Accounts of R.H. Pearson of S.S. Golden Gate Sinking
Originally published in the San Francisco Daily Alta California on Aug. 7, 1862, this is a copy of Capt. R.H. Pearson's letter to a friend. Pearson, a Pacific Mail Steamship captain, was on holiday and a passenger aboard the ship captained by W.W. Hudson. Like Capt. Hudson's letter, it was written immediately after the rescue, dated July 29:
On the 27th inst., at about 4:45 p.m., as we had just sat down to dinner, it was reported to Capt. Hudson that the steamer (Golden Gate) was on fire. We immediately left the table; he took the deck, while I ran to fight the fire, which originated between the forward smokestack and the cabin galley. I saw the forward part of the upper engine room in a blaze (that portion of the deck just under the galley.) The engineer was attaching the hose, while I ran to the paddle-box, calling on all I met to follow and pass down the buckets of water, that were always kept there. This was done, and I dashed water in around the smokestack till I was driven from it by the smoke and heat. I then ran to the upper deck, aft, to see that they were getting the hose along from the after pump; and, as this was being done, I turned to say a word of caution to some men who were getting one of the boats over; heard Capt. Hudson say that he had headed the steamer for the shore, which was distant some 3 1/2 miles. Jumping down below, I saw at a glance we were a doomed ship, as the flames flared up the engine from the hatch; met Mr. Waddell, who said his men below were cut off and would be burned, and we decided to knock down the bulkhead in the after freight-room, and, if possible save them; this was done, and Waddell himself, when prevented by the fire from coming up, jumped overboard from the after freight port and was saved.
Immediately I directed the panic-stricken women and children who were in the cabin to the stairways over the paddleboxes forward, myself carry two of Mr. Rickard's children, the flames burning as we rushed by them. About this time it was that Capt. Hudson was driven from the port paddlebox forward. At the risk of my life I passed back again over the paddlebox, cut the cover of the forward after boat and caught at three life-preservers; rushing forward again through the scorching heat I met Mr. Flint and Purser Wood, to each of whom I gave one of the life-preservers, and secured one to the fore-rigging to use myself if I became so exhausted as to need one. Mr. Wood gave his to a woman, who, notwithstanding, was lost.
My labors were now turned to the head pump and hose, and we fought the fire foot by foot, until the men were driven away; at about this time the steamer changed her course from the direction of the land to the northward, as if the wheelsman had been forced to leave his post; but she soon changed again, and headed straight for the beach.
I unrove the awning side ropes that were burned off, and made them fast to the forward rails, that the passengers might cling to them, and advised those who could not swim to secure such things as would float them, and keep calm until the steamer struck the beach. Many did so, but others, confused and bewildered, threw themselves into the water.
At 5 1/2 o'clock p.m., by my watch, the upper deck fell in, and the foremast went by the board, falling to starboard; soon after this she took the beach very easily, having but little way, though the engines kept working up to that time; then it was that I told the people to jump and try their best to reach the shore.
Huge breakers were rolling past the ship, sweeping everything before them to the beach, and those persons who retained strength when cast on the shore, helped to drag the exhausted or dead from the surf.
At last Capt. Hudson and myself were alone. Tearing off our clothing as we hung on under the bowsprit, with flakes of fire falling on us from above, we watched our chance to jump in after a roller; but the rope Hudson held burned off, and he fell into the water, washed ashore and I was alone, exhausted, physically and mentally, with both hands, left arm and right shoulder burned, and so, though I am a good swimmer as you will remember, I doubted if I should reach the shore if I abandoned my life-preserver. Seeing a small spar fast to the starboard bow by a rope, I jumped with my life-preserver, and was swept some distance from the steamer across the starboard bow; but I swam back to the spar I spoke of, got astride of it, but was capsized twice, enough to prove that my strength was not equal to the task before me. I managed to put the life-preserver on, but could not tie it; I let go when I was swept across to port side, threw myself on my back, and before another roller came succeeded in fastening it.
