Pigeon Point Lighthouse born out of tragic shipwrecks

Mar 27, 2009 12:00 AM

The construction of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse 50 miles south of San Francisco was the result of multiple fatal incidents, especially the sinking of Coya and Hellespont in the 1860s.
Dangerous rocks, unpredictable currents and persistent fog characterize the rugged coastline of Pigeon Point, 50 miles south of San Francisco.

During the 1800s, as ship traffic increased along California shores, the area was known to mariners as exceptionally hazardous. Many vessels fell victim to Pigeon Point's treacherous shoreline.

It took years of petitioning the U.S. Lighthouse Service Board before money was allocated for a lighthouse at Pigeon Point. The most significant events influencing the decision were the wrecks of two ships, Coya and Hellespont, in the 1860s. The loss of these vessels, along with the deaths of 37 passengers and crew, stirred a public outcry that the Lighthouse Service Board could no longer ignore.

Both Coya and Hellespont met identical fates. Blinded by steel-gray skies filled with heavy mist, plagued by forceful winds and heavy seas, the meandering barques labored up a shadowy coast. Days before each disaster, unable to take reliable sights or soundings, the captains depended on dead reckoning. The results were disastrous.

Notice of sale of the remains of Hellespont.
On Nov. 24, 1866, and again on Nov. 18, 1868, the ships bearing cargos of coal from Australia to San Francisco smashed upon the rocks and splintered like reeds. All but three of the passengers and crew aboard Coya, including Capt. H. Paige, his wife and young daughter, were swept out to sea. Hellespont, too, lost most of her officers and crew, including her revered captain, Cornelius Soule.

"The sea nearly buried me," reflected Frederick Wilson, one of the few survivors. "Sometimes, I could hear the cries of my shipmates in the water about me. One after another, the cries stopped."

Sailing ships and shovels
Perched atop vast natural deposits of lignite and bituminous ore, Australia was, and still is, one of the largest coal producers in the world. This black gold, a reliable energy source for hundreds of years, was an important fuel for California's growing cities and industries.

In the 1860s, ships from Australia could reach U.S. West Coast ports in less time than ships starting out from Atlantic ports, since these vessels had to sail down and up the length of South America. Barques like Coya and Hellespont were used as colliers to deliver fuel from Australian mines.

A free-flowing bulk cargo, coal was poured directly into the holds of the ships. In earlier times, coal was extracted from a huge pile dumped near the dock and loaded onto vessels using shovels and wheelbarrows. It wasn't until 1831 that the industrial mineral was loaded by mechanical means for the first time. The process became more efficient in 1860 when steam cranes were introduced.

Two primary ports, Sydney and Newcastle, were the earliest to take advantage of the abundant coal deposits dotting their shores. Founded as penal colonies, the settlements relied on convict labor to mine the coal. In 1799, coal became Australia's first commercial export cargo.

Known as Port Jackson, Sydney was established in 1788 with over 1,000 male and female convicts, mariners, assorted officials, and their families. Although free settlers began arriving in Sydney in 1793, the transport of convicts wasn't abolished until 1840. The first harbor master was appointed in 1811 to control the growing port.

Newcastle, or Kings Town, was settled in 1801. A coal mine was established, but within a year prisoners mutinied and the site was abandoned. Little wonder, since coal was mined through tedious, backbreaking toil. Using only shovels, convicts dug holes into nearby cliffs to extract the coal by hand. In 1804 the area was resettled and renamed Newcastle. By the 1860s, Newcastle was a key shipping and commercial center.

All to no avail
Coya, built in 1863 by Dudgeo in London, was consigned to Australia's Macondray & Co. in 1865. The 515-ton vessel was 156 feet long. The barque's hull was composed of metal plates less than an inch thick. The slender iron hull created more room for cargo, was more economical to maintain, leaked less and was less susceptible to fire than wood.

Unfortunately, Coya's durable hull could not make her immune to difficulties on her last crossing. Twelve days out of Sydney, a seaman fell off the jib boom and drowned. Many thought this a dreadful omen. The mishap, however, did nothing to deter an eager young stowaway hoping to join the ship's ranks.

On the day she hit the rocks, Coya carried 29 passengers and crew. Among the travelers were six women, including the captain's wife and daughter. Most were below deck enjoying tea.

"The sea kept lifting her from rock to rock, crushing in the bottom," recalled George Byrnes, a passenger. "With the sea breaking over us, nothing could be seen but a mass of hissing foam."

Amid the ensuing chaos, Paige struggled courageously to save his family, passengers and crew. A Dr. Rowden gallantly cast off his life vest and lashed it to his wife. Protectively, Mrs. Jeffreys bundled her baby into a woolen shawl. Someone offered a prayer. "All was to no avail," Byrnes murmured. "The ladies were screaming and being washed away one by one."

The only survivors were Byrnes, First Mate Thomas Barstow, and Seaman Walter Cooper. Cooper reached land by "clinging to a piece of timber with death's grip." The others bobbed ashore wearing cork life belts. Badly bruised and beaten, the trio spent a miserable night huddled together in a hole in the sand.

At daylight, they made their way to a nearby ranch. The scene upon their return to the shore was grim. Coya's hull had disappeared entirely. The beach was strewn with fragments of the wreck, including Rowden's travel chest. One body, that of Mrs. Jeffreys, lay among the ship's remains, her empty, tattered shawl nearby.

