S.S. Pomona Shipwreck Project
Fort Ross State Historic Park, California

Introduction

The Steam Ship Pomona (S.S. Pomona) was built in 1888 by the Union Iron Works, San Francisco, for the Oregon Improvement Company. She was a single-screw, steel-hulled passenger and freight steamer that traveled between San Francisco and Vancouver, making stops at ports in between.

On March 17, 1908, the S.S. Pomona was steaming northward on a routine voyage in heavy seas. The ship struck Monterey Rock, so named for the Monterey, that had collided and sank on the rock previously. The S.S. Pomona's Captain Swansen tried to run her aground in Fort Ross cove, but impacted the fringing wash rocks where the ship foundered. Over the subsequent months, salvage efforts were conducted on the ship, and eventually she was dynamited as a navigational hazard.

The wreck lay undisturbed until the late fifties, when early SCUBA enthusiasts rediscovered her. Between 1959 and the early seventies, the wreck was looted by divers. In 1984, a team of divers led by Jim Delgado began an investigation and survey of the shipwreck site.

Today, the S.S. Pomona lies in 27- to 40-feet of water in Fort Ross cove, with the bow broken over the wash rock where she ran aground. The disarticulated bow section includes her hull superstructure, the ships hawse holes, and a hatch cover. Beyond the wash rock, the hull retains an outline of her original shape, as the decking slopes downward from the shallow rock to the midship area. The starboard Scotch boiler remains in it's approximate original location on the ship, while the port boiler has moved past the stern of the ship. Large I-beams and sections of the masts lie strewn about the outline of the hull.

This report is the result of the August 1998 field investigation under the direction of Charles Beeker, Director of the Office of Underwater Science at Indiana University, and John Foster, California State Parks Senior Archaeologist.

Purpose

In accordance with Contract # C9717010, the purpose of Indiana University in the undertaking of this project was to carry out the following tasks:

  • To review all documents and records concerning shipwreck sites and submerged cultural resources at Fort Ross State Historic Park.

  • To conduct an assessment of underwater park resources at Fort Ross State Historic Park, including underwater photo and video documentation where mooring anchors and shipwreck debris have been located within Fort Ross Cove.

  • To prepare an underwater site map of the main elements of the S.S. Pomona shipwreck site for resource inventory and management purposes.

  • To conduct an appraisal of the underwater area at Fort Ross State Historic Park as to visitor safety, resource significance, eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and sensitivity to disturbance from visitor use by comparison with other underwater parks and Marine Sanctuary areas.

  • Finally, submission of this report on underwater resources at Fort Ross State Historic Park, including a site map, original photographs and video materials. A summary of the research will be prepared for inclusion on the Indiana University's Underwater Science Program internet web site.
  • S.S. Pomona Historical Background

    California's Dependence on Shipping

    Before 1910, California did not have a very developed system of public land-based transportation from one end of the state to the other. It was a time when the only cost effective and expedient way to travel was by taking a ship or ferry to the train depots. These trains would cover local inland routes, but did not cover the whole state. The situation caused many coastal and some inland industries to be dependent upon shipping. Timber, animal products, machinery and various imports were all moved along the coast by seafaring transports.

    Innovations

    In the nineteenth century, major innovations in the shipping industry reached the Pacific Coast. New materials such as iron and steel were used to build stronger and longer lasting vessels, and steam engines were used to link the ships lines to the regular and reliable service provided by the slowly expanding rail lines. The lines competed against each other by incorporating the newest building and propulsion techniques, and by offering their passengers a quick and often luxurious trip.

    S.S. Pomona

    In 1888, the Oregon Improvement Co. acquired a new vessel from Union Iron Works in San Francisco. The S.S. Pomona weighed 1264 tons, and was 225-feet long, 33.5-feet at the beam and had a draft of 16-feet. Built to ply the passenger line for Northern California, the vessel sported a revolutionary and economical triple expansion steam engine and a single brass propeller. Both of these items were a different approach to ship propulsion on the West Coast, since most steam ships of the period used walking beam engines and side paddle wheels, similar to the Orizaba on the San Diego-L.A. line. For extra strength, the vessel was built with a strong steel hull, a feat which the foremost shipbuilding company in the Bay Area, Union Iron Works, was only recently equipped to produce.

