Laura S. Harmon was born in Machais, on the northern coast of Maine, in 1840. After the death of her first husband, Franklin Longfellow, she traveled to San Francisco to visit her brother.
In the days before the opening of the transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal, there were only two ways to get from Maine to San Francisco (3,000 miles, as the crow flies), and both were extremely strenuous and required months of travel. One could endure a lengthy and bumpy stagecoach crossing, or a take a ship around the horn – a long and dangerous journey through one of the most treacherous maritime passages in the world.
Laura Harmon’s granddaughter, Millicent E. Millington of Monterey, described Harmon (who lived to be 93 years-old) as “a fire of a little woman, about as big as a minute, who was busy all the time.”
In San Francisco, Laura met a fellow named John Jones Partington, an engineer for an oil company that was prospecting in the Santa Cruz Mountains. John and Laura began courting and, in 1865, they were married.
In 1874, the Partingtons and their five children made the treacherous trip to their new homesteading claim, high on an isolated mountain in Big Sur, 1,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Their journey from Santa Cruz was simply grueling.
On the steep and narrow coast trail, one of their mules slipped and fell over the edge, dragging with it three other mules, as well as their travelling companion (and future neighbor) Thomas B. Slate, who was severely injured in the fall. Many of the Partington’s belonging tumbled hundreds of feet down the cliff and were never retrieved.
Harry Dick Ross and his wife Lillian moved to Partington Ridge in Big Sur, in the 1940s. Ross was a good sculptor and, for years, a bartender at the Nepenthe restaurant. According to local folklore, during the depression, Ross found Laura Harmon’s sewing machine, where it had tumbled down into the canyon when the mules went over the ledge, back in 1874.
In the 1870s, the Big Sur coast was serviced by a steamship that arrived but once a year. So, the Partington’s had to wait several months for their possessions to be delivered by ship. In those days, any object too big to lash onto the back of horse or mule, had to be delivered by boat.
The 725-ton steamer U.S.S. Ventura was the fastest ship in Goodall, Nelson & Perkins’ fleet; she could do thirteen knots per hour. On Tuesday, April 20, 1875, she set sail from San Francisco with 225 passengers and 500 tons of freight, including all of the Partington’s worldly goods. The Ventura was scheduled to arrive in San Pedro harbor, south of Los Angeles, on Thursday morning.
The commander of the Ventura, an Englishman named Captain George John Fake, was a veteran mariner who, for a number of years, had captained the route between Monterey and San Francisco. But this was his first trip from Monterey to Southern California.
The Partington family came up to Point Sur in order to meet the steamer at the appointed time. For many hours they waited. Shortly after sunset, they stood on the bluff, unable to see anything in the dense fog which was made thicker by the light of the full moon.
Captain Fake couldn’t see anything either.
Around 9:00 pm, the Ventura wrecked on a submerged cluster of rocks, just north of Point Sur, about 200 yards from shore. Her bottom was stove in and the ship was grounded in twelve feet of water, her head to the sea.
It was said that the absence of a lighthouse on the coast was a contributing factor to the disaster. However, the Sacramento Daily Union informed its readers that Captain Fake, “was indulging too freely in liquor.”
The Partingtons lost many of their important tools and treasures when the mules went over the precipice on the journey from Santa Cruz. All of their remaining possessions and furniture were on board the Ventura. Little of the ship’s cargo was insured. If the sea remained calm, there was a slim possibility that some of the freight might still be saved.
Every Tuesday at 4:00 pm, the steamer Santa Cruz, departed the Washington Street wharf in Santa Cruz, bound for Monterey and Moss Landing. The Santa Cruz was commanded by Captain Herman Daggett Leland, a 45-year-old, seasoned mariner from Bar Harbor, Maine.
Upon arriving at the wharf in Monterey, Captain Leland was dispatched to rescue passengers from the wreck of the U.S.S.Ventura. Experience had taught Captain Leland to exercise extreme caution when navigating the jagged Point Sur coastline. Everyone aboard the U.S.S. Ventura eventually reached the shore, leaving the ship to break up on the rocks and sink. There were 225 passengers on board and, remarkably, not a life was lost.
