Photos from the Vault

A reef off SLO County coast crushed his ship. How this captain kept his cool

Editor’s note: This is part 2 in a two-part Photos from the Vault series about San Luis Obispo County shipwrecks.

The San Luis Obispo Pioneer survived only four months after The Tribune was founded on Aug. 7, 1869.

During the Pioneer’s two years in publication, friends and foes alike were skewered at the end of editor Rome G. Vickers’ sharp pen.

Perhaps the only men Vickers portrayed in a consistently positive light was veteran ship captain J.C. Bogert and his crew.

In one typical item, he thanked his friend for a tasty gift: “MEXICAN OYSTERS.—We have been presented by Capt. Bogert, the gentlemanly commander of the Senator, with some fine Mexican oysters, very large and fat, for which the “whole family” return thanks. Keep it up, Capt.; we can stand it as long as you can.”

Unlike Tribune founder Walter Murray, who made a good living as a lawyer, Vickers did not have a second job. He, like many rural newspaper editors in those days, often made ends meet via donations from friends and readers.

Vickers’ relationship with Capt. Bogert, sometimes spelled Bogart, was mutually beneficial.

The newspaper’s pages benefited from passenger lists, cargo lists and route changes. A canny ship’s purser like the one who worked for the Senator would exchange newspapers along the way.

A wave crashes against the rocks in front of the Piedras Blancas Light Station north of San Simeon. The pale-colored stones gave Piedras Blancas its name. Joe Johnston

Such a practice functioned as the wire service of its day, filling columns with out-of-town news.

Paid advertising from the North Pacific Transportation Co., which owned another ship captained by Bogert, the Sierra Nevada, also ran on the front page of the Pioneer — but not the Tribune when it was founded.

Deeper than the professional relationship between Bogert and Vickers was their personal one.

They had likely met during Vickers’ travels between Sacramento, San Francisco and San Luis Obispo. The ship that brought Vickers to California, the Orizaba, was part of the same line that employed Capt. Bogert.

Vickers and Bogert also shared Confederate sympathies.

Murray and his pro-Union Tribune editor were never close to Capt. Bogert, for reasons that surpassed politics.

Murray was one of the leaders of a San Luis Obispo vigilante group that went after members of a gang implicated in several area murders and robberies.

Six men were hung and one shot in 1858. But despite efforts to capture gang leader Jack Powers in San Francisco and San Luis Obispo, Powers escaped to Mexico on a vessel captained by Bogert.

Disaster befell Bogert 15 years later, when his ship Sierra Nevada wrecked off the coast of San Luis Obispo County.

It was the second local shipwreck in about four months. The barque Harlech Castle crashed on the rocks off Piedras Blancas on Aug. 30, 1869, resulting in two fatalities.

Sierra Nevada ship sails for SLO County

The Sierra Nevada was 18 years old when she fractured on the rocks north of Piedras Blancas.

The steamship had been christened Texas, but during the most productive part of her career she carried the solid name of California’s granite mountains.

Designed by Charles Morgan, the Sierra Nevada was built in New York in 1851. The ship was originally intended for the Texas trade but her first three trips took gold rush passengers to the Chagres for overland crossing at what is now Panama.

There was money to be made along the Pacific coast, and in December 1852, the Sierra Nevada departed from New York enroute to San Francisco. Captain J.D. Williams died in Panama during that trip.

The Piedras Blancas Light Station appears in a 2008 aerial photo. Two ships, the Sierra Nevada and Harlech Castle, sank in 1869 in the Pacific Ocean near the future site of the lighthouse. Joe Johnston

In 1869, the North Pacific Transportation Company had one steamship working the route that went from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo to San Simeon to Monterey to Santa Cruz. San Luis County was regularly served every 10 days.

The Sierra Nevada departed Monterey at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 17, 1869, with arrival scheduled the next day at San Simeon and San Luis Obispo. The ship, now captained by J.C. Bogert, carried 42 passengers and a crew of 36.

The wind died, and an hour from port and dense fog enveloped the ship. Passengers on the stern could barely see the bow through the gray mist.

Capt. Bogert was ahead of time and traveling slowly. A double watch was put out front and one aloft and the whistle was blown every few minutes.

After dinner, most passengers retired to their staterooms to sleep.

At 9:30 p.m., Capt. Bogert retired to his room, and his purser, Mr. Hughes, had retired for the night by 10 p.m. An experienced second officer was in charge.

A few minutes after 10 p.m., the ship shuddered as if being struck by a heavy wave, rousing everyone sleeping in cabins.

Bogert and Hughes rushed to the deck.

“With that coolness that is one of the distinguishing traits of a true sailor, Captain Bogert began to give orders to evade the calamity, but before the sailors could respond to the orders, the vessel keeled over,” the Pioneer reported.

Shipwreck off Piedras Blancas

The ocean lifted the Sierra Nevada and dropped it on the reef, crushing the bottom of the vessel.

Hughes said later that the shock nearly threw him off his feet. The sister of San Luis Obispo bar owner Juan Cappe fell and broke a rib.

On deck, Hughes found waves breaking over the bow, a smoke stack broken over the side and panicked and confused passengers rushing from cabins in their night clothes.

The Sierra Nevada’s hull was crushed and filling with water. The ship was heavily listing, with one of the wheelhouses underwater.

Time was running out for the 78 souls aboard the splintered hulk.

