature.

Although in ensuing years there have been tragic accidents in the harbor, today it is a much safer place to navigate thanks to improvements in its structure, including the breakwater and very deep dredging, advanced technology like radar and sonar, and maybe most of all the professional pilots that guide ships in and out.