On the following day, the Sacramento Daily Union reported:
“The Ventura was seen from the Santa Cruz at dawn this morning about a mile to the northward. She was firmly grounded on the rocks with about fourteen feet of water in the hold. But little wreckage had been washed ashore up to the time of the departure of the Santa Cruz, but a heavy western wind was prevailing, which, if it continues until flood tide, will completely demolish the vessel against the rocks.”
John and Laura Partington suspended their disbelief, hoping against hopes for a miracle and the safe recovery of their worldly goods.
But it was not to be.
The Saturday, May 1, 1875, issue of the Los Angeles Herald printed the following article under the headline, “Land Pirates Defiant”:
“Goodall, Nelson & Perkins have received a letter from Marl Robinson, their agent, urgently requesting assistance to save wreckage from the Ventura at Point Sur. He says country people, for 50 miles around, have gathered that at the scene of the wreck, and are taking possession of everything they can lay their hands on, forbidding him to touch anything unless he pays them salvage. He is powerless to prevent them, and without a prompt and strong assistance he will be unable to save anything. The steamer has gone to pieces.”
The cargo of the Ventura included a shipment of fine imported linen, as well as a fleet of new wagons. A lot of Big Sur neighbors furnished their homes with the salvage from the wreck. Old-timers remember that the women divided up the linens and a number of ranchers assembled the salvaged wagons. They say that they still driving some of those wagons, well into the 20th-century.
The May 13, 1875, issue of the Los Angeles Daily Evening Herald reported:
“The steamer Fidelity left San Francisco this morning for the wreck of the Ventura, at Point Sur. She will attempt to recover the Ventura’s boilers whole. Failing in this she will blow them up and bring away pieces. She will also bring back the wrecking party.”
The Partington’s possessions in the hold of the Ventura were never recovered. Captain Fake retired from the sea and bought a farm in the great San Juaquin Valley, outside Tulare, California.
Laura and John Partington persevered. By 1880, the Partington’s had established a working homestead they called “Seaview Ranch.” The soil is largely shell midden and there is a spring close by. It’s protected from the weather by the surrounding mountains, and sits below the ridge which now bears their name.
According to their daughter, Melissa Partington Dolley, the family homestead, 160 acres that extended north from Partington Ridge into Torre Canyon, was known as, “the garden spot of the section”.
* * *
In 1793, British explorer George Vancouver described Point Sur as a “small, high, rocky lump of land nearly half a mile from the shore.”
In the late 1880s, a lighthouse was finally erected at Point Sur, at a cost of more than $100,000. The 440-foot rock mountain was part of Captain John Rogers Cooper’s Rancho El Sur. It had been reserved as a prime location for a lighthouse since 1866, but it took several decades before Congress actually came through with the funding.
The Point Sur Lighthouse was modeled on the famous Bell Rock Lighthouse – the world’s oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse, off the coast of Angus, Scotland – which was designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather, also named Robert. Fourteen lighthouses in Scotland were built by members of Stevenson’s family.
Construction of the lighthouse commenced in 1887. They had to blast away the top eighty feet of the rock mountain to create a level space on which to build. By the end of the first year, all the rock had been quarried and a crew of twenty-five men, including Michael and John Pfeiffer, were employed to build the lighthouse and other structures. One report states that some of the workers were Chinese laborers.
They built a large house with apartments for three families, as well as a separate home for the family of the officer in charge. There was a recreation room in the barn, where a buckboard wagon and four mules were stabled for use by the keeper’s families.
On August 1, 1889, the multi-lensed lamp, which flashed a beam of 1,600,000 candle-power, was first illuminated. It was powered by pendulum weights that revolved around the lens. Thereafter, the Point Sur Light Station aided ships along that fog-bound and hazardous stretch of coast.
On August 18, 1889, the Californian reported:
“M. J. Hibbard, one of the newly appointed keepers at the Point Sur lighthouse in Monterey county, has been in town during the past week, for the purpose of removing his family to their new domicile at Point Sur. Mr. Hibbard is well pleased with his position … the lighthouse, which is just been completed after two years construction, is a solid substantial structure, and is furnished with all the modern appliances used in the lighthouse service…
“A commodious dwelling house, situated about 1,500 feet from the lighthouse, has been erected for the use of the keepers (four a number) and their families. This house is built of free stone granite, like the lighthouse, and the interior arrangements are first class in every respect.”
