At 3:00 P.M., on the afternoon of October 1, 1854, the steamship Yankee Blade crashed into the rocks and sank at Point Arguello, a reef off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. There were 819 people on board at the time according to the passenger list. The ill-fated steamer was on its regular run from San Francisco, California, to New York when the disaster occurred. The passengers consisted mainly of miners, gamblers and businessmen. Most of them were returning to the east coast after making a fortune in the California gold fields.
Nearly every passenger carried a money belt around his waist, with amounts of money varying from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. Samuel Vought, the ships officer in charge of accounts (purser), listed that he carried $153,000 in gold coins and currency, plus an enormous amount of personal wealth of those passengers who had sealed their valuables in oilskin envelopes and placed them in the ships vault, an estimated amount of about $3,000,000. Several attempts have been made to recover some of the Yankee Blades lost treasure, but as far as it known, none of it has been recovered.
September 30, 1854, was a day of celebration at the port of San Francisco. Four ships were departing that day. They were the Cortez, Sonoma, Goliah and the Yankee Blade, with Captain Henry Randall in command. The Yankee blade was a fast luxurious ship and had two big side-paddle wheels, two tall smoke stacks, three decks and three masts. It had been built by the Independent Line Company to transport passengers around Cape Horn to San Francisco during the California gold rush.
George Chandler, who was a passenger on the Yankee Blade that fateful day, gave an eyewitness account to the newspapers as to exactly what had happened. Here is how he summed it up.
Chandler said that he had come to California originally by wagon train across the Santa Fe Trail, and decided to return home by steamship. When the gangplank was lowered, Chandler said that he was swept with a crowd of people onto the lower deck of the ship. He carefully worked his way to a wide stairway and walked up to the middle deck where he could see most of the other passengers. He noticed immediately that most of the passengers were miners. They were dressed in red flannel shirts and heavy work pants. Some of the other men, like himself wore business suits and derby hats. The clothing that the gamblers wore was quite notable. They wore diamond rings on their fingers, pearl stickpins in their cravats, heavy gold watch chains and high silk hats.
There were also 32 women and 81 children aboard. Most of the women were dressed for travel, but a few of them were dressed in the latest fashions and were showing off too much jewelry. While standing there on the middle deck, Chandler overheard many interesting conversations. A person standing behind him said to another, I know for a fact that there are 819 people on the passenger list, but there are at least 1,200 on board. My informant was a person in authority. Chandler heard a womans voice say, I heard yesterday that this trip is to be a race to New York between the Yankee Blade and the Goliah.
After Chandler found his cabin, he left his bag on the lowest bunk and went back on deck. For safety reasons, he carried his money with him in a money belt around his waist. He found a comfortable deck chair and enjoyed the sights of his first sea voyage. It was after midnight when he returned to his cabin.
When the bugle sounded first call in the morning, Chandler went to the dining room and ate breakfast. After eating he again went back on deck and stayed there until the dinner bugle sounded. He first noticed that the weather was changing when he came back on deck after enjoying a delicious Sunday dinner. It was hazy and streamers of light fog were coming in. The air was damp and smelled of seaweed.
All on board was quiet and most of the adults and children had retired to their cabins. Chandler and a few others remained on deck to watch the fog come in. No one was worried at first, but as the fog increased and the ship didnt slow down, people became more concerned. Why dont we slow down or stop, shouted one man. Why doesnt the captain blow the whistle, said another. When total visibility was lost and panic gripped the ship, people were wondering why they didnt stop until the fog cleared.
Oddly enough, the ships officers were not alarmed. One of them said, Be calm. Dont get excited. Captain Randall knows the coastline like the palm of his hand. Suddenly, the ship struck the rocks at Point Arguello. The water was about 30 feet deep and they were about 100 yards from the shoreline. The ships own momentum and the off shore current hurled the Yankee Blade a few hundred feet up on the rocks.
The impact of the collision threw Chandler to the deck. He threw his arms around the supports and hung on tenaciously. All was silent for a moment, and then pandemonium broke loose. The screams of the terrified people and the roaring of the waves as they slashed against the ships hull were more than their ears and nerves could endure. Many people were thrown into the water by the impact, and others were washed overboard by a huge wave that came in just after the crash.
While struggling to get up on his feet, Chandler heard a terrifying sound. Looking up in utter disbelief he saw the stern (rear end) break away from the promenade deck, then slowly separate from the rest of the ship. It took everything from that part of the ship and plunged it into the raging sea. He was dimly conscious of people leaping over the railing into the sea, knowing that only the most physically able would make it to the shoreline a hundred yards away.
Chandler watched this grisly scene in horror as he decided what to do. He had never learned to swim. As the fog started to lift, he could see many heads bobbing in the water heading toward the beach. Should I jump in, too? he asked himself. About this time he saw three bulls swimming in the water toward the shore. They had been kept in a special pen in the ships stern, and were being shipped to a Spanish rancher in Santa Barbara. The animals in the water gave him an idea. It was a long shot but a risk he knew he must take.
Leaping over the railing into the water, Chandler thrashed and splashed his way over to the nearest bull and grabbed a hold of its tail. He hung on until the animal had towed him into shallow water. He let go when his feet hit the bottom and then waded the rest of the way in. He was very thankful to be alive. He watched the three bulls walk across the sandy beach to a path leading up the cliff.
As the fog lifted, three lifeboats could be seen coming across the water. Captain Randall was in the first boat, and had come ashore to establish a campsite. The women and children that were with him were a dreadful sight. They all were cold and shivering and their clothes were soaking wet. One of the survivors told us that the lifeboat manned by the first mate was struck by a huge wave and capsized, hurling its occupants of women and children against the jagged rocks. No one survived.
