By Michael Redmon
During the early years of the 1900s, the most economical way to move cargo was by ship, and California’s waters were inundated by steamers moving goods and passengers up and down the coast. One such steamship was the Santa Rosa, an ironclad more than 300 feet long, displacing more than 2,400 tons. This veteran of the California coastal route had been launched in Pennsylvania in 1884; its years of faithful service would come to a tragic end on a gloomy night in July 1911.
In the evening of July 6, the Santa Rosa was heading south on its usual route from San Francisco to San Diego. It carried 78 tons of cargo and about 200 passengers. At the helm was J.O. Faria, in relief of the ship’s regular captain, who did not make the voyage.
Any trip down the California coast could be hazardous due to the possibility of high seas or fog, but it was the headland of the Point Arguello/Point Conception area that presented a special danger. It is here that the California coastline makes a sharp change in direction from north-south to west-east. Ships here must make the course correction to follow the coastline, avoid the shoals of San Miguel Island, and safely steer into the Santa Barbara Channel. Around the turn of the century, captains had only a series of three lights to guide them through this part of the trip, at Point Sur, Point Sal, and Point Arguello. The gloom of a foggy night could render these lights virtually invisible to searching eyes. Radio navigational aids were years in the future.
Captain Faria later stated that, before retiring to get some sleep, he left orders to be awakened once the Point Sal light was sighted, so he would be ready to make the course adjustment off Arguello and head the ship into the channel.
In the fog the crew missed the Point Sal beacon, the course adjustment was not made, and Captain Faria was awakened in the early morning hours of the 7th when the Santa Rosa ran aground near the outlet of Honda Creek, just north of Point Arguello. The ship was approximately two miles off course.
Faria used the newly installed innovation of the wireless to contact the ship’s owners, and it was decided they should sit tight until later in the day in the hopes that the high tide would float the ship free. At that point, the seas were calm and the ship appeared largely undamaged.
And so the hours passed. By late afternoon, high tide had arrived but with it came strong winds and growing waves. The high surf, instead of freeing the ship, began to wreak serious havoc. A particularly large wave eventually lifted up the ship, smashing it down on the rocks. The Santa Rosa began to break in two.
Frenzied efforts at evacuation now began, with rescue ships standing by. The high seas created very dangerous conditions, overturning life rafts, snapping lifelines, shredding life nets. Four crewmembers died in the cold, turgid waters. Dozens more people were injured.
The ship was virtually a total loss. Most of the cargo ended at the ocean’s bottom, including two automobiles that washed overboard. The remains of the ship still lie just off Honda Creek near the surf line. A few days after the tragedy, the Santa Barbara Morning Press reported there were plans to install a powerful new light at Point Arguello. But it was too late for the Santa Rosa.
The resting place of the Santa Rosa would once again become the site of a maritime tragedy 12 years later. In September 1923, one of the greatest peacetime disasters in the history of the U.S. Navy took place, when seven destroyers ran aground. The rocks of Honda had claimed yet more victims. Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.