The lighthouse was built of native granite quarried in the Little Sur by local ranchers – an enormous undertaking. The stones were hoisted by windlass and cable up to the face of the rock 270 feet above the beach. The wooden stairway to the top had 395 steps.
The lighthouse keeper and his wife kept a vegetable garden, chickens for eggs, and a milk cow. The U.S. Lighthouse Service provided the horse and wagon to get mail and supplies from Pfeiffer’s Resort. Supplies of coal, firewood, animal feed, and canned food, were delivered three times a year by ship, which anchored south of the lighthouse and the cargo was rowed to shore in a twenty-foot whaling boat towing a skiff, with both fully loaded. Originally transported via steam powered tramway, barrels, sacks, and boxes were hoisted in cargo nets to a platform at the base of the rock and secured to a flat rail car that was winched up to the residence by a steam-powered donkey engine. At the turn of the century, there was even a grade school on the flat at the base of the rock. The schoolteacher lived with one of the lighthouse keeper’s families at the light station.
In November of 1889, John Cooper II sold the half-acre Point Sur parcel to the United States Government for $5. Cooper also sold the Feds, “Right of way on County road to Point Sur Lighthouse Station on Sur Rancho,” for $1,495. Charles Bixby was awarded the contract to make a road to the light station and he hired Frank and Joe Post to build it. The half a mile road, which spirals around the point is a great work of creative engineering, accomplished with the use of wooden planks for cribbing. They finished the job in 1900.
But even with a lighthouse, there were still shipwrecks.
* * *
On the Saturday afternoon of April 21, 1894, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company’s steamer Los Angeles left Cayucos (just north of Morro Bay) bound for Monterey. The Los Angeles was a 170-foot, double-deck wooden screw steamer of some 493 tons. On board were forty-nine passengers, thirty-seven officers and crew, and hundreds of cattle and other livestock.
The Los Angeles was commanded by the son of a sea captain – a 64-year-old veteran officer, familiar with navigation of the Big Sur coastline, Captain Herman Daggett Leland. This was the selfsame Captain Leland who had piloted the steamer Santa Cruzfrom Monterey that rescued the passengers of the U.S.S. Ventura at Point Sur, back in 1875, nineteen years before.
The weather was slightly hazy, the seas calm, and the winds light. Upon departing Cayucos, Captain Leland set the course for Monterey. In the early evening, he informed the Third Officer, that he was going below for a nap, leaving instructions that he was to be awakened when they reached Cooper’s Point, just south of Point Sur, where they needed to change course before rounding that dangerous point. Then, he went below to get a few hours of shut eye.
The Santa Cruz Surf newspaper reported that, “the sea was a smooth as glass.” Most of the passengers had retired to their cabins. According to the San Francisco Chronicle:
“One of the crew who happened to look out of the side hatch noticed the close proximity of the shore and the Points Sur light, and immediately went on deck and told the officer in charge that he thought he was too near to the shore … whereupon the seaman went below, but, feeling uneasy, resolved to go and inform the captain, who was asleep, but no sooner started then the steamer struck with a mighty force, struggled for a moment as though endeavoring to free herself, and then settled upon the rocks beneath. Amid the crash of shivered timbers, the sailor, who had just reached the captain’s quarters, heard him shriek, ‘My God! My God! We are lost!’
“In a moment all was confusion. Bedlam itself had broken loose. Women shrieked, men ran hither and thither and children cried vainly for their parents, all amid the hissing steam and moaning whistling of the wind through the rigging of the doomed vessel. The … badly rattled crew began the arduous task of manning lifeboats of which there were four, and one pneumatic life raft.”
At around 9:05 pm that evening, John F. Ingersoll, one of the Point Sur lighthouse keepers, watched helplessly from his window high atop the light station, as the steamer Los Angeles, illuminated by the nearly full moon, wrecked upon a submerged rock adjacent to Morro Rock, in crashing surf, two miles below Point Sur – nineteen years, almost to the day, after the wreck of the U.S.S. Ventura in 1875.
