Mina Bernhard had a terrifying story to tell the Alta California newspaper when she got back to San Francisco in August of 1865. She and her child had been aboard the paddle steamer Brother Jonathan when it struck a submerged rock some eight miles from Crescent City in a summer storm and sank within 45 minutes.
It was on Friday, July 28, when the Brother Jonathan left San Francisco with 244 passengers and crew aboard. It carried a considerable amount of gold, some destined as the treaty payments for Indian tribes in the Northwest. The first two days of the journey had been miserable. Many passengers stayed in their cabins laid low with sea sickness. Then on Sunday, disaster hit.
"I think it must have been about half-past twelve o'clock, as the table was not yet set for the one o'clock lunch. I was lying in my berth, feeling sick and sad, when I was suddenly startled by a fearful shock, followed by a labored rolling of the ship, a creaking of her timbers and the distant roar of rushing waters. It was but a moment's movement to spring from my berth and look out of the stateroom window, when I saw a piece of ship timber floating in the water and a man running to the upper deck with a life preserver on."
Bernhard grabbed her child with one hand and seized a life preserver with her other hand and ran up on deck. She saw a lifeboat being loaded. It was full.
"Save my child," she called out.
Someone reached out. She gave them
James Patterson, third officer of the ship, assured the sobbing women, "This is a lifeboat, and if any can live in this sea, she can, so don't be afraid." Bernhard said, "As we neared land -- these frightful breakers rolling against us, and frowning cliffs towering above us, looked (like) danger and dismay to our anxious hearts." The first people Bernhard saw on the beach were Indians.
"Gaily decked in feathers, and my first thought was, we have mistaken the place and landed among savages. ... But soon, the appearance of a broad-faced German reassured me, and I felt relieved. This good man was very kind."
Only the 19 people in Bernhard's lifeboat survived the Brother Jonathan disaster. Among those who died in the tragedy was Brig. Gen. George Wright, who had been the commanding general of the United States Volunteers Department of the Pacific.
It took until October 1993 to find the remains of the Brother Jonathan, and it wasn't until 1996 that some of the crates of gold coins were recovered. The big safe holding most of the treasure has never been found, and it's said to contain gold jewelry worth about $50 million today.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at email@example.com.