"That coast is a very dangerous one, on account of the peculiar location, climate, and currents," the coroner's investigation and jury's report on Coya's disaster concluded. "It seems to be very evident that it is the duty of the proper authorities to put a light on the point."

It was yet another lonely cry for help.

No loss and great gain
Unlike Coya, Hellespont was constructed of sturdy oak. The 750-ton barque had a length of 160 feet and a beam of 32 feet. Built in Bath, Maine, in 1856 by E&A Sewall, the vessel was owned by NL&G Griswold of New York. Hellespont's builder and owner were both distinguished merchants of the day.

The Sewall family was influential in Bath commerce from the 1820s, when William Sewall established a shipyard. In 1854, his sons formed E&A Sewall, changing the venture's name to Arthur Sewall & Co. in 1879. The enterprise was one of the first to build and operate square-rigged steel-hulled sailing ships, and constructed the last square-rigger produced on the East Coast.

Founded in 1822, NL&G Griswold was another prominent firm. Beginning with West Indies routes, Nathaniel Lynde Griswold and his brother, George, created a profitable shipping company. They branched out into the China tea trade and later into supporting California's gold rush markets. The company initials were said to stand for "no loss and great gain." Unluckily, the motto lacked enough power to keep Hellespont afloat.

Outbound from Newcastle, New South Wales, when she foundered, the vessel carried 1,100 tons of coal and 18 crew. Like Coya two years before, Hellespont had sailed for days in fierce seas and inclement weather. "We ran directly in among the breakers," helmsman Frederick Wilson declared. "She struck once, heavily, bows on, and then swung broadsides onto the rocks."

The men began scrambling on deck from below. "For God's sake come out," the first mate cried, "or we shall be ashore!" Capt. Soule, regarded by his crew as "a trustworthy man and skilled navigator," grabbed an axe and began cutting away the masts.

The next instant, a tremendous wave struck the ship and split it in two. Planks and spars smashed apart, littering the water's surface. The entire crew was thrust into the churning surf. Flailing about in surging whitecaps, a stunned seaman, George Thomas, and the injured Soule caught a piece of wreckage. "Captain, you were a little nearer land than you thought," Thomas commented. "Yes, but it was not my fault," Soule replied. "I did the best I could."

Drenched and numb with cold, Thomas and other survivors crawled up a bluff and stumbled upon a trail leading to the whaling station at Pigeon Point. Unhappily, Soule and 10 of his crew were not among the desolate troupe.

"The people rendered them every assistance," accounts said, "and furnished them with dry clothes, food, drink and warm comfortable beds."

At a prayer meeting in the fishermen's chapel in Pescadero, Hellespont's survivors offered thanks for having been spared. "Tearfully," one resident recounted, "they mourned the sad fate of their officers and shipmates, so suddenly torn away from the companionship of the living and whelmed in the cold abyss of the pitiless sea."

Cries of shipmates and others
Though silenced by the sea, those lost aboard Coya and Hellespont were not forgotten. The magnitude of the combined tragedies generated an impassioned public outcry. H.A. Scofield, editor of the San Mateo County Gazette, was particularly ardent.

"The recent terrible wreck of the ship, Hellespont, at Pigeon Point which resulted in the loss of 11 of her crew, including Captain Soule, constitutes another appeal to the government at Washington for the establishment of a lighthouse at Pigeon Point," Scofield wrote. "Pigeon Point is the most extensive promontory on the coast south of the Golden Gate, and the point seems especially adapted for a lighthouse. No other place on the Pacific Coast has proved so fatal to navigators as this locality. Several vessels have been wrecked in that vicinity within the past few years and many lives have been lost."

A lighthouse was not the only thing regarded as helpful in warning mariners against the dangers of Pigeon Point. In dense fog, a light alone would provide little safety for mariners.

"A fog bell or whistle would unquestionably be found useful," Scofield urged. "A bell or whistle of sufficient volume at Pigeon Point would have saved Hellespont and other vessels which have been lost in the vicinity."

The editor encouraged those interested in maritime affairs to bring their influence to bear upon government officials, and "never relax their effort" until a lighthouse was erected at Pigeon Point.

"Our delegates in Congress are expected to make it their business to look after this matter," he insisted, "and they should not be permitted to forget the influence of their constituents."

Scofield was not alone in his commentary. For the previous decade, the U.S. Lighthouse Service Board had been under constant attack by shippers, navigators, and chambers of commerce across the country. All complained of the inadequate lighthouse system. Beleaguered by internal politics, the board was slow in overcoming its deficiencies and placing emphasis on new lighthouse locations.

Ultimately, Scofield and others exerted enough pressure on the Lighthouse Service Board to get it to propose a fog-signal station and lighthouse at Pigeon Point. At the end of 1868, Congress appropriated $90,000 for the purpose, and two years later the site was purchased. In 1871, before the lighthouse was operational, the fog signal went into service. Finally, on Nov. 15, 1872, Pigeon Point Lighthouse was lit.

In 1980 Pigeon Point was declared a State Historic Landmark. In May 2005, ownership of the lighthouse was transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to California State Parks. Today, Pigeon Point is still an active navigation aid to local commercial fishermen and is the oldest lighthouse in California still functioning. •

JoAnn Semones, a maritime history writer, is the author of Shipwrecks, Scalawags, and Scavengers: The Storied Waters of Pigeon Point.

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