The S.S. Brother Jonathan

The ill-fated Brother Jonathan was lost in stormy seas just off St. George Reef on July 30, 1865. The steam-driven side-paddle wheeler went down four miles off Point St. George, just north of Crescent City. With the loss of over 200 lives, the wreck of the Brother Jonathan remains the worst shipping disaster on the Pacific Coast. Only nineteen people survived. Allegedly carrying a substantial amount of gold, it became a treasure hunters target.

Finally found in the early 1990’s, the wreck was salvaged. One $5 Liberty-head gold piece was given to the Museum. Other salvaged artifacts are housed in the Bolen Annex near the Fresnel lens.

She was overloaded, carrying over 200 ordinary and extraordinary citizens, diverse military supplies and animals, heavy mining and railroad equipment, and an army payroll in newly-minted gold coin. Travelling routinely from San Francisco to Portland on a fateful day in mid summer, the paddle steamer S.S. Brother Jonathan was making no headway in gale-force winds while rounding the dangerous headland of Point St George on July 30, 1865; her Captain decided to come about, to return to Crescent City and wait for calmer weather. However, fate intervened: the overloaded ship impaled on one of the many jagged rocks in the Dragon Channel of St. George Reef, and sank in less than 30 minutes

Only 19 people – 8 passengers and 11 crew in one lifeboat – survived to tell the horrible tale. As bodies washed ashore over the next weeks, local authorities identified them as best they could, notified whatever families available to claim the remains, and buried the rest in a local cemetery. Time has obscured the specifics of even that final resting place. Today the Brother Jonathan ‘cemetery’ on the ocean bluffs at the end of 9th St. bears the name as a memorial only. Of the 28 headstones, only the one of the young family passengers Daniel & Polina Rowell and their four children, travelling from Iowa to a fresh start in Oregon, bears witness to the tragedy of Brother Jonathan

Over 100 years later after the tragedy an independent company finally found the wrecked ship, and after a contentious legal battle salvaged many personal items as well as much of the gold bullion and coin. The Main Museum received a single $5 Liberty-head gold piece, other miscellaneous items, and a historic legacy to preserve. Visitors to the Museum can view the donated artifacts in the Bolen Annex, ironically near the first-order Fresnel lens from the St. George Reef Lighthouse, lit in 1891 to warn mariners away from the Dragon Rocks of St. George Reef.

To this day, the wreck of the Brother Jonathan is still the worst maritime disaster on the U.S. mainland’s Pacific coast.