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Thomas Clark: The Wreck of the Santa Rosa — Who Really Was to Blame?

Faulty decision-making at the center of the 100-year-old disaster that has been relegated to nothing more than a historical footnote

The Santa Rosa steamship was 326 feet long and considered a workhorse of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company fleet.

The Santa Rosa steamship was 326 feet long and considered a workhorse of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company fleet.  (Wikimedia photo)

By Thomas Clark |

“Human Cargo Faces Death as Company Quibbles.” “Clink of Coin Drowned Death Roar of Breakers.” “Dollar Sign Is Rescue Signal for Shipwreck.” “Price Not Passengers Is First.” “Three Vessels Lay By Unable to Aid Victims.” “Witness Tells About Haggling Over Charges.” “Messages To and From Santa Rosa Are Burdened With Money Taint.” “Captain’s Judgment Severely Criticized.”

So read the headlines of various California and national newspapers in 1911. Dramatic as these titles were, the Santa Rosa accident was only a footnote in the annals of maritime history. Why? Because only four seamen lost their lives and no great environmental catastrophe occurred.

But what made this calamity remarkable was the callous attitude of a ship’s captain, a leadership vacuum during a crisis and a corporation that valued profits before safety.

And although this disaster took place in 1911, the lack of decision-making was a case study on how poor leaders can allow a minor problem to spin hopelessly out of control. Unfortunately, in the subsequent 100 years, that lesson was lost in countless other situations.

How It All Started

The Santa Rosa was a large, ironclad steamship, 326 feet long and displacing more than 2,400 tons. It was considered a workhorse of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company’s fleet, having started its service in 1884 and serving reliably with more than 1,100 trips without mishap. For more than 25 years, the Santa Rosa trudged up and down the California coastline, from San Francisco to San Diego, safely carrying both cargo and passengers. Its practice was to hug the coastline as close as possible despite fog, inclement weather or difficult seas. This permitted it to cut sailing time.

However, the 28 years of successful commercial service came to an abrupt end in the early morning of July 7, 1911.

For this voyage, Capt. J.O. Faria had taken over temporary command. The trip began in San Francisco on July 6, its task to transport 200 passengers and 78 tons of cargo to the port of San Diego. Later in the evening of July 6, a thick fog rolled in off the Pacific, but Capt. Fario felt assured they were on course.

He now retired for some sleep and turned over responsibility of the vessel to Third Officer E. J. Thomas, whose job was to follow a series of lighthouse beacons along the coast, and when they reached the Point Arguello Lighthouse, turn east-southeast and head toward Santa Barbara.

About 3 a.m., Thomas saw a searchlight in the hills above Honda and took it for the lighthouse. In fact, it was a railroad gang performing evening track repair. Thomas then directed the crew to turn east prematurely and ran aground at a place called Saddle Rock, about 300 feet from shore and just north of the lighthouse. Thomas had awakened Capt. Faria only moments before the impact.

As grounding accidents go, this would rank low on a severity scale. The Santa Rosa found itself in a calm sea with a favorable incoming tide with no injury to passengers, crew or ship. And sunrise was just a few hours off.

Adding to these favorable circumstances were several steamers nearby and offering aid, and a new technology was available to the Santa Rosa for the first time — the wireless radio.

Point of Departure

As the sun rose over Saddle Rock on July 8, a chagrinned Capt. Faria began to assess his options.

At 9 a.m., the steamships Centralia and Helen Drew began attaching steel cables to the Santa Rosa in an effort to stabilize it. Simultaneously, a crew from shore readied their equipment to retrieve passengers.

Aboard ship, the passengers were growing anxious and elected representatives to address their concerns with the captain. Their collective decision was to leave by lifeboats and board the waiting steamships.

According to passenger E.K. Ross in a New York Times article dated July 8, the sea was “quiet as a millpond, and it would have been an easy task for the crew to put us ashore. But Captain Faria said he had orders by wireless from his company to keep the people aboard.”

Capt. Faria then informed Point Arguello’s lifesaving crew that his ship was in no immediate danger and dismissed the need for their services.

Wireless Confusion

Using the new wireless device, communication was now possible between the Santa Rosa and the owner’s offices. This luxury would ultimately introduce needless confusion about orders and contribute to the ship’s demise.

» 10:36 a.m. to Capt. Faria from G.H. Higbee, Pacific Coast Steamship Company: “Have arranged with steamer Argyle (another steamship en route) to render you assistance. … No attempt (to be towed) should be made until approaching High Water.”

» 10:46 a.m. (again) to Faria from Higbee: “If passengers can be safely transferred to suitable vessel, arrange such vessel to take them to Port San Luis, telegraphing us. ... If they can safely remain on steamer and you believe you will get off tonight, give them their option of remaining.”

» 12:50 p.m. (again) to Faria from Higbee: “If you transfer passengers by steamer, make arrangements for payment of a lump sum or so much per passenger.”

» 1:05 p.m. to Higbee from Faria: “Advisable to get passengers off as soon as possible. Would like to transfer passengers to Centralia to Port Harford.”

