Mendocino Redwood Company


The Venture
Then rose from sea to sky the wild farewell--
Then shriek'd the timid, and stood still the brave,--
Then some leap'd overboard with fearful yell,
As eager to anticipate their grave.

Lord Byron, Don Juan

An editorial in the Mendocino Beacon on May 4, 1878 states that there is "a great detriment to shipping" on the the Pacific Coast because only San Francisco and San Diego had what could be called harbors. During storms along the Mendocino coast, ships lying at coast landings had to put out to sea to avoid being lost. Because of the dangers, ships bound for Mendocino could only come to load 7 or 8 months a year and, even then, they were threatened by unexpected rough weather. According to the shipwreck data base of the California State Lands Commission, there were 160 shipwrecks off the Mendocino coast between 1850-1900. Mendocino Lumber Company, for example, lost the Storm Cloud in 1865, the Brilliant and the Ella Florence in 1872, and the Bobolink in 1898; Caspar Lumber Company fared the same, losing the Cora in 1874, both the Elvenia and Caspar in 1897, and the Jewel in 1899.

The following story, quoted directly from the Mendocino Beacon, April 2, 1892, tells of one ship that met her end at Rockport. Built in 1888, the 127 ft steam schooner, The Venture, was shipwrecked 4 years later. Having dispatched its incoming cargo, including one "venerable Clydesdale," The Venture, fully loaded with lumber for San Francisco, was caught in rough seas before she could even leave sight of the beach. Eventually the schooner split in two on a rock.

Captain Johnson was a friend to the Gowan family, who were part owners of the Cottoneva Lumber Company and The Venture at this time (Near, p. 70). In fact, Johnson was godfather to one of the Gowan children, Frank.William Gowan (1887-1975). Shortly before his death, Frank reminisced with his niece, Jean Near. He particularly wanted to be sure that the story of the Venture and Captain Johnson was set straight (Near, 161-164). Frank recalled that his father, George Gowan (1843-1927), did not like Johnson and thought he was "cruel, vicious." Frank says, for example, that "everybody loved the cook" of The Venture, but that Johnson "wanted to kill" him. In one incident, Johnson confronted the cook—apparently drunk—over a jug of whiskey. Johnson pistol-whipped his opponent and ripped open his face with the hammer of his revolver. George Gowan, who Frank adds was "awful mad" about the incident, later got needle and thread to patch up the injured man. The cook would later die in the sea when The Venture met its fatal end with Johnson at her helm. After an investigation and trial, Johnson lost his captain's license and apparently was never heard of again (Near, 163).

There was a special bond between Frank Gowan and Captain Johnson. Perhaps George Gowan appeared to his son as only a stern, strict father, always busy at the sawmill. Frank, acknowledging his father's toughness, recalls that George, a longtime cigar smoker, once had a cancer removed from his lip without any anesthetic for the operation, except perhaps a shot of whiskey (Near, 164). Of Johnson, though, the sea captain who gave a little boy his attention and stories, Frank says, "He loved me—no question about it and I loved him—naturally." He relays how, as a child, he sat on Johnson's lap and listened to the story of the wreck of The Venture. "Father couldn't have questioned him," says Frank. "He wouldn't have let anyone else ask him. But I was just a baby. I asked him all about it——what happened—and he went through it. I suppose that relieved him. Telling about it. He held me on his lap there and talked to me for an hour or more about what happened." Another Gowan family member relates that Captain Johnson was "daring" and "threatening" and also "contemptuous of any new gadget" (Near, 453-4). Disparaging barometers, he kept a frog in a glass jar to predict the weather!

In the late 1800s, several of the lumber companies owned one or more ships. Others booked clipper ships and schooners to transport their lumber, primarily to San Francisco. Many of these ships lasted only a few years on the rough coastal seas before being grounded or shipwrecked. The story of The Venture illustrates the dangers and perils of the early logging ventures.

Mendocino Beacon 2 April 1892

Ashore at Rockport

The Steamer Venture a Total Wreck and Five of the Crew Drowned

Rockport, March 27, 1892

Editor Beacon:

   The steamer Venture which arrived last Sunday went ashore this morning and is a total loss. It had been too rough to load during the week but the steamer hauled in Saturday morning and loaded until 7 o'clock in the evening. This morning at 4 o'clock prolonged whistling from the steamer drew attention to the fact that she had parted her head lines, and was drifting on to the beach in a southeasterly direction. A tremendous sea was running and though her engines were driven full speed ahead, she continued to drift and at 5 o'clock struck on a rock which stands almost perpendicular. Up to this time no danger no danger as to the crew had been anticipated, but her boats had been carried away and in launching the life raft, two men— the mate and second engineer—were washed overboard. The mate climbed onto the raft and eventually returned aboard but the second engineer was swept past the vessel and out to sea by the strong undertow. He was seen to struggle awhile in the breakers and then disappear. During this time the vessel was working closer to the bluff, upon seeing which all but the second mate climbed off the vessel onto the rock led by the captain. Shortly after, by 7 o'clock, the vessel broke squarely in two just aft of the hatch, each part floating ashore separately. All but four had now climbed to the top of the bluff, but were unable to make the main land as the descent was too steep. The four men alluded to were the chief engineer, a fireman, a sailor and the cook. Numbed by cold and wet they were unable to ascend the rock and an extra heavy sea washed them from where they clung. The fireman made a desperate effort to swim ashore, but was struck by a piece of floating wreckage and sunk; the others were not seen after being washed off the rock. The most distressing part of the matter was the fact that all this could be seen distinctly by those on the beach, still the the peculiar conformation of the bluff made it impossible to give any assistance. During this time the second mate was still on the after part of the steamer which finally landed firmly on the rock beach some 30 yards north of the place where the others had landed. this enabled the man to come ashore which he very gladly did. The fore part of the steamer, which comprised the hold, came ashore about the same time, scattering lumber and wreckage all around. By this time connection by ropes had been made with the rock on which the balance of the crew—nine in all— were waiting, and by 8 o'clock they were safely ashore. Capt. Johnson states that he was on deck from 12 o'clock on, and that the sea was comparatively smooth until a few minutes before he blew the whistle; but before the lines and cable could be detached and headway gained, she commenced to drift. Those lost are:

      — COLLINS, Chief Engineer
      — JAS. BURNS, Second Engineer
      — WM. STRAND, Fireman
      — PETERSON, Sailor
      — ANDERSON, Cook

   The steamer has about 70,000 feet of pine lumber aboard which is scattered along the beach.

   The Venture was a steamer with a capacity of about 320,000 feet, and her managing owner was C.T. Hill of San Francisco. She was insured.

   The Venture had been particularly unfortunate of late. On her last trip two of her officers—the mate and second engineer—sustained such injuries as to necessitate their going to the hospital in San Francisco, the mate being sill unconscious when the steamer left the city on her ill-fated trip.


Photo Credits

Rockport suspension bridge with The Venture at sea, Robert J. Lee Collection, Held-Poage Research Library.

Captain Johnson, Robert J. Lee Collection (Ukiah)

Secondary Sources

Mendocino Beacon (April 2, 1892), microfilm, Mendocino Historical Society Held-Poage Research Library, Ukiah, CA.

Jean Helen Gowan Near. A Genealogical Study of the Descendants of Joshua and Anna Gowan. Private printing: The Letter Shop (Ukiah, CA), 1982



 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California