    From the luxurious white deck house rose a single black smokestack, and to the fore and aft stood two masts that acted as sturdy cargo cranes. In the side of the ship's forward hull was a large cargo hatch, hardly noticeable next to the imposing vertical cutwater, the latest in classical ship liner design. It was not long before the Pomona earned the title "Pride of the Coastal Fleet."

    Refitted for New Uses

    From 1891 to 1895, a businessman named Knowles operated the ship under his name. In 1897, the vessel was sold to the Pacific Steamship Company to traverse the San Francisco-Vancouver route. Most likely reconditioned at this time, the vessel's rear superstructure was shortened and a steam-driven electric generator was added. The side cargo door was increasingly utilized in the S.S. Pomona, as the ship now carried more cargo than passengers. Even the upper bow hatch was used for the purpose of cargo: mail was loaded through it, and a car could be parked on top of it to save space and protect the hold's contents. Besides mail and the occasional automobile, theS.S. Pomona shipped items such as expensive rugs and imported goods, including china ware, which was imported from England via the Nathan Dohrmann company in San Francisco. It is assumed that the first class passengers stayed in the handsome white superstructure, while the "steerage" passengers, many of them Italian immigrants, were settled below decks.

    The Wrecking Incident

    One evening, the S.S. Pomona was steaming slowly north towards Eureka. Moving at about 13.2 knots, she was only a few miles north of the mouth of the Russian River. The ship was traveling abnormally close to the shore and at a slower than usual speed. According to the numerous San Francisco Chronicle articles on the subject, the ship was close to the shore because Captain Swanson was concerned that the rough weather would make passengers uncomfortable. Other sources speculate that the boilers were malfunctioning and could not hold enough pressure to give the engine the horsepower it needed to plow the ship through the swells and winds in the open waters. For whatever reason, Swansen decided to follow the shore where the swells were not as pronounced.

    The ship struck a submerged reef on March 17, 1908 at 6:15p.m., possibly Monterey Rock, so named for the Monterey, that had struck that rock years before. Captain Swansen judged the ship to be 1.5 miles off-shore, moving at about twelve knots. The captain went to his room to recheck his charts. He speculated the ship was the 0.75 miles off-shore, and taking on water fast through the open cargo hatches amidship. He headed the ship toward Fort Ross cove, in hopes of grounding her upon the beach and saving the cargo. The ship struck a second time, this time on what is now called the washrock. The ship began taking on more water and listing to her starboard side. The order was given to abandon ship and by most accounts, all passengers and crew made it to shore safely. Though the wreck was later deemed totally avoidable, all accounts say the handling of the disaster after the impacts was done properly and proceeded without incident. Although the mail the ship was transporting was ruined by seawater, most of the cargo was either saved or stolen by looters.

    Salvage Efforts

    Following her sinking, the ship was salvaged by the Pacific Coast Salvage Company, and all the major brass fittings and the engine were removed for scrap. Efforts were made to raise the S.S. Pomona using large lift bags, which proved unsuccessful. Eventually the ship was dynamited as a navigational hazard. The starboard list the ship took on after running up onto the washrock is apparent in the way she lies on the bottom today. The twin hawse holes lie side by side today in the bow section, indicating that the port side hawse hole collapsed onto the starboard side as the wreck settled.

    The Devilfish

    During the salvage efforts, a story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about a diver working on the wreck doing battle with a monster devil fish. The legendary devilfish was not seen, but locals familiar with the wreck told participants a large octopus had made it's home in the boiler in recent years.

    Diver Fights With Octopus

    Martin Lund Has Terrific Combat in Hold of Wrecked Ship
    (United Press Leased Wire)

    San Rafael, Cal. September 28,1908 ---Martin Lund, a diver for the Pacific Coast Wrecking company, had a terrible experience with a monster devil fish while he was in seven fathoms of water Saturday afternoon at Fort Ross cove, working on the Pomona, which was wrecked some months ago. Lund was in the hold of the wrecked vessel when he was seized about the leg by the tentacle of a devil fish. He slashed at the fish with his knife and gave the signal to be hoisted. The devil fish had too strong a hold of him and he had to signal the helpers to cease their efforts to haul him to the surface, because his helmet was giving way.

