Historic photo of the SS Pomona wreck and the salvage vessel the Greenwood taken in 1908
Historic photo of the SS Pomona wreck and the salvage vessel the Greenwood taken in 1908.

The SS Pomona, otherwise known as the "Pride of the Coastal Fleet," was a 225-foot long, 33-foot wide steel hull steamer built for speed and luxury as it traveled between San Francisco and Vancouver, Canada, carrying passengers and cargo for nearly 20 years.

On March 17, 1908 in route from San Francisco to Eureka, the SS Pomona ran up on a submerged rock pinnacle along the Sonoma coast. The Captain reversed power to free the ship and headed to Fort Ross Cove with the hopes of running her onto the beach to save the passengers, crew and cargo.

Unfortunately, while still half a mile from shore she struck rocks again and held fast taking on water more rapidly this time. Captain Charles Swanson ordered, “Abandon ship!”

Aided by the Call family who lived at Fort Ross, all aboard made it safely ashore, although the ship was a total loss. As the story goes, Captain Charles Swanson, in gratitude for the Call family’s assistance, had one of the ship’s two carved wooden nameplates removed as a gift to the family.

Historic photo of Pomona sign situated over the front door of the Call House
Historic photo of Pomona sign situated over the front door of the Call House.

For 63 years, the Pomona sign hung on the front of the Call House. But on New Year’s Eve in 1972 it went missing, not long after Carlos Call, the last Call family member to live in the house, had died.

The Independent Coast Observer article dated November 23, 1973 noted authorities had been investigating a previous theft at the Call House and they described how

“…the looters returned over a month later, again armed with the necessary tools, and this time including a ladder, and removed the “POMONA” sign from over the entrance to the house, where it had been proudly located for almost seventy years”….How does anyone get away with stealing a sign…anyone who sees the sign will know from whence it came! The sign was removed on the night of December 31, 1972.”

Last year, a Call family relation, Col. (ret) Bill Heyman, spotted what appeared to be the Pomona sign, seen in countless old family photographs, on a real estate internet webpage listing for a property for sale in Marin County. He notified his brother-in-law Steve Pearce, Carlos Call’s nephew.

Pearce contacted Sarah Sweedler, Executive Director of the Fort Ross Conservancy, to let her know about this possible lead. Sweedler reached out to Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District Superintendent Terry Bertels.

Ranger Mason Harris with recovered Pomona sign
Ranger Mason Harris with recovered Pomona sign.

California State Parks Peace Officer, Ranger Mason Harris, was assigned to investigate. He was able to secure the property to conduct further analysis and determine whether it was the missing historic Pomona sign.

The Department of Justice Lab in Eureka, California agreed to conduct a paint analysis to compare paint samples from the sign with that of the Call House resulting in a “close match.” A comparison of the sign’s measurements and distinguishing features were compared to evidence from the house where the sign was once affixed.

California State Parks Senior State Archeologist (ret) John Foster, who headed up State Parks maritime research efforts for several decades, and Dr. James Delgado, (ret) Director of the Maritime Heritage Program at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were contacted, along with staff at the San Francisco National Historic Park to determine whether the sign’s features were consistent with historical information. Based on these findings, it was determined that the sign is authentic.

In celebration of its recovery and return, the Pomona sign and the restored ship’s steam whistle, pulled from the Pomona wreck by sport divers in the 1960s and later restored at Indiana University’s Underwater Science Program, directed by Dr. Charles Beeker, will be on display as part this year’s Fort Ross Festival, precisely 130th anniversary after the ship launched.