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
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).
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.
Steamer Venture a Total Wreck and Five of the Crew Drowned
March 27, 1892
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,
— WM. STRAND,
steamer has about 70,000 feet of pine lumber aboard
which is scattered along the beach.
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.
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.
Rockport suspension bridge
with The Venture at sea, Robert J. Lee Collection,
Held-Poage Research Library.
Captain Johnson, Robert J.
Lee Collection (Ukiah)
(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