» 1:50 p.m. (again) to Higbee from Faria: “Centralia refuses to make arrangements for towage and passengers. Centralia and (Schooner Helen) Drew want arrangements settled in San Francisco with E.L. Company.”

» 1:58 p.m. to Faria from Higbee: “Transfer passengers to Port Harford by Centralia, but agree on price before doing so. Telegraph immediately what time passengers will be transferred and hour of Centralia’s departure.”

» 2:15 p.m. to Higbee from Faria: “Centralia will take passengers but will not make any price. Matter must be settled in San Francisco.”

» 3:45 p.m. to Faria from Higbee: “Suggest that if conditions are satisfactory you commence immediately transferring passengers to Centralia. We will arrange regarding Centralia compensation.”

» 5:15 p.m. to Faria from Higbee: “Give due consideration to passengers without regard to expense.”

Amid the prolonged wireless exchanges and price haggling, the sea grew impatient. In the afternoon, the wind and waves intensified, making the safe transfer of passengers among ships riskier.

The offshore steamers had by now successfully secured wire cables to the Santa Rosa and had maneuvered the vessel’s stern to face the waves. Then, according to an eyewitness account in the San Francisco Call, things changed quickly: “The passengers were huddled on the after deck. The ship was pounding heavily. Suddenly with a crack like a rifle shot the line aft parted. The vessel at once swung around into the trough of the sea, which came surging over the stern. The terrified passengers made a rush forward, the captain with them, and as they fled toward the forecastle Mrs. Campbell heard the commander exclaim, “I wish to God I had followed my own judgment and paid no attention to the orders from the city.”

The ship was now being pummeled broadside. A lifeboat was dispatched to shore with a crew of five to run a line for breeches buoy lifesavings device. The boat quickly flipped over, drowning four of the sailors.

Next it was the Santa Rosa’s turn to fight the sea. According to an eyewitness: “I returned to the scene of the wreck in time to witness the breaking up of the vessel. Every one had their eyes fixed on the ship, and suddenly, without any previous warning, there was a loud report and we saw splinters of wood fly off the bulwarks. Then came a grinding crash, and then the midship section, which had been balanced on the sandbar, was seen to rise several feet. The stern fell away from the bow; the latter remaining high and dry, while the former seemed to slip back into the water. There was a wild scramble for the bow when the ship’s back broke not a passenger had been sent ashore.”

Panic now set in among the passengers as lifeboats were hastily lowered into the surf. It wasn’t until 5:45 p.m. that the first boat arrived through the breakers. Some of the boats that followed capsized, throwing their occupants into the swirling waters and onto the rocks. Miraculously, not a single passenger would lose their life thanks to the heroic work of the lifesaving crew. But many passengers were injured and encountered near-death experiences, which they recounted in the newspapers. The last passengers were finally ashore by 10:30 p.m.

Trial

The public outrage over the disaster was waged publicly in the weeks before the formal inquiry and trial. To this mix was added the finger pointing by owners and employees as each argued their action or inaction in the media.

Formal charges were levied against the owners and the crew of the Santa Rosa in the form of criminal negligence.

During the open door inquiry, testimony was heard from the assistant general manager of Pacific Coast about his message to Capt. Faria: “That message has been misunderstood. The thought of quibbling over the price of transferring the passengers to the Centralia and getting them to Port San Luis never entered my head. I have been in the freight department of this company for nearly 30 years, and my habit has been to get figures for everything I buy, so that I may keep my accounts in shipshape. … I wanted the total cost only, not any particular price. To say that I ordered Capt. Faria to dicker … is ridiculous.”

Capt. Ericsson from the Centralia was then asked about Capt. Faria’s actions: “At 3 o’clock in the afternoon I received a message from (Faria). It was in answer to one I had sent him asking him to wait until 5 or 6 o’clock before making another attempt to get off the reef. … I could not understand his answer, which was, ‘Please wait until I hear from my company.’ Why he had to wait for word from his company when there was a favorable opportunity to pull him into deep water was a puzzle to me.”

In the end, Faria and Thomas were found solely responsible for the disaster. The principle violated was that the captain is in supreme command of his vessel and to accept no orders from his company or anyone else. Surprisingly, the punishment for both men was just a suspension of their licenses for 12 months.

As for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, it was found that the wireless messages were mere “suggestions” rather than orders. This didn’t sit well with the San Francisco Call: “The company was whitewashed, no criticism being offered of the practice of hugging the shore in making coastwise voyages, and no comment being made upon the flood of wireless telegrams, haggling over price of rescue, that were hurled at Captain Faria from the office in the city after the vessel struck. All the blame is placed upon the shoulders of the two officers.”

After the trial, the matter was forgotten. Four men and a ship were needless casualties.

After Faria served his one-year suspension, he signed on with another steamer. He made headlines again in November 1912 when he smashed his ship, Curacao, into the Santa Barbara pier, which was characterized as “a case of beautiful boneheadedness.”

— Thomas Clark is a freelance writer from Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., who writes about local historical events. His work has appeared in dozens of newspapers throughout the United States and Canada, and he is a frequent contributor to Wikipedia. Click here for more of his work. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).




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