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Doghole port locations along the Sonoma Coast

Duncan’s Point

Rule’s Landing

Russian Gulch Landing

Fort Ross Cove

Timber Cove

Stillwater Cove

Gerstle Cove

Fisk Mill Cove

Stewarts Point

Bihler’s Point Landing

Del Mar Landing

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

Duncan’s Point

Rule’s Landing

Russian Gulch Landing

Fort Ross Cove

Timber Cove

Stillwater Cove

Gerstle Cove

Fisk Mill Cove

Stewarts Point

Bihler’s Point Landing

Del Mar Landing

“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 three 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.

“We’ve really only scratched the surface,” said Breck Parkman, a state parks archaeologist for the Bay Area and Sonoma-Mendocino coast districts.

Parkman and Delgado said the goal of the survey is to define the “maritime cultural landscape” of the Sonoma Coast, featuring shipwrecks but also the interaction between the ocean and people, including the Russians who arrived with Native Alaskans at the Fort Ross site in the early 1800s and the Kashia Pomo, who have lived in the area for centuries and maintain the Stewarts Point Rancheria about 17 miles north of the park.

“I know we’re standing in a Native Alaskan village, the only one I know of in California,” Parkman said, standing on the bluff above Fort Ross Cove. Experts are just now using ground-penetrating radar to locate the outline of structures no longer visible, he said.

As San Francisco flourished in the wake of the 1849 gold rush, lumbermen turned to the North Coast for redwoods. Fort Ross, built in 1812, was an ideal shipping center because the redwoods grew close to the sea, Birnbaum said.

Other doghole ports sprang up in places where ships could find anchorage. Some of them no longer exist.

Janet Gettman of Santa Rosa, who attended an informal meeting with survey leaders Tuesday, said she was astonished that the cove could swallow a large steel vessel like the Pomona. “One moment it’s up there, the next it’s underwater,” she said.

The Pomona, which has a place in county lore, came to Fort Ross Cove purely by accident. Steaming north from San Francisco with a load of freight and 88 passengers, the ship hit a rock and began taking on water.

Aiming to beach the stricken vessel, the captain made for Fort Ross Cove, but got stuck on a wash rock close to shore. All hands were rowed to safety and put up for the night at the Call Ranch, and most of the cargo, including a Reo automobile lashed to the deck, was salvaged.

The Pomona eventually slipped off the rock and was subsequently dynamited to remove any hazard to navigation. Artifacts from the wreck, including two portholes, bolts, a doorknob and a shard of china, are in display at the Forth Ross park visitors center.

The doghole port survey is scheduled to wrap up on Tuesday, but Delgado will return to the area later this month aboard ocean explorer Robert Ballard’s 210-foot high-tech research vessel Nautilus.

During a nine-day cruise, the Nautilus and its remotely operated vehicles will probe the North Coast’s deep offshore waters, hunting for shipwrecks, deep corals and whatever secrets the unexplored depths hold, Delgado said.

Landlubbers can see what the expedition’s video cameras reveal live at www.nautiluslive.org.

“Everywhere we go we find new forms of life,” Delgado said. “It’s in your back yard. There is still exploration going on out there.”

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