A group of steerage passengers, Chinese fishermen, huddled inside their boat on deck and refused to get out, having no faith in assistance from the Caucasian passengers or crew.

The fear was not irrational. None of the accounts of the shipwreck list the names or number of the Chinese fishermen, and some accounts omit their story altogether.

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

Accounts differ as to whether the Chinese fishermen were convinced to get out of their boat or whether it was lowered with them onboard.

In any case, once at sea they did not expect further assistance and rowed into the darkness. The Tribune said they landed safely.

According to contemporary accounts, one passenger tried a novel lifesaving gambit: “One excited individual actually fastened a life-preserver to each of his feet [ital], imagining that he could keep his head above water with his hands.”

Meanwhile, Capt. Bogert and crew took control of the disaster.

Bogert ordered oil lanterns extinguished to prevent fire, and the first life raft to be launched and anchored nearby to rescue anyone tossed in the water.

The San Francisco Daily Alta reported that steam shot into the sea from the broken boiler.

“When the vessel first struck, and before the extent of the danger was known, the passengers and crew were wild with excitement, but the moment they discovered that their only way to safety lay in the boats they became cool,” wrote the Pioneer. “It was astonishing to see timid women cheering each other and their male companions, while death surrounded them on every hand.”

Evacuation and aftermath

Evacuation was not easy. One man fell into the ocean while attempting to shinny down the davit and was nearly crushed and drowned.

Sailor James Libby risked his life two or three times by returning into the aft cabin to get blankets for the women, some in night clothes, suffering in the wet cold mist.

According to the Daily Alta, “Only a portion of the upper side was above water, and every one had to cling to the bulwarks to avoid being washed overboard.”

A former governor of Illinois, John Wood, and his wife were the most famous passengers. He had refused to be one of the first into a lifeboat.

The San Luis Obispo Pioneer carried advertising for the North Pacific Transportation Company’s steamers, California, Sierra Nevada and Orizaba. By the time this page was printed the the Sierra Nevada had sunk. San Luis Obispo City/County Library

Wrote the Daily Alta: “No!” said the brave old man: ‘Nearly all here are young men, to whom life is of value. I am seventy-four years of age. I will wait.’ ”

Bogert, with a lump in his throat, ordered Wood into the boat while at the same time ordering the young man wearing three life jackets to wait his turn.

The purser exited with the contents of the safe and the ship’s papers.

“So complete was the wreck that in thirty minutes from the time of the first shock, the vessel filled and keeled over,” The Tribune reported. The Daily Alta said evacuation took an hour.

Capt. Bogert was the last to step off the doomed ship.

Lifeboats were lashed together and anchored in the long hours before dawn. Fog lifted at daybreak and the boats were rowed 10 miles to San Simeon Bay, arriving at 10 a.m.

The captain immediately dispatched a salvage boat to try to rescue baggage, but the vessel was almost totally submerged.

Portuguese whalers recovered a few cases of boots and a box of letters.

Wood gathered the passengers ashore to write a letter of gratitude for the leadership of Capt. Bogert and his crew: “The Captain was the last to leave the wreck, but when he saw every human being safely removed from the wreck, with compass and lantern he followed”

The letter credited merciful providence and called the crew brave, kind and admirable. The passengers expressed “their appreciation of the skill and coolness, in the trying hour of their noble commander, and of the kindness extended by him to every human being on board while superintending their removal…”

News of Sierra Nevada wreck spreads

When news arrived of the shipwreck, Vickers printed an unprecedented Extra edition, the first in San Luis Obispo County.

That article was reprinted in the regular Oct. 26 edition of the Pioneer with additional details.

The Tribune printed their account of the wreck in its regularly scheduled Oct. 25, 1869, edition, simply reprinting coverage from the San Francisco Times.

Passengers commended Capt. Bogert and crew in a unanimous resolution published in the Pioneer.

The steamer California now assumed the Central Coast route. The Pioneer hopefully but incorrectly guessed that Bogert would be named the ship’s master.

An advertisement in the Pioneer by the opinionated D. P. Mallagh, owner of the wharf in Pirates Cove, accused the Sierra Nevada’s crew of incompetence or worse an intent to monopolize the market with fewer ships.

“That steamer had no business to be lost where she was, and also to condemn the officers of the ship for carelessness, and to take measures to establish a sufficient number of schooners to monopolize the whole trade to this port,” Mallagh wrote.

1869 08-07 Tribune A1detail
In its first year in 1869, The Tribune required payment in advance but had pricing plans for three-month, six-month and one-year subscriptions. California had a large, rootless population that was ready to move to the next boomtown, so publishers needed to plan further than day to day. Tribune file

Merchants were smarting from the loss of goods and anticipated an increase in freight rates now that two ships had sunk within the year. One of the company’s shipping agents had attended the meeting and was asked to leave.

Bogert later returned to the Central Coast commanding the Steamer Gipsy, owned by the Pacific Mail Company in 1873. But by then, Vickers was gone.

The Pioneer stopped printing at the end of 1869.

Vickers moved on working at newspapers in San Diego and near a mining camp in Death Valley. He later worked in Los Angeles and the Bay area as a reporter and printer.

Meanwhile, his rival, Murray, was named a judge.

Public outcry soon led to the building of the Piedras Blancas Light Station, five years after two ships were destroyed within fog horn distance of the light.

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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.”