    Another tentacle grasped him about the waist, and still another about the neck. Then another grasped him about the legs, and he had to fight hard for life. After cutting two of the tough tentacles that grasped him in a death-like embrace, Lund saw the creature preparing to strike with its beak, and he made a lunge for the head just in time to deal a death blow.

    Methodology

    Implemented as an intensive seven day field school, investigations at the S.S. Pomona wreck site entailed non-destructive data acquisition for the specific purposes of the contract agreement. Procedures included utilization of SCUBA equipment, underwater measuring tapes and slates, photographic and Hi-8 video documentation, as well as some artifact recovery as deemed necessary by field archaeologists. Research also involved implementation of archival resources, text and photographs from the Fort Ross SHP library to aid in identifying diagnostic features of the site. Researchers completed dives over the span of five days, totally 54 total man-hours underwater. Two to four dives were accomplished per day, with the final day limited to one dive due to incoming tides and increasing bottom surge. During sixteen dives the team surveyed and plotted features of the wreck which were not present on the initial site plan (Delgado, 1988). Divers worked at depths from 27-feet at the stern to 40-feet at the bow. Temperatures ranged in the mid to upper 50 degrees, with visibility ranging from 6- to 20-feet. The most challenging condition divers faced was the bottom surge, which increased as the week continued. The surge made conditions increasingly dangerous, causing the cancellation of several dives in the afternoon, when it became too hazardous. Fog was a continual factor in the mornings, generally burning off towards early afternoon before returning in the early evening. Visual documentation was obtained with the use of a 35mm Nikonos camera, 15mm lens and a Nikonos Speedlight 103 flash, as well as a Sony Hi-8 video camera. Feature artifacts and interpretive vessel construction illustrations were completed via standard drafting techniques. During the survey, a daily log was recorded by project participants and periodically uploaded to the Underwater Science Internet web page while in the field.

    Biological Assessment

    The site of the S.S. Pomona wreck is rich in specimens of sea life indigenous to Northern California. Harbor seals and sea lions were seen in the cove during the course of dive operations. The wreck sits in the middle of several beds of bull kelp. During the days dives were conducted, the kelp was thin on the wreck and did not present an obstacle or danger to divers working in the water. Abalone are abundant on the wreck, as are starfish and anemone. Lingcod were seen past the boilers toward the bow, as well as several other species of fish. The exposed metal of the wreck has largely been encrusted with barnacles.

    Safety Assessment

    Diver safety is a concern on the wreck site as evidenced by the bottom surge that this survey team contended with in August. The bull kelp was relatively during the dives, but at other times of the year might be significantly more of an obstacle to divers. Nonetheless, despite possible environmental problems, this site has great potential for recreational diving due to its relatively shallow depths of 27- to 40-feet and the proximity of the site to Fort Ross SHP. Fort Ross cove is a popular spot for abalone divers; large numbers of sport divers were on the beach and in the water during the first days. The aquatic diversity in the area, from kelp to harbor seals, also makes for a potentially very exciting dive experience.

    Archival Information

    Archival documents from the Fort Ross SHP library were integral to the completion of this report. Included in the documents were contemporary newspaper accounts of the wreck and subsequent salvage efforts, as well as later memos from historians and curators from Fort Ross and Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. More recent newspaper accounts from the sixties and seventies describing the rediscovery of the wreck by SCUBA enthusiasts. In addition, outside sources of information included Specifications for Single Screw Steamship by Union Iron Works and Modern Marine Engineer's Manual, by Alan Osborne, editor-in-chief, U.S. Maritime Commission. These works provided information in particular on the workings of the triple expansion steam engine and Scotch boilers.