The next lifeboat to arrive was carrying supplies such as food, drinking water and some tools. As soon as it was unloaded, the lifeboat returned to the Yankee Blade for another load. Captain Randall remained on shore and laid out a campsite along the trail that the bulls had taken. Everyone collected scrub brush and driftwood for the fires. The men also dug latrines out and away from the camp for privacy.
Since it was late in the day and the fog was coming in again, Captain Randall took the lifeboats back again to the wrecked ship which hovered dangerously on the reef. They would bravely spend the night there and would not be back again in camp until morning. The surviving passengers sat around the campfire pondering over their situation. The wreck was all lit up with lights and they were all wondering just how long it could withstand the beating it was taking from the raging sea.
When the sun came up the next morning the fog was gone. It was now October 2nd, and after breakfast the men buried the bodies that had washed ashore during the night. They were buried deep in the ground and then covered with rocks. One of the dead women was wearing two life preservers. They had caught on to something and had become useless.
The lifeboats continued to bring survivors ashore who quickly filled those in camp in with the details as to what had happened after the ship started breaking up. The ships purser had hurried to the vault to try and save the passengers money and jewelry, but he was too late. The compartment was already flooded and the water was rising rapidly. He was forced to retreat.
But not all was lost. The storekeeper and some of the crewmembers broke into the storeroom and salvaged an ample supply of food and other important items. Henry Randall, Jr., the captains son, took charge of the ship while his father was ashore assisting those passengers in camp.
The next morning another ship anchored outside the reef just beyond the Yankee Blade. They quickly dispatched two lifeboats. One went to the wreckage of the Yankee Blade and the other headed for the survivors that had made it ashore. The ship was the Goliah, commanded that day by a Captain Haley. The Goliah took all the women and children aboard and also a few men who were going to Santa Barbara. The rest of the passengers were told to remain calm and that Captain Haley would pick them up on the way back from San Diego.
The Goliah couldnt sail immediately because of another heavy fog that had come in that evening. While the Goliah sailed south the following morning, Chandler went back to camp to assist the steady stream of people still coming in on lifeboats from the wreck. He gave up on the idea of going to San Pedro and decided to go back to San Francisco when the Goliah returned. During the day they buried the drowned passengers that continued to wash up on shore.
October 3, 1854, was another routine day. They buried a few more dead, dug more latrines, and had to search much further away from camp to find material for fuel to keep the fires burning. All newcomers were given a warm friendly greeting when they arrived at the campsite.
On the morning of October 4th, three lifeboats started out as usual from the Yankee Blade. But when they were about half way into shore, one of the boats pulled away and headed north along the coastline. When the other two boats arrived on shore, the passengers told Captain Randall about their disastrous experiences on board the wrecked ship the night before.
They said that the ships fireman and several of his companions broke into the liquor room and got drunk.
They then rounded up all the guns on board and later broke open the passengers bags and trunks. They stole what items of value they wanted and threw the rest into the sea. At gunpoint, they ordered the miners to take off their money belts, and also robbed the other passengers of their jewelry and valuables. One of the miners gave them some resistance and was shot to death.
Upon leaving the wreck, the bandits commandeered a lifeboat that had already been loaded with food and supplies. They took off with their loot and made a clean get away. Several men had planned to rush the thieves at some point, but were kept at a distance by their guns. Chandler said that one of the most assuring sights at night in camp was the light on the wrecked ship. Then one night the lights went out. The pilothouse and two steering houses were washed away by the slashing waves. All of the survivors in camp were distressed and concerned about the fate of the passengers who remained on board.
On October 5th and 6th, the weather was clear and cold, and their food and water supplies were diminishing. Chandler said that there were more people in camp than what remained on the wreck, but those on the ship were in a desperate situation. The wrecked ship was gradually going to pieces, and at any time a large wave could wash it off the rocks into the sea.
Just after daybreak on the morning of October 7th, 1854, the Goliah returned. As the lifeboats came ashore to pick up the survivors, everyone shouted, cheered and danced about cheerfully. The crew and regular passengers on the Goliah couldnt have been kinder toward them.
Chandler said later that when the last lifeboat from the Yankee Blade arrived at the Goliah, we were told that Captain Randall was the last man to leave the once-proud ship. The wreck was so battered by the pounding waves that Randall had to be lowered from the masthead with a long rope.
After all the survivors had been welcomed aboard by Captain Haley, they all stood at attention to bid farewell to a gallant ship. As they watched the churning waters swirling around the broken ship, a giant wave struck. The Yankee Blade clung stubbornly to the rocks a minute or two, then slid into its watery grave.
During the summer of 1947, a professional diver from San Francisco spent a few months searching the waters around Point Arguello and reported that he found many artifacts from the Yankee Blade in 82 feet of water. In 1956, the vessel Ada anchored just off of Point Arugello and supposedly salvaged some artifacts from the Yankee Blade, but had no success in recovering the ships heavy iron vault.
The wreckage of the Yankee Blade still lies off the rocks at Point Arguello, California. Its fabulous treasure has eluded searchers for more than 137 years. Will it remain lost forever, or will it make some lucky treasure hunters financially secure for the rest of their lives?
To reach the site of the wrecked Yankee Blade, take California State Road 246 to the coastal town of Surf. Then follow the coastal Highway #1 to the tip of Point Arguello. S. R. 246 connects with Highway #1 at Lompoc.
The California Daily Alta Newspaper, San Francisco, October 3, 1854.
The Adams Company Express Bulletin, October, 1854.
The Extra Union Newspaper, San Francisco, October 9, 1854.
Additional information: The Los Angeles Times, dated June 15, 1924, reported that a small brass cannon from the Yankee Blade was recovered by a diving expedition off Point Arguello in early June, 1924..