Then I was overtaken by a quick succession of immense breakers, beaten and bruised by them, and was finally pitched amongst the wreck of spars attached to the foremast. The danger was imminent of being crushed, but my strength was nearly gone, and I could make no effort to free myself; but the next roller threw me clear of them and on to the beach, when some good friends rushed down and dragged me into security. I quickly regained my strength, and was deeply pained to learn that more were not saved. Some were lying dead, and some whose names I called had not been seen. We mustered but 100 persons. Flint and Holladay and other familiar faces were not among them. We were sad indeed.
While the fire roared through our noble ship, and huge seas made breaches through the charred timber, hurling the flames high into the air, we gathered our dead by the light and laid them up on the sand, out of the reach of the sea, and sat down to watch the gloomy scene.
By 9 o'clock p.m., what was not burned of the steamer was broken up; the bow and stern came ashore, and in the morning there was nothing left but the bed-plate, wheels and attachments. The beach was strewn with various portions of the wreck. Some kegs of ale were picked up, and suffering as we all were from thirst and exhaustion, it revived many who were too weak to stand.
Among our number we recognized Capt. Whitney, P.C.S.N. Co., and a better man does not live; Mr. McMullen, exhausted and bowed to the earth by the loss of wife and children; and Mr. Waddell, chief engineer. We had seen several of the ship's boats, after changing about a little, keep away for Manzanillo, which was distant but some 14 miles, and we hoped that they would come to our relief early in the morning.
As soon as day broke we buried the dead, four of them were women, two of these elderly women, and, I think, from the 2nd cabin, an insane person, and Mrs. McMullen.
We buried them in the sand, digging the graves with pieces of board. Mrs. McMullen was a lady much esteemed; and as we straightened her stiffened limbs and covered her face, my heart ached that so untimely a fate should check a life so useful, and so lonely a grave should mark the resting place of one that in life was surrounded by so many loving friends. We placed a cross at the head of the graves to designate the spot as sacred.
When this sad duty was over, we started towards Manzanillo, marching over burning sands, through jungles and thorns, around a mountain, until we got abreast the "White Rock," 11 miles from the town; here we found in the wood a little water, brackish and dirty; still it was our salvation, and we drank it eagerly. After resting, we surveyed with a new sense of our position the high mountains towering above us, covered with an impenetrable chaparral on the one hand, and impassable cliffs on the other bordering the sea.
On leaving the vicinity of the wreck, our party number nearly 100, 5 children and one woman -- a Mrs. Wallace. God bless the woman, a braver and better I never saw, and never can I forget how she cheered the weary through our toilsome and painful wanderings -- how, when others rested, she bathed the crying children in the only fresh water we found, to enable them to hold out, and so on through the next night, with our little band of about 25, some badly burned, and all sore and lame -- our feet bound in old canvas, (pieces of the fore-top sail, that came on shore with the yard) and most of what we had on taken from the dead.
Here we passed the night, without water or food, while those who were in advance strayed into the mountains. But we were comforted by the appearance of the Custom-House boat of Manzanillo; she took two men who were able to get to a point of rock, from which they jumped, and were then picked up by the men in the boat, who promised to come to our aid in the morning. Through the long night we suffered, and at daybreak sent two men in search of water, of which they procured enough for a scanty drink for all; and then, a little refreshed, we took up our line of march over the mountains to get to where we could jump from the rocks into the water, when the boats should come to our rescue.
We climbed through chaparral, cactus, and thorns; over ledges, and down frightful steeps such as you never saw. Mrs. W. did all this with the strongest without a murmur; she faltered once, poor soul, when we reach the rock from which we jumped; and as I tied the rope around her which was thrown me. She dreaded the fearful waters, and feared we would not reach the boat; but at the right time I told her to jump, gave her a push, and she was safely drawn to the boat.
