The wreck of the SS Winfield Scott

 The ship was slowly sinking.

by Richard Senate

An event happened on Anacapa Island that was the cause of the construction of a light house on the Island.  It was a dark foggy night, December 4th, 1853, when the steamship ” Winfield Scott” went into the rocks off Frenchies Cove, Anacapa Island. The three-year-old 1,291 ton paddle steamer was carrying 250 rich miners from San Francisco to Panama on the first leg home to their families in the United States. Each one carried gold, and the ship also held two million of gold bullion being sent east.

The master of the ship was Captain Blunt who had successfully sailed the ship around the horn from New York to California. He had heard that the Santa Barbara Channel would cut hours, even days, off his trip. Most sea captains at that time avoided this rout preferring to sail far off the coast.  Knowing the stiff competition from other lines, he elected to sail though the channel. It was a mistake.

The Santa Barbara Channel can be treacherous, especial in the Winter months.  When they were off Santa Barbara they were enveloped in a thick pea soup fog. Blinded in the days before radar Captain Blunt was forced to reduce speed and proceed using dead reckoning.  As they progressed nervously on the bridge, the unknowing passengers partied, played cards and gambled.  Somehow, perhaps it was only a small error, they strayed off course. At two a.m. when they were almost though the Channel, the big ship rammed into the rocks. Everyone was tossed from their beds and went on deck into the fog. Some panicked in fear, others steeled by their time in the rough gold camps, remained calm.  They knew they were not far from land, they could hear the sound of the surf.

The ship was slowly sinking, her twin 350 horsepower engines had wedged her between two rocks.  A long boat was lowered and they found the beach not far away.  The crew and passengers were taken to the beach with all their goods and valuables.  They had time to take supplies and water as well as the gold bullion under armed guard.   They wisely salvaged a small cannon.   Tents were set up and when dawn came the ship was gone and Frenchies Cove was all they saw.  A rocky island without fresh water.

The Captain order his sailors to take the longboat and try to row to Santa Barbara for help. They set off but it took days for them to make the trip. Eight days being stranded came to an end when the ship “Californian” drew near and they fired the cannon to signal for help.  She was heading for Panama too and took the miners and bullion with her.

Now the wreck is under the protection of the National Parks Service and it is illegal to take artifacts from the sunken hull. She rests in 30 feet of water just 50 feel offshore. The ship, being made mostly of wood is badly deteriorated, only a few ribs and her iron boilers and paddlewheels are left.  It is an ideal place for SCUBA diving and the National Parks encourage photography. To visit the site contact the Channel Islands National Monument at the Ventura Harbor or contact the Island Packers in the harbor that offers tours of Anacapa and the wreck site.

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