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December 22, 1862: San Francisco Bay

December 22, 2012

Alcatraz; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

[Today] was a cold, raw, blustery day, with some wind and rain. I am well acquainted with a Mr. Putnam, an officer in the California Steam Navigation Company, a monopoly that controls all the central and coast steamer business. I often visit in his family—he has four lovely little girls, the eldest thirteen or fourteen years old1. The company was to launch a new and fine steamer, the Yosemite, which lay upon the stocks at the Potrero, about five miles distant. A little steamer, the Paul Pry, was to go down to see the launching and carry invited guests. I was invited, and managed to have invitations extended to Averill, Gabb, and Hoffmann. We left at half-past ten, with about 150 or 200 guests.2

Owing to the bad day, only half a dozen or so were ladies; the rest were gentlemen, numbering some of the most noted men of the city, public officers, etc. It was said that Montgomery Street was represented by the owners of over five millions of capital in that little party. Katie Putnam was placed in my charge, but her father came on board just as we sailed. The launching was a beautiful one, the first sight of the kind I had ever seen—it was successful, and all were delighted.3 The Paul Pry was headed for home again, and we sat down to a most sumptuous lunch, where cold turkey and champagne suffered tremendously.

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Alcatraz; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

In the harbor is a little island, called Alcatraz, a mere rock of perhaps three or four acres, rising in cliffs from the sea about 150 feet, crowned with a fort, the defense of the interior of the harbor and a most picturesque object. To increase the pleasure of the trip and allow longer time for the lunch, we steamed around this island, keeping a short distance off.4 Lunch was finished. The wind blew a stiff breeze and whitecaps rolled. I was on the after part of the boat. Suddenly there came a crash that startled everyone.5 “What is that?” “What is that?” Everyone stared, but the suspense was short. We had run on a sunken rock6, and stove a tremendous hole in the steamer, through which the water rushed into the hold, and she began to sink astern. Now came such a scene of excitement as I never saw before. The steamer rapidly settled—if she slid off from the rock, she would sink in less than five minutes; if she stuck on, she might break in two in less time.7

One of the lifeboats was immediately lowered and I went below and got Katie in the boat, into which several other ladies were placed.8 I then stood back. The next lifeboat was run alongside and the two remaining ladies were placed in that. The excitement began to be intense. The boat had its quota of passengers instanter, when one excited individual, a prominent official, in his excitement and anxiety for his safety, jumped into the boat, fell overboard, and in getting in again upset the boat.9

Now came the most intense excitement, the boatload of passengers struggled in the water, several others jumped in, excited men were rushing frantically about, and, to increase the confusion, the boat took fire in the hold, and to extinguish it the steam from the boiler was blown there, which filled the whole vessel. Most luckily the lifeboat was righted and all were rescued from the water, the boat was bailed out, the wet passengers were put in, and she pushed off.


Alcatraz; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

We were scarce three hundred yards from the end of Alcatraz Island. Soldiers were seen running around and soon boats put out. A whaleship also, seeing our signals of distress flying, sent off a whaleboat for our relief. The steamer, meanwhile, settled astern, and her bow raised high out of the water, but she stuck together. Boats soon arrived, and in about an hour all were safely landed at the fort.

I really felt ashamed for my sex, for manhood, when I saw what arrant cowards some of the men were. About two-thirds were as cool as if nothing had happened, but some of the remainder showed a cowardice most disgraceful.

After I saw Katie safe in the first boat, and saw the second boat rescued, I went back on the upper deck, away from the excited men who clustered around the gunwale to rush into the boats that should first arrive. If the boat sank, I did not want to be among such men. All of our party showed that they had seen Californian camp life; not one showed the least trepidation or concern—coolness would hardly express it, and yet that was it. While coats, hats, umbrellas, furniture, etc., were seen floating away from the wreck, none of us could tell of such losses. We laughed at Averill because he carried away a glass tumbler in his pocket as a memento of the occasion, and the rest in turn laughed at me because I came ashore with not only my old cotton umbrella, but also Katie’s that she had left.

As we left in the last boats (in fact, I was in the last but one), I had a good chance to see the whole affair. I was all prepared to swim if the boat went down. Many of the scenes were ludicrous in the extreme. Men who were the loudest to talk, here were pale as death and rushed for the earliest boats, even before the women were in. I sat on the upper deck and watched two excited men. One took out papers from his inside coat pocket, pulled off his coat and threw it overboard—off with his boots, etc. I afterward saw him in the boat without coat or hat. Another stripped to his drawers; others kept near someone who they thought could swim!

