Divers search Sonoma Coast for shipwrecks from historic harbors
Steel bones of the steamship Pomona lie scattered on the rocky bottom of Fort Ross Cove, one of nearly 100 shipwrecks along the rugged Sonoma County coast, where the drowned relics once served in the region’s dominant trade route dating to the mid-1800s.
The 225-foot steel-hulled vessel, which struck a rock en route from San Francisco to Eureka and sank in the cove in 1908, is one of three wrecks near Fort Ross, a historic state park that was once a thriving center of the lumber trade. At the time, the coast from Bodega Head to Sea Ranch was dotted with 11 small ports, where stout vessels took on loads of milled redwood from local forests.
Many of the lumber ships and others, including the Pomona, fell victim to rough seas, foul weather and the unyielding coast.
Now, a 30-member team of experts, including divers and archaeologists, is surveying those sites by land and water, intent on charting a detailed record of the small ports established in the mid-1800s to transport lumber milled from towering redwoods to San Francisco and destinations as far away as the East Coast, Asia and Australia.
Mariners of the era joked that the so-called “doghole ports,” some now set aside as parks and others known as diving sites, were barely large enough for a dog to turn around.
The remnants today are difficult to spot or even imagine.
At Fort Ross, which today appears as a bucolic seascape setting, a towering wooden chute was built in 1869 to slide lumber from the top of the bluff on the north side of the cove onto wooden schooners that maneuvered close to the rocky shore. At a time when travel by wagons on dirt trails was arduous, Fort Ross Cove was a major commercial center, with deeper water and more shelter from wind than any other inlet from San Francisco to Eureka.
Spotted harbor seals sprawled Tuesday on near-shore rocks bearing iron rings that once anchored the lumber loading chute.
Remains of the steel-hulled Pomona, built at a San Francisco shipyard in 1888, lay about 400 yards offshore in 20 to 40 feet of water, encrusted by marine life and visited by divers since the 1960s.
Maritime archaeologist Matthew Lawrence, who dived on the wreck Monday, said it was invisible from the surface of the murky ocean, clouded by sediment and organic material.
But as he descended in water with 10 feet of visibility, Pomona’s remnants came into clear view, starting with the ship’s 60-foot bronze drive shaft.
“It’s exciting to see it for real,” said Lawrence, speaking by radio from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel Fulmar, a 67-foot aluminum-hulled catamaran that anchored at the survey sites this week.
James Delgado, NOAA director of maritime heritage, helped draw the first map of the Pomona wreck in 1984. “You’re swimming along looking for something, (and) suddenly there’s a boiler in front of you,” said Delgado, a globe-trotting shipwreck hunter and member of the team surveying the doghole ports through Tuesday.
Delgado, a San Jose native, stood on a bluff overlooking the cove, wearing a neoprene wetsuit, and recalled diving for abalone decades ago at Fort Ross, a once-bountiful spot for sport harvesting the coveted mollusk but closed to ab divers since 2014.
“It’s like homecoming,” said Delgado, whose career includes exploring shipwrecks such as the Titanic, the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor and Mongol emperor Kublai Khan’s warships lost off the Japanese coast in the 13th century.
Of the 97 known shipwrecks along the Sonoma Coast, only a handful have been explored, he said. “Lots of mysteries still out there.”
Divers searched in vain this week for the J. Eppinger, a two-masted wooden lumber schooner that broke free from its mooring and crashed into a wharf in Fort Ross Cove during a storm on Jan. 2, 1901.
“We couldn’t even find a nail,” Delgado said, surmising that a century of pounding surf had obliterated the vessel.
On Tuesday, the Fulmar motored out of the cove in search of the Windermere, lost in 1888 off Windermere Point - named for the wreck - at the north end of the 3,400-acre Fort Ross park, 11 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1.
Visibility in the rough ocean dropped to as little as 3 feet, precluding a dive but Delgado said Wednesday the team would try again.
At Gerstle Cove in Salt Point State Park, another doghole port, the team found 12 iron rings embedded in rocks, and today the team is scheduled to visit Timber Cove and Stillwater Cove, also former doghole ports and now popular dive spots.
While divers look for the known wrecks, archaeologists comb the rocky bluffs and shorelines, searching for artifacts that will illuminate the history of doghole ports, which flourished from the 1870s to the early 1900s, when lumber transport began shifting to railroads and highways. Shipping from Fort Ross Cove ended in 1921.