    Survey Results

    The Drive Shaft and Features Found Along the Length

    The S.S. Pomona lies in 27- to 40-feet of water, with the bow pointing out to sea to the southwest. The drive shaft is 65-feet from the rudder assembly to the coupler immediately behind the triple expansion steam engine. The Delgado survey site plan indicated a slight bend in the drive shaft near the rudder, but this survey found no such bend; the drive shaft proved to be very straight for the entire length. There are three mounts on the shaft beginning from 10-feet behind the coupler, labeled M3, M2, and M1 from front to back, and spaced 15-feet apart. There are numerous structural features along the length of the drive shaft; to the port side 10-feet from the coupler a 37-foot section of mast lies in a North-Northeast direction in 30-feet of water. Alongside this mast section there are a cluster of 25-foot long I-beams that lie parallel to the drive shaft. A collapsed section of decking lies parallel to the starboard side along the drive shaft, 35-feet in length, between M3 and M1. The ceramic pieces retrieved on this survey came from 5-feet to the starboard side of M2. Ten feet forward from the rudder and ten feet to the starboard side lies the steering assembly, which consists of a steering wheel 3-feet in diameter lying on top of the steering assembly housing. The rudder assembly is 10-feet long, 8-feet attached to the starboard side of the stern. Behind the rudder lie several bollards. The depth of the drive train is 27-feet, several feet above the sea floor. All of these features were documented and added to the site plan.

    The Engine

    The Modern Marine Engineer's Manual specified that a triple expansion steam engine would have three piston heads: one high pressure head, one intermediate pressure head and one low pressure head (Modern Marine Engineer's Manual). In accordance with these specifications this survey found that the triple expansion steam engine of the S.S. Pomona has several key components which still remain. The 23.5-inch high pressure cylinder and 34.5-inch intermediate pressure cylinder are gone but the connecting rods remain. The 56-inch low pressure cylinder is still in place, but the piston head is broken, as is the connecting rod near the stroke. Thus the 56-inch piston head and connecting rod lie on the bottom while the connecting rods for the smaller pistons are still attached to the cam shaft. All three connecting rods are on the starboard side of the cam shaft. The large flywheel is in place at the forward extreme of the cam shaft. The water is 27-feet deep in the engine section.

    The Boilers

    The starboard side Scotch boiler remains in it's original location just forward of the flywheel at the forward end of the drive shaft. The port side boiler (Boiler #2) of the double boiler assembly has come to rest at a position 15-feet past the rudder assembly. The copper-brass main engine receiver pipe recovered on the survey was found immediately to the stern of Boiler #1, or the starboard side boiler. The two boilers measure 10.5-feet across and 11.7-feet long. Both boilers have holes several feet across exposing the interior of the boilers. Forward of Boiler #1, the condenser lies in much the same state as the boiler, with holes exposing the interior. In this case, the condenser tubing is exposed.

    The boilers were a source of controversy following the wreck of the S.S. Pomona. Some passengers said they were unable to generate enough steam to power the ship through heavy seas, though the U.S. Inspector of Boilers said they were more than adequate (See newspaper article appendix). On Boiler #2 it was observed that some pipes may have been altered (i.e. crimped) to stop leakage, and thus reducing power.

    The Bow Section

    Forward of midship, the decking becomes more obvious, as a center beam stretches over 50-feet from just ahead of the flywheel to the washrock. Twenty feet forward of Boiler #1 the decking slopes upward on the washrock. Twenty-five feet to the starboard of this point, among miscellaneous debris from the wreck, a bell shaped object is encrusted into the top of a rock. Immediately below this is where the brass coat hook was retrieved. The depth where the decking slopes upwards begins at 20-feet, and rises to 15-feet. The washrock itself is 12-feet below the surface. Twenty feet to the starboard of the washrock, in 20-feet of water, lies a cargo hatch from either the foredeck near the cutwater or the side. The water deepens from the washrock to the bow. Thirty feet from the center line, 20-feet forward of the cargo hatch, a section of hull superstructure with portholes lies on the rocks. Ten feet south of this section, the ships two hawse holes lie side by side. At the forward extreme of the ship, the lower section of the bow becomes visible. The depth forward of the bow is 40-feet. A section of deck superstructure lies underneath the bow, along with a triangular bulkhead. The port side of the bow is the most easily identifiable, retaining it's basic shape as the frame extends upward.