The sky was clouding over. On board, guns, rockets, and blue lights of distress were blazing as terrified women and children, still in their bedclothes, hurried into the lifeboats. The wind came up in a strong squall from the southwest and it began to rain.
The Pacific Coast Steamship Company’s steamer Eureka happened to be in the area and, alerted by the lighthouse keeper’s signal, searched for the four lifeboats.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported:
“Had the outer ocean been at all rough the lifeboats all would have been swamped … The second lifeboat was manned by Chief Officer Wallace and contained 15 men, women and children. After clearing the now sinking steamer, the lifeboat headed out to sea, in the hope of meeting the Eureka, which Chief Officer Wallace knew must pass southward during the night. So, they rowed out to sea for two or three miles and at 11 o’clock and the lights at the Eureka were discovered by the watchers. Closer and closer she bore down on the boat with its load of human freight, and toward the steamer, aglow with its glistening lights, the men at the orders pulled with a vim. But when near the goal of their efforts a passing cloud obscured the moon and enshrouded the waters and the steamer glided by into the night, the cries of the shipwrecked for rescue and help being unheard.”
The rain was now torrential. A passenger named H. S. Woodruff, who was traveling with his wife and infant child, told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“The steamer neared us, and we yelled at the top of our voices, but the wind carried our calls for help the other way and the steamer passed us. We thought our last ray of hope and vanished. We then returned to our oars and pulled away but did not know where we were going. At 11 o’clock we could see the lighthouse and we pulled to the north of it, but it was too rough to land, so we again pulled to the sea and saw that Eureka pick up a boatload of survivors about a mile from us, but she did not see us. We pulled for the Eureka, but when we saw her steaming away from us, we again tried to land, but all of our efforts were fruitless.
“We lay to for a while and then pulled out to see if the Eureka would come our way, but she didn’t. We then lay around the lighthouse until morning and at 7 o’clock the Eureka picked us up. When near the lighthouse we spoke to another boat and they told us that one of their number had died from fright.”
The thinly clad passengers remained in the lifeboat, with cold waves splashing over them, for nine hours, before being rescued. Most of the passengers and some crew escaped. Five passengers drowned, including a Chinese man, Jim Bock, who had brought a trunk containing $400 in gold coin, which was “lost at sea.”
Thomas Sanford, one of the last crewmen to leave the sinking vessel, told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“There are not sufficient boats for the passengers and the crew for when all the boats and the life raft are filled, there were some 20 people left on the boat. At the time the boats were cut loose the vessel began to sink.
“Captain McGenn … gave us the orders what to do. There were two passengers left on board, the others being sailors, firemen and engineers. [He] said he wanted all the passengers put in the boats, and that the boys knew how to take care of themselves. [He] then went aft and returned and said, ‘All you boys who value your lives take to the rigging.’ In five minutes more, he went aft again and came back and said, ‘Take to the rigging, for the boat is sinking.’ Some of us reached the captain’s bridge.
“By that time the vessel was quickly settling, stern-end first. We climbed the rigging to the gaff. By that time the stern had sunk to the bottom, and we were sinking fast, too. I stood on the gaff and Captain Leland, balancing himself on the gangplank, was half-way over the other side. As the vessel sank, he sank into the water and swam to where I was standing on the gaff. There were others who had been standing there before me, but they climbed further aloft. I assisted the captain on the gaff, when the firemen came up alongside and asked to be assisted up, which assistance was rendered him. Just then the boat sank further down than before, till we were up to our waists in water. Then was our critical time. I climbed up the captain’s back onto his shoulders by the aid of the rope rigging and rested there for a while, probably half a minute, and then work my way clear up to the top of the mast head. There I stayed until rescued.
“The only other passenger on the vessel beside myself as a gentleman by the name of Sheridan, an elderly man with gray chin whiskers. He came on board at Ventura. He could not climb into the rigging, as he had a life-preserver on which kept him from climbing further but kept him afloat. As he clung to the rigging his moans were something terrible to hear; but we could render him no aid, and [after many hard hours, fighting the waves] he sank almost without a struggle.”
