Photos from the Vault

Why was SLO County’s first lighthouse built? The story behind a deadly shipwreck

Editor’s note: This is part 1 in a two-part Photos from the Vault series about San Luis Obispo County shipwrecks.

A lighthouse is the original global positioning device, offering guidance to safe passage in troubled waters.

But lighthouses have a darker side: They’re often markers of watery graves.

This week, as The Tribune celebrates 150 years of covering San Luis Obispo County, here’s a look back at the first big story the newspaper tackled.

Two ships splintered on reefs near Piedras Blancas north of San Simeon, two men died and two local weekly newspapers recorded what happened. It was the most disastrous four months in San Luis Obispo County maritime history.

The Tribune was just a month old when disaster struck on Aug. 30, 1869. The Pioneer was in its second but final year.

The Piedras Blancas Light Station appears in a 2008 aerial photo. Two ships, Sierra Nevada and Harlech Castle, sank in 1869 in the Pacific Ocean seen above the lighthouse. The light went into operation five years later, in February 1874. Joe Johnston

Shipwrecks were big news in 1869, when the sea was superhighway, airline and railroad all rolled into one. Despite the transcontinental link forged that year by Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies, fast north-south trade and travel was by ship.

San Luis Obispo County had a population of less than 5,000 and the rural county was looking to build its first wharf. Meanwhile, a wealthy miner named George Hearst — media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s father — was buying ranch property on the North Coast.

San Simeon was a base for whalers in the days before PG&E and kerosene lamps, when whale oil provided more powerful light than candles.

Five years after the shipwrecks, the beacon was lit at the Piedras Blancas Light Station, the first in San Luis Obispo county and the 12th in California.

Starting on Feb. 15, 1875, the beacon filled in between lighthouses at Point Reyes and Point Conception. The state would eventually have more than 30 lights on the coast.

What was the Harlech Castle?

The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse was topped with a metal lantern room that was removed in 1949 after earthquake damage. David Middlecamp

Harlech, Wales, is the site of a famed 13th century castle and namesake for more than one ill-fated ship.

The Harlech Castle is a tourist destination built atop some of the oldest rock in Britain.

A younger rock — 5,200 miles west — also carries the Harlech name. It lies north of the lighthouse and almost due west of the former Piedras Blancas Motel.

The unremarkable reef is named for a fatal maritime disaster in August 1869.

Four months later, disaster struck again — this time two miles further north near what is now known as Sierra Nevada Point. Both sites are within fog horn distance of Point Piedras Blancas.

The British newspaper Dundee Advertiser carried a classified ad on Dec. 1, 1868, soliciting freight and passengers for “The Fast Sailing Iron Barque “HARLECH CASTLE,” J. Hughes, Commander.”

A barque, or, bark, is a vessel with at least three masts, at least two square rigged. It’s often a deep-water cargo hauler.

The Dundee Advertiser ad touts the seaworthiness of the Harlech Castle, a 599-ton, 1-year-old ship built in Liverpool by Evans and owned by Richard Mills and Co. of the same port.

The bark boasted high ratings from Liverpool Underwriters Registry and Lloyds. That insurance company would soon be paying out coverage for a ship lost at sea.

“She has just returned from the West Coast, having made the outward passage to San Francisco in 128 days,” according to the ad.

The bark’s hold was bulging with barley as she departed San Francisco on July 15, 1869 — sailing for Iquique, Chile, on the way home around Cape Horn to Liverpool.

State Parks has a plan for a scenic stretch of Highway 1 near Piedras Blancas such as this area south of the Piedras Blancas Motel, which has views of the Piedras Blancas Light Station. Joe Johnston

Shipwreck off San Simeon coast

The Harlech Castle’s master never intended to be disoriented in heavy fog near Piedras Blancas.

The Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Mercury printed daily briefs on arrivals, departures and wrecks via telegraph. Both newspapers reported in September 1869 that a hurricane or gale badly damaged the Harlech Castle on Aug. 1 and the ship’s captain turned back to San Francisco for repairs.

