The Coastal Post - May, 1997

Shipwreck!

BY JOAN REUTINGER

In the early days of Bolinas, in 1853, there was a ship that got stranded on Duxbury Reef, a series of sunken rocks extending in a southerly direction at about a distance of two miles from the coast. The reef is very dangerous, and completely avoided by sailors, because it has proved disastrous to many vessels since then. The very first vessel to be wrecked on the reef was the propeller steamer S.S. Lewis, bound from Panama to San Francisco with freight and over 400 passengers on board. The wreck occurred in the middle of the night, at 3:00 a.m. on April 9, 1853.

At this time many people took passage to Panama on the chance a vessel bound for San Francisco would pick them upon the other side of the isthmus. However, there was always the chance of getting Panama fever. Nathan Stinson, Henry Strain and Alfred D. Easkoot got the fever. Samuel P. Weeks came this way, and a lot of Bolinas pioneers who didn't come the equally taxing overland route. The only other way by sea was around Cape Horn, and nobody wanted to do that because the seas were too rough and many ships foundered.

The night was very dark and foggy and the S.S. Lewis thought it was near the entrance to San Francisco where it would be safe. At first the ship fired signal guns at frequent intervals in the hope that they would be signaled into port. They were evidently waiting for light to know where they were. At last the vessel drifted on the reef and sprang a leak, but fortunately was carried into deep water on the other side of the reef. They came upon a beach (which must have been Stinson, although at that time it was called Willow Camp), and all on board were landed safely on the beach. All freight and baggage were lost, also a safe containing $20,000, which was a fortune in those days. It's still there; divers were unsuccessful in finding it.

On the beach large canvas tents were constructed to shelter the passengers until the captain and the purser could get to San Francisco for assistance.

Gregorio Briones, who had founded Bolinas, and had the first house there, and his wife were awakened by the sound of the signal guns. True to Mexican tradition, Briones, fearing that the passengers had nothing to eat, killed a large bullock and sent it to them. He repeated this largess daily until the stranded passengers left for San Fransisco.

"From the hacienda, cartloads of kettles were brought. Caldrons (only a few years ago they had been used for "trying-out" slaughtered cattle) of soup were started containing sizable chunks of beef and vegetables from the Briones' garden. Indian women made mounds of tortillas, and from the exposed rocks of the reef, bags of mussels were gathered and steamed in kelp at the edges of the bonfires.

"To be host to over 400 guests was a challenge for Don Gregorio, and he rose to the occasion most capably. To feed the multitude, two young steers were slaughtered and the meat cut into pieces that could be roasted at the campfire or boiled in the soup pots. Many willing helpers from Woodville (Dogtown, today), Johnson's Boatyard and Casa Briones (as Gregorio's house was called) took upon themselves the tasks of serving the refugees, and crude shelters were prepared for the coming night, while bonfires were kept blazing with driftwood. Canvas (to make the tents) and blankets were brought from the wreck, as well as quite a supply of food from the galley, the crew working until dark in an endeavor to save all necessities possible before the initial calm would end. When darkness fell, Don Gregorio looked down from the mesa upon a never-to-be-forgotten sight: the crescent-shaped, sheltered cove which lay before him in the lee of the mile-long reef was aglow with many bright fires, around which people were gathered, laughing and singing beloved hymns. Following the hymns, quiet fell, and sleep came to the weary, excitement-satiated crowd." (Quoted from Bolinas by Marion Pepper)