Mrs. L.W. Denison, the Los Angeles’ stewardess told a reporter:
“None of the people who were in our boat ever came so near to death before. Had our rescue been delayed another hour, I don’t believe a soul would’ve lived to tell the fate of the rest. Out all night in a crowded open boat which leaked so badly that continual bailing alone saved us from being swamped, and with the rain beating down on our heads in torrents and the winds and waves growing fiercer every minute, is an experience that is more horrors than are to be described …
“Then there was Tim Nolan, one of the firemen. The poor man tied my life preserver on before I left the deck of the vessel. He was one of those who stayed by the wreck and were seen clinging to the masts. You understand when the boat came back from Point Sur to rescue those who remained behind, it had to keep away quite a little distance from the wreck for fear of being drawn down in the vortex. So, all who were clinging to the masts had to jump into the water and swim for the boat. Besides, the waves were breaking over the deck in a very violent and threatening manner. Among the number were Captain Leland and his son, and Mariana the waiter, I believe reached the boat…”
The sailors who’d stayed aboard the wreck, clung to the top of the rigging and hollered to the passengers in the lifeboats to come to save them. As the hours passed, several of the shivering and exhausted sailors fell from the rigging and drowned in the sea, before a lifeboat finally returned to rescue them. The fireman, Tom Nolan slipped away and as he fell, paid his mates a solemn goodbye.
Mr. H. S. Woodruff remembered:
“The [life]boat we were in was the second to leave the now fast-sinking steamer … It was a miracle how we all got in the small boat and in such a short time. They were 14 men, women and children, and it was half full of water. The women and children commenced to cry and several fainted as we left the steamer, but we soon revived them. One lady who saw her son jumped from the rigging and miss the life raft and drown, fainted, and has not yet recovered consciousness.”
The following day, the Los Angeles Herald printed the account of one of the crew members:
“Everywhere, the women and children were all screaming, and our first labor was to quiet them. They were all in their nightclothes, and we wrapped them all in blankets, so as to make them as comfortable as possible, and put life-preservers on them. After this, having provided the women and children with room in the lifeboats, we all had to rustle for ourselves, and directed our energies towards saving all that we could of our effects … We then started for the shore and landed at Point Sur light house. In attempting to land, our boat was nearly swamped … One of the passengers we thought we had saved died a few moments after a landing had been affected by us. The poor boy was almost dead when we rescued him, and as we could do nothing for him until we reached land he was too far gone when we finally tried to do something for him, and he died in my arms…
“Finding we could do nothing more for this unfortunate young man, several of us started to climb up to the light house. I was treated handsomely by the folks there, but I must say that God Almighty never made a worse possible place for a wreck than this same Point Sur.”
Mrs. J. H. Cummings, who was traveling with her two children, recalled:
“When we arrived on deck the sailors were lowering the boats, and I and my two children were placed in the second boat. They lowered all the women first and would not let the men leave until all the women were safe. I remember one heart rending scene. A German lady and her son were on the steamer, and when they lowered her into the boat, she begged her son be lowered also, but they refused, and the next day the poor woman’s son was washed upon the beach a corpse.”
In less than an hour, the Ventura filled with water, until finally, a huge wave lifted her hull off the rocks, and she slipped into the sea, where she sank to the bottom.
* * *
The neighbors who gathered on the rocky beach, three-hundred feet below the light station, watched helplessly. In the middle of the night, one of them rode up to John Gilkey’s farm in Mill Creek (later Bixby Creek) and roused him out of bed. The Los Angeles Herald reported that Gilkey was told:
“Captain Leland of the Los Angeles was dying from bruises received while being tossed about on the rocks, and that a doctor would be necessary if the captain’s life was to be saved … two of the passengers who had gone overboard on the rocks had been mashed out of all recognition, and had died a few minutes after leaving the boat.”
John Gilkey saddled up his horse and rode the twenty miles into Monterey to get help, arriving breathless and exhausted. Alerted to the news of the wreck, Doc Roberts hitched Daisy to his two-wheel cart and set off for Point Sur. “There was only one dirt road, crooked as a ram’s horn,” Roberts remembered. He changed horses at Tom Doud’s ranch at Soberanes Creek and arrived at the beach at Point Sur at dawn. Through the dimly lit fog, he saw piles of dead bodies stacked on the sand. It was several minutes before he realized most of them were cattle.