    Perimeter of the Wreck

    The wreck contains a great number of features within the outlines of the ship, but there has been a degree of scatter, whether due to being dynamited or environmental activity. As mentioned previously, Boiler #2 has moved to 20-feet North-Northwest of the tip of the rudder assembly, and therefore the northernmost feature included on the site plan. There is a large structural feature 25-feet to the starboard side of the engine, consisting of two 30-foot long I-beams connected with three plates measuring 8-feet by 2.5-feet, 4-inches thick, at 15-foot intervals. Near the feature are beams and pipes of various sizes as well as thin metal sheeting that may have covered railings. The debris to the starboard side extends further away from the drive shaft than on the port side, testimonial to the ship's final position of lying on her starboard side.

    Artifacts Recovered

    Several artifacts were recovered during the August survey. Pieces of ceramic plates were retrieved from 5-feet to the starboard of M1. These pieces are indicative of typical cargo of the S.S. Pomona, and intact examples are displayed in the ranch house outside the walls of Fort Ross SHP. The origin of the ceramics in the house has been unknown, but the pieces recovered from the S.S. Pomona provide evidence that the plates found in the Call House were possibly salvaged from the wreck of the S.S. Pomona. The ceramics are stamped on the bottom with their maker's mark of John Maddock and Son's England and are of the type of dishware known as ironware.

    The brass coat hook removed from the wreck is indicative of standard outfitting practices for ships of the era. As noted in Specifications for Single Screw Steel Cargo Steamship, Union Iron Works, 1916, officers quarters were to be fitted with four of these hooks. The spot where this was found indicates it may have been located in one of the crew quarters. The Carnegie fire brick recovered from the wreck was part of the furnace. The Carnegie Brick works was located in Northern California near San Francisco and was the source for insulating materials that Union Iron Works relied upon for insulating materials for ships produced there until the early Twentieth century when the brick works burned down. Firebricks were to be made of refractory material; generally silica and aluminum oxide with traces of iron, calcium, and other oxides (Modern Marine Engineer's Manual). The brick retrieved from the wreck site bears the Carnegie stamp and is indicative of the type of materials used for furnace linings. The copper-brass main engine receiver pipe that was retrieved from near Boiler #1 was built in accordance with specifications that the pipe itself was copper while the flange was of a composite, brazed on to the pipe itself.

    Summary

    An underwater site plan, included in this report, was prepared by the survey participants. The site plan was begun with the plan done by Delgado and his team in 1988, and additional features were mapped throughout the 1998 research project. The survey team was able to add numerous features in the drive train section not included on the 1988 site plan, including the rudder and steering assembly, as well as structural components such as pipes and I-beams. Features were mapped in on the starboard side of the wreck up to 50-feet away, including major structural features. In addition, over 100-feet of the forward section features were mapped in past the wash rock out to the bow, which features included a section of deck superstructure, a cargo hatch, and the ship's hawse holes. Small artifacts were added to the site plan such as ceramic pieces, a brass coat hook and a 6-foot section of main engine receiver pipe, which were retrieved and presented to Fort Ross SHP. In addition to adding features onto the site plan, individual feature drawings of important diagnostic features have been included in this report.

    Recommendations

    Indiana Universities August survey of the S.S. Pomona wreck site has led to the following recommendations as to the viability of the site for recreational use and for further academic investigation. Prior to establishment of the S.S. Pomona as a managed California State Historic Park the following recommendations are suggested:

    1) Existing Ft. Ross State Historic Park boundaries should be expanded.
    The current 18-foot depth contour should be extended to the 120-foot contour, incorporating the S.S. Pomona into the Fort Ross Underwater Preserve.

    2) There are 3 main components for physical enhancement of the site.
    A Spar Marker Buoy should be placed midship to identify location from both water and land vantage points. The marker should have Pomona's name, date of wrecking, and California State Parks logo indicating management jurisdiction. Mooring Buoys should be located midship to stern section adequate for use by recreational divers and diving charter boats. Buoys should be identified with "Diver's Only" decal. An Underwater Plaque placed adjacent to site with a simple message including the shipwreck's name, wrecking date, ship's silhouette, dedication date, state logo, and acknowledgment of park sponsors.

