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Deep in History : Researchers Plumb Ocean, Documents for Channel Shipwrecks

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Scuba diving off the coast of Santa Rosa Island one day, Don Morris came across an archeological puzzle: the scattered remains of a ship.

As the Channel Islands National Park archeologist, Morris had spent years researching shipwrecks around the islands off the Ventura County coast. But he had no record of a ship sinking at that spot.

Then a volunteer came across a paragraph in an obscure 1931 Coast Guard document: “received word by radio that the W. T. & B No. 60, a motor barge, was on fire and abandoned. . . . Derelict was sighted and towed to East Point, Santa Rosa Island, where derelict was demolished.”

Logbooks from the Coast Guard cutter confirmed that the metal and wood Morris spotted was the remains of the Washington Tug & Barge Co. ship destroyed 63 years ago.

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Morris added another shipwreck to his list.

That list--compiled from yellowed newspapers, ships logs, Coast Guard records and sightings of remains--now includes 79 wrecks within a mile of the five-island park. Another 25 ships sank within the park’s sanctuary, which extends for six miles around the islands.

Morris, working with volunteers, has documented each of those wrecks in a 250-page report set for publication this December. Researchers, students, scuba divers and park rangers trying to protect wreck sites could use the report one day.

But Morris has not finished his research.

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“I’ve still got 50 wrecks to find,” said Morris, running his hand through his long graying hair. “I compare the archeologist to a trial attorney. If you just went with victims’ testimony, that gives you part of the story. But to get a fuller picture, you really need to go out and find the physical evidence.”

This is no treasure hunt. Any gold that sank with the ships has long since disappeared.

Rather, it is more like a scavenger hunt, searching for odd pieces of history that reveal how ships were built, why they wrecked, even the way people lived.

There is the anchor from the three-masted schooner Comet buried in the sand on San Miguel Island. And the pale-blue piece of plank, a clue to what the schooner Golden Horn looked like before it wrecked on Santa Rosa. And the brass fixtures of the Winfield Scott, the elegant side-wheel paddle boat that sank near Anacapa Island.

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“In terms of loss to history, the worst thing is when these vessels are scrapped,” Morris said. “They really do vanish. Wrecks in the water are really quite durable. An awful lot is preserved under water.”

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Morris still remembers the memo he found in his files when he took the Channel Islands job in 1985. Written in the 1960s, it asserted that there were no shipwrecks in the area. By 1985, the U.S. Park Service had found only two.

Today, a map on Morris’ wall is covered with steel thumbtacks, each one indicating a wreck site he has surveyed. He scans the map, then adds another tack for a wreck he has just found on the south end of Santa Rosa.

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The islands, sprinkled across the Santa Barbara Channel and often shrouded in fog, create a natural navigational hazard.

The oldest wreck found in the park’s waters is the Winfield Scott, a steamer laden with gold that sank in 1853. The most recent occurred this spring, when a boat pulled away from its moorings and rammed into the San Miguel coastline.

Most of the shipwreck searches begin in the library, scanning old newspapers and merchant vessel books for accounts of accidents.

This spring, researchers turned to the National Archives for further detail.

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Bob Schwemmer, a volunteer from Santa Clarita, traveled to San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to tap archives there.

He returned with century-old handwritten wreck reports.

One of his document searches solved a Channel Islands mystery, the legend of the Legend.

Rumor had it that the sleek racing yacht, famous for winning the Transpac race from California to Hawaii, had sunk off the islands. There were even pictures of the wreck.

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But no one had seen the remains or found any records of the accident. Schwemmer checked one registry for a pleasure craft called the Legend. When he found it, he checked another book for the owner’s name.

He called directory information, got the owner’s telephone number, and asked him about the Legend. The owner was able to confirm that the yacht had, indeed, gone down off San Miguel Island.

“The mystery of the research--it’s exciting,” Schwemmer said. “It’s that challenge to uncover somebody’s history.”

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That history will be set down in the 250-page report Morris and his volunteers have compiled. The report will appear in a series of National Park Service books with the uninspiring title, “Submerged Cultural Resources Assessment.”

Eventually, the Park Service hopes to create a more popular version of the book, which students, park visitors and scuba divers can use.

Morris admits his work this summer has been overshadowed by another archeological find: A rare fossilized skeleton of a pygmy mammoth on Santa Rosa Island. He was on the island, looking for shipwrecks, when two colleagues stumbled across the mammoth.

This week, he will join an excavation team unearthing the fossil, believed to be the first full skeleton of the ancestral elephant ever found.

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Like the mammoth bones, the shipwrecks reveal far more than the battered remnants left behind, he said.

“Take the Gold Rush era. Most people came to California by sea, not land,” Morris said. “By far the most accessible of these vessels, the easiest one to see, is the Winfield Scott. That’s the only place to see the best example of what’s left of the Gold Rush era steamer.”

But the research could also draw new scavengers hunting for treasure in the ruined ships. For years, scuba divers have pocketed gold coins, picked up antique nails, even sawed off brass fixtures.

“I suppose we’re like the people who run Mt. Vernon,” Morris said. “We want people to come. We want people to enjoy the history. But we don’t want people to walk away with the good silverware--or the bad silverware.”

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In a 1987 sting operation, the Park Service put two rangers on a diving trip and ended up charging the ship’s captain and about 20 divers with violations.

By locating more wreck sites, Morris said, the park rangers can protect them better.


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