1865, The Brother Jonathan, sank off Crescent City


The Brother Jonathan was a 221 foot steamer that was extensively refitted by new owners in 1861. Placed in service in the San Francisco - Portland - Victoria run, she boasted unequaled accommodations. Her passenger list frequently included prominent San Francisco and Portland business leaders, government employees, entertainers and miners.

On a voyage from San Francisco in 1865 she was heavily overloaded with cargo despite the strenuous objection of her captain. Waterfront observers noticed how low in the water the ship rode with its cargo which included woolen mill machinery, mining equipment and "two camels, some horses and a Newfoundland dog."

A gale kicked up as soon as the ship left port and worsened as the voyage proceeded. Around 1 o'clock on the afternoon of July 30 the ship passed Crescent City. Increasingly heavy seas forced the captain to turn toward the harbor. As she approached Crescent City the Brother Jonathan hit the St. George Reef with a jarring impact, throwing the passengers and crew to the deck. Three lifeboats were launched but only one avoided being capsized by the heavy seas. A geyser of water erupted through the foredeck as a rock punched a hole in the hull. She soon slipped off the reef and sank within forty-five minutes while onlookers watched helplessly from the high bluffs above the town. Boats launched from shore found nothing but empty sea on reaching the scene. Only nineteen of 232 passengers survived.

Among the passengers was James Nisbet, editor and part owner of the San Francisco Bulletin. In the forty-five minutes it took the ship to sink, Nisbet calmly sat down and wrote out his will using a pencil so that sea water would not wash away his effort. The will divided his estate between his brother and sister but made a special bequest of $5,000 dollars in gold to Almira Hopkins, the wife of San Francisco insurance agent Caspar Hopkins. He put the will, along with a note to Hopkins' wife, in his breast pocket, and wrapped himself in two life preservers. His body was washed ashore two days later when the will and the letter were found. The letter to Almira read,

My dear Almira,

A thousand affectionate adieus. You spoke of my sailing on Friday -- Hangman's Day -- and the unlucky Jonathan. Well here I am with death before me. My love to you all -- to Caspar, to Dita, to Belle, to Mellie and little Myra -- kiss her for me. Never forget Grandpa.


Between the Lines
(The letter to Almira, if he'd had more time and privacy)

My dear Almira,
A thousand affectionate adieus,
I have just written my will
as the ship is sinking fast and your face,
framed with its dark curls and illuminated by
your smile flashes before my eyes. You spoke of my sailing on Friday --
Hangman's Day and the unlucky Jonathan.
You were right and so was the captain.
He objected to the heavy cargo.The two camels tethered and bellowing on the deck
seem now a testament to the folly of the ship's owners.
A half an hour ago we hit something.
I was thrown to the deck,
then I saw the keel float alongside
and a geyser of water came shooting up through the foredeck.
Well here I am with death before me.

But I sense you with me.
I have left you $5,000 in gold.
I hope Caspar doesn't sense an impropriety.
My love to you all --
to Caspar, to Dita, to Belle, to Mellie and little Myra --
And especially to you, my love.
Protect yourself and the child,
kiss her for me.
I know you'll see in her face a glimpse of me
that will always remind you of my love,
a love that will not be drowned by these ragingwaters.

Never forget Grandpa.