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Researcher zeros in on historic wreck

In its day, the five-masted George E. Billings was a graceful schooner that crossed the Pacific with enough lumber to build 100 homes. In the end, it was a barge for weekend anglers, a white elephant so costly that its owner towed it to sea, torched it and let it sink.

A four-paragraph story in the Feb. 12, 1941, Los Angeles Times made a vague reference to its resting place: “a lonely island reef north of here.” A photo showed a flaming hulk with smoke billowing over rugged hills.

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Just where the Billings lay was anyone’s guess. Shipwreck buffs knew, though, that whoever found it would peel back the layers on more than a century of rough-and-tumble Western maritime history.

Robert Schwemmer, an archaeologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who presented a paper on the Billings at a scientific meeting last month, had been seeking the ship for the better part of two decades. A diver, Schwemmer has explored dozens of wrecks off the Channel Islands, including the Gold Rush steamer Winfield Scott, which for eight days in 1853 stranded about 400 passengers on Anacapa Island.

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The Billings, though, held a special allure. It was a remnant from the dying days of the age of sail. And it was probably hidden in plain sight off the jagged shores Schwemmer had gotten to know so well.

“We always thought it was just over the next reef, just around the next rock,” he said.

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On his periodic research expeditions through the 1,470-square-mile Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Schwemmer kept a copy of the 1941 Times photo, comparing the smoke-obscured hills behind the burning ship with the hills before him. Later, he would also use a second photo with a more detailed view of the terrain.

For many years, the Billings was hard to miss. The last and largest of 108 wooden ships produced by the Hall Bros. shipyard of Port Blakely, Wash., the Billings was 224 feet long, roughly the distance between the wingtips of a Boeing 747. Named for a company executive, it delivered Pacific Northwest lumber to Australia and sometimes hauled back a mountain of Hawaiian sugar.

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As many as 13 crew members shipped aboard the Billings, sailing it the same way tough crews had sailed similar craft for centuries.

In Solvang, a 73-year-old podiatrist named Jens Birkholm treasures stories of the Billings that he heard as a boy in Denmark. His paternal grandfather, Fredrik Birkholm, was an early captain and his maternal grandfather, Wilhelm Jarlshöi was first mate.

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Fredrik’s wife, in the custom of the day, accompanied her husband and raised their children amid the towering waves, they told Jens. The Billings’ Japanese cook had been a schoolteacher before he was kidnapped and forced to work on ships. The cook was so grateful to serve on the Billings, Birkholm said, that he sent the captain a set of porcelain teacups still cherished by the family.

Before long, the Billings was edged out of business by ships with mighty engines. In 1926, its masts were removed and new owners towed it to Southern California. It became a fishing barge off Del Mar and Santa Monica, hosting day trippers and overnight guests who hopped ferries from the mainland for a two-mile jaunt offshore.

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In 1929, Bob Oefinger, the Billings’ chief steward and owner, raved about the accommodations.

“Whole families have been coming aboard and making overnight stays, the ship having roomy cabins available,” he told The Times. “There are sun decks with reclining chairs, rest salons, a big dining salon and plenty of space for fishing.”

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To the dismay of local authorities, some barges like the Billings became gambling ships. Tony “Tony the Hat” Cornero, a former bootlegger, ran the S.S. Rex, a luxurious casino off Santa Monica whose slot machines and card tables were thrown overboard by police after a nine-day standoff in 1939. The dapper Cornero said he finally left the old schooner because he needed a haircut and “the only thing I haven’t got aboard ship is a barber.”

Barge owners had it worse the next year.

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In a thick fog outside Los Angeles Harbor, eight people died when a Japanese freighter sliced into the fishing barge Olympic II. Lacking bulkheads that would help keep it afloat, the Olympic II sank within minutes.

Whether the barges were used for blackjack or barracuda, that brought an end to them. Regulators were cracking down and owners could not afford to comply. On Feb. 11, 1941, Oefinger, the owner of the Billings, told The Times that he had destroyed his aging vessel the previous night rather than face fines of $500 a day for not making repairs.

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Just why he publicized the scuttling — even as he hid its location — is a question that has vexed many an old salt.

“Maybe he wanted to send a message,” Schwemmer said.

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Santa Barbara Island, a treeless square-mile of rock 38 miles from the mainland, was always seen as a possible site for the Billings wreck. A few years ago, Steve Lawson, a technical writer, urged his diving buddy Gary Fabian to compare the 1941 Times photo with the terrain on Santa Barbara, the smallest island in Channel Islands National Park.

Fabian, a computer consultant, had located a wreck off Santa Catalina Island by comparing historic photos with a panorama of the modern landscape that he created digitally. From his home outside Austin, Texas, Fabian did the same painstaking work for Santa Barbara Island, pinpointing a spot that seemed to match the hills silhouetted in the photo.

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In February 2011, Schwemmer hitched a ride to the island on a sanctuary research vessel. He found the coordinates detailed by Fabian and pored over the old images. On another old photo of the burning ship that diver Pat Smith had picked up on EBay, he saw a steep ravine shooting down a hill and veering sharply to the left. Before him in living color was a ravine shooting down a hill and veering to the left.

On Schwemmer’s first two dives, he found lobsters. On the third try, he found a barnacle-encrusted chunk of iron that could only be a closed chock — a heavy fitting for the line connecting a ship to a dock.

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“My God, the girth of it!” he said. “It could only come from a larger ship!”

Schwemmer and his fellow divers spotted big, round pieces of concrete that may have been ballast. Then they found massive mooring bitts that secured dock lines and rusted iron strips that may have held the Billings together.

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On a subsequent dive, Schwemmer found even more.

There was no wood. It had either rotted or drifted away. There was nothing of monetary value. Even if there were, the wreck, like the 30 other confirmed and 120 suspected wrecks in the sanctuary, is protected by federal law.

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For Schwemmer, there was only history and lingering questions: Why Santa Barbara Island? Are there other artifacts? Is there an unpublished account in an attic trunk somewhere?

“Once you find these things,” he said, “you want to know everything.”

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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