The wreck of the S.S. Brother Jonathan on July 30, 1865 was a significant event both for the size of the disaster and for the speculation of sunken treasure that sprung up immediately after the wreck and continued for years.
Unlike many other such stories, the tales of gold pieces buried under the waves of the sea turned out to be true in this case. When the ship was salvaged years later, a variety of Civil War era coins, including a chest of $20 gold pieces from the San Francisco Mint, were in fact found on board.
The S.S. Brother Jonathan was constructed in 1851 for the trader Edward Mills. Mills was a resident of New York who was attempting to “strike it rich” in California by providing shipping services during the Gold Rush. The ship sailed from New York to Panama, and was the fastest on the route, setting the record of 31 days on her maiden voyage.
Her passengers would disembark at the Isthmus of Panama and take another ship for the remainder of the journey to California.
Mills had a hard go of it, and in 1852, sold the S.S. Brother Jonathan to Cornelius Vanderbilt, the transportation magnate. He had the ship sailed around Cape Horn so that he could use her on the Pacific side of the route. He also carried out some conversions on the boat to make it able to hold a larger number of passengers.
The S.S. Brother Jonathan had another owner, Captain John Wright, before being sold to her final owner, the California Steam Navigation Company, in 1861. They restored and refurbished the ship, and operated her as a steamer with a reputation for speed between San Francisco and Vancouver, with a stop in Portland, Oregon on the way.
On the ill-fated final journey, the ship ran into a huge storm after leaving the harbor at San Francisco. The seas were very rough as the ship attempted to journey northward. On the second morning of the journey, Sunday morning, the boat pulled into the Crescent City harbor. They left Sunday afternoon to more stormy seas. Conditions became so bad near the border of Oregon and California, the captain decided to turn the ship around and head back for the safety of the harbor at Crescent City.
Perhaps he made the decision too late, because the boat hit the rocks 45 minutes later, ripping its hull. There were lifeboats enough for all passengers onboard, but only time to lower three into the water. There are stories galore of heroic behavior on the part of sailors and passengers as they attempted to save anyone from the sinking ship.
Unfortunately, two of the lifeboats were destroyed in the storm, and only one holding 11 crewmembers, five women and three children found its way out of the wreckage and into the safety of the Crescent City Harbor.
Many well-known people of the day were passengers aboard the ship, and the disaster of the S.S. Brother Jonathan prompted new laws regarding passenger counts and lifeboat safety.