About this time, Mr. Nolen, in one of the Golden Gate boats, came in sight and shouted that the St. Louis was at hand. Captain Hudson, a man badly burned, Mr. W. and I, got into the Custom House boat, where we found the good old French doctor (Dormet) of Manzanillo, who had come to our relief with wine, water and bread; the other boats, under Messrs. Nolen and Sutton, took of the remainder of our fellow sufferers.
Capt. Lapidge received us with open arms, he, his officers, and some of his passengers cared for our wounded and burnt, and clothed us.
While I write (for I fear that I may break down tomorrow,) the steamer is cruising about, firing guns, and picking up the stragglers that come out of the mountains.
At 3 p.m. (note: now Tuesday, July 29) we came to anchor at Manzanillo, leaving the boats out to rescue all they could find. Before we came in, we saw several dead bodies drifting to the southeast.
We had hoped that the steamer's boats had saved a number of passengers, and, as it was but a short distance to Manzanillo, would have returned to hunt us up on Monday morning; but those in charge of the boats did not keep close enough to shore, and the current swept all but one some 20 miles to the southeast of the port, so that they did not get to Manzanillo till Monday afternoon. Then I learn from Mr. Conner, late U.S. Consul at Mazatlan, that much time was lost in trying to induce the Captain of the brig Minerva, of Mazatlan, (on which he and his family came passengers,) to come to our assistance.
The inhuman wretch refused to move, though Mr. Conner and others worked all night to hasten our deliverance. Bonds were offered him of ten times the value of his vessel, but no persuasion or entreaty touched his heart of stone; he was as unmerciful as the fire and waves from which we were trying to escape. The contrast between this scoundrel and the inhabitants of Manzanillo was most striking; they threw open their houses, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and buried, with the kindest care, three little children, who died from burns and exhaustion. The Captain of the Minvera's name, I have not learned.
A list of the saved will be sent up, and by that you will know who were lost. I am tolerably well, save a few burns; but there are several others so much worse than I am, that I do not say a word. I have lost all I had with me; but I regret most my box of presents, which I had received through the past 15 years. My only comfort is that I tried to do my duty in saving the ship and passengers; I never turned from what I conceived to be my duty, to save even a paper of my own. My chief regret is that so many were lost; it has been a fearful calamity, to be remembered with pain by all of us as long as we shall live.
I wish to mention Mr. William W. Walker, who carried a small boy, most of the time, through our wearisome tramp; his endurance was remarkable, and his humanity an honor to human nature.
ORIGIN OF THE FIRE
I have written this while the incidents are fresh on my mind, and I have no time or disposition to overlook or correct this; you can understand a plain sailor statement.
July 30. -- The brig Minerva was bound to Acapulco and though we felt like hanging the Captain to the yardarm for his dastardly conduct in not going to the scene of the disaster, about 30 of us concluded to proceed to Acapulco in her. The brig was short of provisions, but Capt. Hudson made all arrangements for the passengers, so that we might intercept the Uncle Sam at Acapulco, and go on to our destination; but after we were all on board, and the St. Louis had been detained two hours or more, the scoundrelly Captain refused to give us a guarantee when he would sail. We were fearful he would take his own time about leaving after the St. Louis left, get out to sea, drift about in calms, and fail to reach Acapulco in time to take the Sam, and we concluded to return to the St. Louis and take the chance of meeting her as we went up. None of us were well, and several are now on the Doctor's list.
Please inform Mr. Bayerque that his friend Dr. Bodinier, was drowned; his body was recognized floating past a boat.
P.S. Mr. Flint and Dr. Jones are both lost. Holladay was picked up by a boat, and is alive to tell his own story. I ought to have mentioned one or two little incidents that may be of interest, show the miraculous escape of four children who came ashore in our party -- one a baby of three months, a child of Mrs. Giffen (sic: actually Given). Its brother was saved by the boats; its father and mother are supposed to be lost. I understand they were from Baltimore. Strange to say, three little children by the name of Manchester were saved; one of them, a girl, with us -- the other two, a boy and a girl, by the boats.