Marine Digest: Wreck of SS Pomona

Skin Divers Explore Wreck of SS Pomona
Reprinted from Marine Digest,  August 14, 1971


Robert Allan Lanham of Pleasant Hill, Calif. is a hobby skin diver and underwater photographer. He like many others has joined in the growing sport of exploring and extracting items of salvage from shipwrecks in reachable depths along the West Coast.

One of the wrecks he has probed in recent months is that of the old steamer, Pomona, wrecked in 1908 while steaming up the northern California coast. The hulk lies in the Fort Ross area in about 40 feet of water between North and South Point.

Lanham and his buddies covered most of the wreck on three dives but found only two areas that were of interest as a photo background. Like so many other wrecks, salvagers had been there before and the wreck was pretty well picked over.

Immediately after the Pomona wreck, internally known salvage master Captain Whitelaw used his salvage vessel to yank off anything above water before the half sunken wreck was dynamited as a menace to navigation in 1908.

Undisturbed Till 1959
The wreck lay relatively undisturbed until 1959 when some skin divers went over her ruins and came up with some treasures like portholes, brass keys, and tea cups which were presented to the Fort Ross State Museum. Later yet, skin divers Mark Schrame and Dave Olson, the latter who has a dive shop at Walnut Creek, salvaged more portholes and the ship's two anchors.

When Lanham found the wreck she was pretty much shambles, broken beams, corroded steel plates. The water was murky but the remains of the 225-foot ship still survive as a solitary victim of Davy Jones.

Recreating the Pomona episode, she was built at Union Iron Works in San Francisco in 1888, for Pacific Coast SS Co. and was assigned the weekly run from San Francisco to Eureka. The vessel carried 62 crewmen and a passenger list of 84. Power was a 1,500-hp triple expansion engine. Her tonnage was 1,264.

Developed Leak
On March 17, 1908 while steaming up the coast, the Pomona was two miles offshore when she struck a pinnacle rock and developed a serious leak. The skipper and crew were not overly alarmed but some of the passengers were running about the ship in near panic.

Fort Ross was two miles distant and the captain elected to make port and beach his leaking command. She made the bay but while coming in, she struck an uncharted rock in the northern cove and was firmly pinned. Water poured into her holds.

It was a nasty day, but North Point created a sheltered area and the skipper ordered a total abandonment. A guide boat went in to survey the beach area and a lantern was set up to guide the other boats to a safe landing. With the Pomona's six boats it took three trips to get all hands ashore. Later the captain, three navigation officers and nine members of the crew returned to the ship to remove navigation instruments and to prevent others from looting.

The wreck contained only 300 tons of general cargo, some mail, and an automobile (lashed on deck). Much of the loose gear and cargo was off-loaded, but the vessel was written off as a $120,000 loss. Most of the passengers had a very uncomfortable night on the hostile shore but later were taken to San Francisco, many with just the clothes on their backs.

The many claims of negligence and faulty lifesaving equipment ran their course, but none were proved.

Lanham's next target is to find the wreck of the SS Alaska, which went down with heavy loss of life near Blunts Reef.