    3) Water resistant printed guides should be made available to the diving public.
    Guides would include a detailed site plan, an illustration of wrecking process, significant archaeological features, interesting biological components, safety information, and diver etiquette message "Take only photos, leave only bubbles".

    4) Brochures should be produced to contain detailed historical and archaeological information relevant to the S.S. Pomona and adjacent Fort Ross SHP. Included would be historic photos, artifacts, and sources for additional information.

    5) Build a land-based observation point. An interpretive kiosk on the bluffs overlooking Fort Ross Cove would provide a vantage point for non-divers. A possible location would be near the existing parking lot so as not to distract from aesthetics of the Fort Ross bluffs and conflict with the preserve's primary mission of interpretation of the early 19th century Russian settlement.

    6) Addition of a museum exhibit to Fort Ross SHP Visitor Center would facilitate non-diver access to the shipwreck.
    Utilizing previously recovered artifacts, archival photographs, and current archaeological data to produce an exhibit interpreting the S.S. Pomona.

    7) A dedication ceremony. Organize a social event for the first opening of the shipwreck park site, and/or National Register for Historic Places acceptance. Prepare for 100 year anniversary for March 17, 2008

    8) Encourage public involvement. Solicit local dive clubs, dive shops, historical societies, and the general public to become involved in the S.S. Pomona Shipwreck Park through an "Adopt a Shipwreck program."

    9) Publicize the site and activities. Invite local TV and newspapers to dedication ceremonies. Provide articles to dive industry journals and magazines. During dedication ceremonies, provide underwater communication and video during unveiling of the plaque etc.

    10) Encourage utilization of the site. Organize archaeology and marine biology workshops, photo contest. Encourage student research projects. Empower local dive clubs or dive shops to provide maintenance of buoys, and assist in monitoring the site.

    Conclusion

    The S.S. Pomona provides California State Parks a unique opportunity to incorporate an underwater shipwreck into a state historic park. The S.S. Pomona warrants recognition as California's best example of 19th century steam ferry transportation along the Pacific coast, and is deserving acceptance to the National Register of Historic Places. Based on our investigations, the site has all the attributes to become an Underwater Shipwreck Park that can be successfully managed by California State Parks.

    Bibliography

    Osbourne, Alan. Modern Marine Engineer's Manual. Cornell Maritime Press, New York, 1941.

    Sheard, Bradley. Lost Voyages: Two Centuries of Shipwrecks in the Approaches to New York. Aqua Quest Publications, Inc., New York, 1998.

    Union Iron Works. Single Screw Steel Cargo Steamship. Union Iron Works Vessel Specifications, San Francisco, California, 1916.

    Selected Articles

    Bulger Tells about Pomona's Boilers. Circa 1908, source unknown.

    Captain Swansen Assumes all Responsibility for Loss of Hist Vessel. Circa 1908, source unknown.

    Compressed Air Will be Used to Lift Sunken Vessel from Rocks. Circa 1908, source unknown.

    Diver Fights with Octopus. Circa 1908, source unknown. Hope to Raise Wreck of Steamer Pomona. Circa 1908, source unknown.

    Letter from John Kemble to John McKenzie. Memorandum from John McKenzie.

    Schooners, Steamers and Spilled Cargo: A preliminary Underwater Survey of Fort Ross Cove, California, John Foster. California Society for Underwater Archaeology.

    Ships of the Redwood Coast, Jack McNaim and Jerry MacMullen. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

    Skin Divers Explore Wreck. Marine Digest, August 14, 1971.

    Some Humors of the Disaster. Circa 1908, source Unknown.

    Survivors of the Wreck Pomona Arrive on the Steamer City of Topeka. Circa 1908,source unknown.

    Was Fleetest Coaster. Falls Bulletin, June 11, 1936. Wreck is Climax of Misfortunes. Circa 1908, source unknown.

    Wreck Survivor Risks Night Tramp. Circa 1908, source unknown.


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