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 back 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.
Doghole port locations along the Sonoma Coast
Russian Gulch Landing
Fort Ross Cove
Fisk Mill Cove
Bihler’s Point Landing
Del Mar Landing