“A strange and gruesome sight,” Roberts recalled, “was the presence of over one hundred calves among the humans. They were all drowned, and their leg stuck up out of the water and sand.”
Most of the survivors suffered from shock, exposure, and bruises. The San Francisco Call reported that the steamship Los Angeles, “was a complete wreck, its bottom torn out.”
The Eureka delivered the cold and weary passengers to the dock in Monterey, its deck littered with a mass of lifeboats, rafts, life-vests, and empty casks.
Officer Roger Lewis Ryfkogel, the Third Mate, who was born in Holland, had been on deck while the Captain was napping, claimed he missed Cooper’s Point. He was charged with “criminal neglect and carelessness,” for having failed to awaken Captain Leland, as instructed. At the time of the wreck, the vessel was four and a half miles north of Cooper’s Point. The Third Officer insisted that he had followed the course as laid out by the captain, but the evidence indicated that the ship was a mile off the regular route when it wrecked. Six weeks earlier, Ryfkogel had gotten the vessel stuck on the rocks at Point Hueneme and Captain Leland was chided for not having fired him then and there. “The man has a family to feed,” Captain Leland protested.
A month after the wreck, both Captain Leland and Third Officer Ryfkogel had their licenses formally revoked. Captain Leland had worked for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company for twenty-seven years – since its founding, in 1867. The wreck of the Los Angeles was his first serious accident in three decades of sailing the California coast.
Doc Roberts submitted a bill for $200, which Captain Leland – whose life Roberts had saved – refused to pay. Roberts finally collected the outstanding debt, years later, when the unsuspecting Captain put into port at Monterey.
The coast from Point Sur to San Francisco was well on its way to earning its reputation as a graveyard for ships. The Pacific Steamship Company alone had lost nineteen vessels there, before the turn of the century.
* * *
The Point Sur Light Station was automated in 1972. On March 13, 1973, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jerry W. Carter, the last lighthouse keeper to live on the rock, packed his bags and, with his wife, four children, and an Australian sheep dog, drove down the hill for the last time. Carter described the rock as, “a fantastically quiet place.”
The electronic lamp was now run by computers. Rats and bats made their home in the red roofs of the now-empty residences, once home to the families of four lighthouse keepers. The buildings were sorely in need of paint and many shingles were missing.
The original Fresnel lens from the Point Sur Light Station, that had been shipped around the horn from France, was originally intended for the Pigeon Point Lighthouse – but it was sent to Point Sur, instead. In 1978, the Fresnel lens was moved to what was then called the Allen Knight Maritime Museum on Custom House Plaza, in Monterey. The museum has changed hands several times, but the lens was still there when I last performed a concert in the building, in December of 2014. A few years ago, the lens was returned to the U.S. Coast Guard and I understand that it’s now back in storage at Point Sur, but not up in the tower.
In the late 1970s, Chief Warrant Officer Bill Logan monitored the computers at the Naval Facility down the hill from the Point Sur Light Station. Logan collected this story from an Englishman named Andy Sleath, of Pacific Grove, who was part of the crew that installed the first electrical system at the Point Sur Light Station, in 1932.
Andy Sleath said that some of the workers on the job reported that they had been “tapped and talked to” by a ghost who haunted the rock. The apparition would tap workmen on the shoulder and ask them, “Have you seen my wife and little girls?”
According to local folklore, shortly after the lighthouse was built, on a particularly stormy night, the kerosene oil lamp inside the old Fresnel lens was blown out by the wind. The lighthouse keeper went to re-light the lamp in a raging gale and was blown off the rock and lost in the sea. The lighthouse keeper’s broken-hearted widow took the children and moved away, but his ghost continued to search in vain for his wife and kids on the Rock.
* * *
“Every now and then I’d have to go up and inspect the buildings at the light station,” Bill Logan remembered. “Nobody lived there, then and all the buildings were empty. The place was overrun with rats – the rats had become a terrible problem – they were eating the building.
“When I first heard the story about the lighthouse ghost, I thought it was just regular folklore. But I came to believe it. There were times I had to go up there all by myself at night and I had the distinct feeling that someone was watching me.”
“It was,” Bill told me, “a very unsettling feeling.”