A Sunken Legacy
Europeans sailing along the West Coast of North America began to explore the region in the 16th century. The abundant resources of both the islands and the surrounding sea attracted large-scale fishing and farming industries, while their strategic location brought a military presence that continues to this day.
Dynamic weather, strong prevailing winds, and other natural hazards made navigating the waters around the Channel Islands challenging. Between 1853 and 1980, more than 150 historic ships and aircraft are known to have wrecked within the boundaries of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and National Park.
Historic wrecks tell us a great deal about the development of maritime trade in the region. From passenger ships carrying 49ers hoping to get rich in the California Gold Rush, to local steamers and international cargo vessels, each wreck tells another chapter in a story that continues to this day.
Check out the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Brochure to learn more about the rich maritime history off the Southern California coast.
The side-wheel passenger steamer Winfield Scott departed San Francisco upon its last voyage on December 1, 1853, with over 500 passengers and a shipment of gold bullion. Selecting the Santa Barbara Channel rather than a passage outside the islands in an effort to save time, Captain Simon F. Blunt entered the passage as a fog developed. Evidently intending to steam between Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, the Winfield Scott piled into Middle Anacapa Island at full speed, at 11 o'clock that evening. There was no loss of life and most of the passengers were rescued eight days later by the steamer California.
In the early morning hours of September 8, 1923, Cuba with 71 crew and 41 passengers onboard, approached the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel. The crew had navigated solely on dead reckoning for the past three days because of persistent fog. The passenger cargo steamer struck rocks about one quarter mile off Point Bennett, San Miguel Island. Captain Charles Holland ordered reverse engines and the Cuba briefly refloated, but was swung around by the seas and ran onto the rocks stern first, demolishing the propellers. There was no loss of life and all were eventually rescued.
The four-masted bark Goldenhorn hauled coal on its last voyage from Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, to San Pedro, California for eventual use by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Goldenhorn wrecked on offshore rocks along the southwest coast of Santa Rosa Island the evening of September 12, 1892. The vessel, sailing in heavy fog, was unable to maneuver away from the island when the wind failed and the current carried Goldenhorn to shore. The crew of 28 abandoned all personal effects on the vessel, eventually rowing to Santa Barbara via Becher's Bay in the two lifeboats.
The freighter Chickasaw began its last voyage from Japan bound for San Pedro, California with a cargo of general merchandise that included plywood, shoes, toys, dishes, and at least one 1950s vintage Buick. Visibility reduced by a tremendous southeaster that had hammered Southern California for several days, Chickasaw went hard aground just west of South Point on Santa Rosa Island on February 7, 1962. The 32 crewmen and four passengers were transferred via a breeches buoy over eight-foot swells to the island. All but four crewmen climbed up the steep slopes and walked to Johnsons Lee, assisted by personnel of the 669th Air Control and Warning Squadron.
George E. Billings
The George E. Billings, a former five-masted schooner engaged in the trans-Pacific lumber trade, hauling lumber from the Northwest to Hawaii, Mexico, South America, Australia and Southern California. Later in its career it served as a movie ship and then ultimately was transformed into a fishing barge and moored off Southern California for the next 15 years. Billings' last owner, not wanting to make modifications to the ship such as adding bulkheads required by the U.S. Coast Guard, towed the ship to Santa Barbara Island and torched it on February 11, 1941.
The three-masted ship Aggi loaded with a cargo of 2,500 tons of barley and 600 tons of beans destined for Malmo, Sweden, was taken under tow by the steamer Edgar H. Vance. Leaving San Francisco in 1915, it was to be towed to the Panama Canal, pass through, and then sail on to Sweden. Encountering a storm the following day the hawser parted between the two vessels causing the Aggi to drift. The crew of 21 attempted to maneuver the sailing ship on a heading for the city of Santa Barbara. But they were unsuccessful in taking control of the ship and it became stranded on Talcott Shoal, one mile northwest of Santa Rosa Island on May 3, 1915. All were rescued.
The commercial fishing vessel Del Rio caught fire off Anacapa Island on October 10, 1952. The fishing vessels Sea Ranger and Western Monarch responded with the Sea Ranger rescuing the crew of 11 and stood by the Del Rio after offloading its cargo of fish. The U.S. Coast Guard vessel 83366 arrived on scene and stood by the hulk to ascertain if it would become a menace to navigation. It eventually drifted to the beach and sank at Frenchy's Cove, West Anacapa Island.
The two-masted, schooner-rigged motor vessel, Santa Cruz served as an island vessel moving passengers, cargo, and livestock between the mainland and islands for 67 years. Eventually the masts were removed and the gas engine replaced with a diesel motor. On December 6, 1960, Santa Cruz was anchored in Prisoners Harbor, Santa Cruz Island when strong Santa Ana winds bore down on the vessel causing a link in the anchor chain to part and it drift onto the western shore and sank.
U.S. Navy Grumman Avenger TBF-1-C
The U.S. Navy Grumman Avenger TBF-1-C was on a training mission with four other aircraft in the Santa Barbara Channel on February 22, 1945. The aircraft were practicing anvil torpedo drops off Anacapa Island when one of the aircraft piloted by Ens. Ruehle made an unexpected dip in flight and struck the Grumman Avenger piloted by Ens. Buckley, both planes were forced to make an immediate water landing. Buckley, with two other lives onboard, started his descent when the turret gunner panicked and bailed out of the plane at 400 feet, a height much too low to allow his parachute to open and was killed, while the other two crewmen survived. Ruehle and his two crewmen were all killed when impacting the water.
U.S. Navy Grumman Guardian AF-2W
On March 30 1954, this Grumman Guardian AF-2W was not hunting submarines, but was searching for a missing jet aircraft, a Banshee piloted by Lt. Albert McHenry, when the Guardian developed engine trouble. Lt. John W. Miller set the plane down and the crew, Bill Burris and Walter G. Brown, all exited the craft. Swimming to Santa Cruz Island, the three spread out a parachute and activated distress flares. A helicopter plucked them from the island the same day. The Guardian formed part of a 60-plane fleet searching for the lost jet, which disappeared while on a routine training mission from the Point Mugu Test Range Center.