High seas had thrown the crippled vessel far off course. On her last day, she made landfall 200 miles south of San Francisco.

The San Luis Obispo Tribune on Sept. 6, 1869, garbled the ship’s name but provided more detail: “On Monday, Aug. 30, at about 11 A.M., the iron bark Leecastle was wrecked off Piedra Blanca.”

“On her way she encountered a fearful hurricane, which so disabled her that it became necessary to put back to San Francisco for repairs,” the newspaper reported.

John Bogacki, U.S. Bureau of Land Management site manager for the Piedras Blancas Light Station in 2003, cleans the glass of the light. Public tours will not go to the top of the 74-foot tower until restorations have been made to the stairway. David Middlecamp

Captain abandons ship, betrays crew

According to the Sept. 21, 1869, edition of the Liverpool Mercury, Capt. J. Hughes of Liverpool was in charge of the ship. The Mercury reported on Sept. 8 that this was the first voyage of the Harlech Castle, but it was the second according to the ad in the Dundee Advertiser.

In either case, Hughes had little experience with the perils of the California coast. The damaged ship was limping north in fog “which was more than usually dense” when the Harlech Castle crashed into the rocks.

The wreck broke the iron hull “... causing a leak which proved too formidable to be controlled.”

Shipwrecks test the ability and character of their masters, and Hughes made his personal survival the first priority.

Accounts in England via telegraph from San Francisco claim that all hands were saved in the Harlech Castle wreck.

But the San Luis Obispo newspapers tell a different story — one of the upper class deserting the crew in dire straits.

“Finding a total wreck to be inevitable, the captain and other officers took the only boat, abandoned the vessel, and succeeded in reaching the shore, leaving the crew to their fate,” The Tribune reported. “About half an hour afterwards the unlucky craft sunk out of sight.”

“Not even her spars being visible above the water,” The Pioneer said.

At least nine men were abandoned, crying for help.

By 1894, the house and surrounding buildings at the Piedras Blancas Light Station were painted white. Herbert Bamber Courtesy Photo

Death, drowning and rescue

The Pioneer said one man drowned when the ship capsized and another floated out to sea on a plank. The other seven seamen were rescued when Capt. Clark of San Simeon Bay dispatched two whalers as night fell.

The Tribune account said two men drowned during the rescue.

Reported the Pioneer on Sept. 6, 1869, “Great credit is due the Portuguese whalers at San Simeon Bay for their humanity and courage in saving the lives of seven of the crew at the imminent peril of their own. The sea was so rough that it was only with the greatest difficulty that one of the whale boats could be launched, and the fog was so thick that the ship could not be seen a boat’s length ahead — they being guided solely by the cries for help which proceeded from the crew of the unfortunate vessel.”

A letter by Hughes published in the San Francisco Times on Sept. 16, 1869, and republished in the Tribune four days later glosses over the uncoordinated evacuation and loss of life.

“Before leaving San Francisco, I wish to express in this public manner, on behalf of myself, officers and crew, or sincere and heartfelt thanks for the unbounded kindness and assistance which have been accorded to us by friends and strangers since our shipwreck on this coast,” the captain wrote.

“In thanking those who have thus generously cared for us in our misfortunes, we cannot refrain from specially referring to Mrs. Carles Kent, who resides on the ranch near which our vessel was lost, and to the whalemen at San Simeon, whose hospitality and attention cannot be too highly praised, and which we shall ever gratefully remember. Begging for this communication in your valuable paper, I am, dear sir, your obedient servant.”

Hughes signed the letter as “E.M. Hughes,” although he was named J. Hughes in English newspapers.

The Pioneer noted on Sept. 28, 1869, that the body of one of the missing sailors was recovered and “decently interred”.

Coming next: In part 2 of the shipwreck series, the steamer Sierra Nevada meets with disaster just two miles up the coast from the wreck of the Harlech Castle.

David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes an FAA-certified drone pilot license. He also writes the history column “Photos from the Vault.”