Hoffmann, Gabb, Putnam, and Averill had gone before I left. All excitement had died down—the cowards had left in the earlier boats. It was raining furiously and the water had partly filled the cabin and was sweeping on the deck with every wave. As I went below to get into the boat, I met the reporter of the Daily Bulletin, with whom I was well acquainted. He stopped me to get “the exact time” and other “items.” He was scribbling away as if there was no danger of the boat either going to pieces or sinking. He came in the next, and last, boat. A steam tug, however, soon came and got off a part of the furniture.


Alcatraz; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

We were some two hours on the island; it stopped raining and we had a good chance to see the fortress. The officers treated us with every attention, and we were finally brought back to the city on a steam tug. Thus ended our mild “shipwreck.”10

The steamer did not go to pieces as was expected—we last saw her with her bow high in air, her after cabins entirely under water, which came above her upper deck.11 She was got off the next day, and hopes are entertained that she may be repaired for $20,000 or more.

1“Professor Brewer was a member of the Geological Survey of California, conducted by my uncle Professor Josiah Dwight Whitney. Mr. Brewer was the head of the botanical division. He was a great friend of our family and a familiar visitor at our house. We were all very fond of him. Besides the long talks with my father, he was devoted to the younger chlldten and I picture him often with a ltttle girl on each knee, while they sang, and he trotted them with a vigor that never failed.”–Katharine (Putnam) Hooker

2“When I was about twelve years old, I saw a steamer launched, a wonderful event in the experience of a little girl. My father, Osgood Putnam, was secretary of the California Steam Navigation Company at the time and carried me with him to see the sight, which was to take place on the west shore of the bay some miles south of San Francisco. The steamer PAUL PRY was to carry those invited : as it seemed to me, a great number of jovial gentlemen and four ladies, of the plump and wealthy type.”–id.

3“The great vessel, as it looked to me, stood aloft on a high complicated support, or framework of wood. I watched it with awe, and presently it began to move, slowly at first; and then with accelerated speed, it flew downward and meeting the water with a great plunge, settled like a huge seabird upon the blue surface of the Bay. So beautiful but so brief was the wondrous sight.”–id.

4“The PAUL PRY then took its way northward while those on board sat down to a banquet provided by the Navigation Company. It was a gay and jovial company and when the vessel reached San Francisco, everyone was still at the table, so the indulgent directors, unwilling to break up the feast, decided to lengthen the sail.”–id.

5“The ship proceeded up the Bay and then, swerving a little to the west, suddenly there was a crash followed by harsh grating sounds, and the steamer came to a sudden halt and careened slightly to the left.”–id.

6150 years later, another excursion boat hit the same rock.

7“I do not remember any screaming or confusion at this moment. We had run upon rocks, and my father hurried to the hold. He told me afterward that he went to see whether the vessel was upon a smooth rock; in that case, it must soon go down, as the tide was running out rapidly and it would inevitably slide off and fill. Fortunately it was pinioned upon a sharp point that had quite deeply entered the hull….

“Later, Professor Brewer told me he had prepared to save my life if the vessel sank. He had possessed himself of a billet of wood and his plan was to tap me on the head, the blow being sufficient to render me unconscious for a short time during which he would swim with me to Alcatraz Island!”–Katharine Hooker

8“Meantime row boats were being lowered so that we might be taken to Alcatraz Island, near which we were wrecked….My father insisted on dropping me down into the first boat, among the agitated ladies, much against my will, as I wanted to remain with him.

“Then and there a singular fact came to light – I was tucked in by the side of Mrs. Chenery with whom I had been wrecked once before, when the Steamer Tennessee, headed to San Francisco from the Isthmus of Panama (1853), ran on the rocks just north of the opening of San Francisco Bay, having missed its bearings in the fog.”–id.

9“Of course ‘ladies first’ was the manly understanding, and with this in view three of the ladies had been carefully and with some difficulty lowered into the first boat, when a certain gentleman lost his courage – he could not see that boat row away to safety without him. He sprang from the railing, missed his aim, and struck the bow of the boat with a force that upset it. All, including himself, disappeared under the waves.

“The hardy sailors plunged into the water, righted the boat, and fished up the unfortunates, not without sighs and groans from the stout ladies cruelly chafed by the ropes with which they were hauled to the level of the railing.

“While all this was going on, I was standing on the slanting deck between my father and our kind friend Professor Brewer.”–id. This is one of the few discrepancies between the two accounts. Brewer’s, having been written within days of the event, is probably more reliable on this point than Katharine Hooker’s, which she wrote decades later.

10“At the Island we were most hospitably received. Those gentlemen whose clothing had been soaked in the exigencies of the occasion, were lent garments to substitute while their own were being dried. Clad in ludicrous misfits, there was much mirth at their change from the elegance of the morning.”–id.

11“In time, a steamer came to convey the castaways to San Francisco, and as we passed the PAUL PRY, about ten feet of her prow stood bravely vertical above the water, like a floating monument.”–id.


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