The Pigeon Point Lighthouse started guiding mariners to safety along the foggy and deadly San Mateo County coast in 1872, a debut that came 19 years after the clipper ship Carrier Pigeon hit jagged rocks and sank, giving the point its name.
Unlike the many other shipwrecks that followed in the dangerous coastal waters, there were no lives lost in the sinking June 6, 1853. Not so the fate of the Sir John Franklin, also a clipper ship, that smashed into rocks and went down about three miles south of Pigeon Point in 1865. Thirteen men drowned and were buried in ground that became known as Franklin Point.
The San Mateo County Gazette reported on Jan. 21, 1865: “The American clipper ship Sir John Franklin was wrecked on Tuesday evening off Pigeon Point some 10 miles south of Half Moon Bay. The captain and 12 others were drowned in attempting to reach the shore after she first struck. About half of the cargo will be saved though greatly damaged. The vessel and cargo were insured to the amount of $300,000. This is the second ship lost at the same point and is by far the most disastrous shipwreck which has happened on our coast.”
There was a wooden monument honoring the captain and crew erected at the point that stood “for many years but it disappeared, as wooden monuments do, over time,” historian John Edmonds wrote in The Journal of Local History.
From 1853 to 1953, more than a dozen vessels, ranging from fishing boats to steamers went down in the area, according to another historian, JoAnn Semones, author of the excellent “Shipwrecks, Scalawags and Scavengers: The Storied Waters of Pigeon Point.”
The scavengers included Pescadero residents who had time to pillage the cargo of the Carrier Pigeon, which was on its maiden voyage. Semones quoted one of them who said, “There was an abundance of much that was good to eat and drink.” The “menu” included bacon, fresh eggs and preserves in “unlimited quantity.”
The local scavengers honed their skills over the years, becoming experts at gathering material from ships on the rocks. Following one wreck, they enjoyed free whiskey for years as barrels floated ashore. In another, there was so much paint in the abandoned cargo that it seemed every house in Pescadero had a new coat of paint.
The most deadly accident was the Aug. 29, 1929, collision between the wooden steamship San Juan and the steel hulled Standard Oil tanker S.C.T. Dodd. The collision 12 miles out to sea took the lives of 72 people, all aboard the S.S. San Juan which quickly sank.
“It was not a matter of four or five minutes before the ship sank,” reported Charles Tulee, first mate of the San Juan. The San Juan was sheared almost in half by the heavy stern of the tanker, which was damaged but stayed afloat. The San Juan sank beneath the sea before most of the passengers in their staterooms knew the ship had been mortally wounded.
Some stories ended on a happier note. The Pigeon Point lighthouse crew was surprised on April 19, 1911, when they were awakened early in the morning and found two officers and nine sailors at their doorstep. The men were the crew of the steam schooner “Triton” which rammed a floating log the night before. The men, who took to the lifeboat as the ship went down, were able to watch the Triton slip under the waves as they rowed all night toward the flashing light at Pigeon Point.
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.