Battery Point, Crescent City

Battery Point, Crescent City

by | Aug 29, 2021

Battery Point forms the western shore of a crescent-shaped bight, and the harbor for Crescent City, about 22 miles (35 km) south-southeast of Brookings and 66 miles (106 km) north of Eureka, California. The point is named for a battery of cannons that were salvaged from the side-wheel steamer SS America and mounted on the point. Two separate tribes of Native Americans lived here prior to the arrival of the Euro-American settlers. To the south on the Klamath River lived the Yurok tribe and to the north in the Smith River plains lived the Tolowa tribe. The Yurok called this place Kohpey and they lived along the rivers and on the beaches in permanent structures made of redwood planks. In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains and soon afterward deposits of the precious metal were also discovered in the Klamath Mountains of northwest California. The lure of wealth brought prospectors to the mouth of the Klamath River and Smith River on coastal schooners, but the treacherous sand bars and river conditions soon proved too hazardous for landing. The protected harbor at Crescent City soon flourished as a destination for ships from San Francisco. Economically more important than the mining was the developing transportation hub which centered around the mule trains that took supplies from Crescent City to the mining camps along the Klamath River in the 1800s. The first road to penetrate the coast range was the Crescent City Plank Road that traversed much of the Smith River Canyon and led to the Illinois River in Oregon. In 1853, the first sawmill was established in Crescent City. In the 1870s, a railroad was built to bring the logs to market. Steam donkeys yarded the logs to the waiting railroad cars that transported them to sawmills or to shipping docks. In 1871, Hobbs Wall & Company was formed that would dominate the local lumber industry until 1939. The most economical means to transport the lumber to San Francisco markets was by coastal schooners that would also bring all the supplies necessary to sustain the community and lumber camps.

Before road travel was possible, rugged mountains and unbridged rivers meant coastal travel by ships was essential for the economic survival of the region. However, there are few safe harbors on this coast and the many reefs made navigation hazardous. The combination of numerous ships involved in coastal commerce and the reef-studded coastline resulted in numerous ships sinking off the coast. In 1850, Paragon was the first recorded ship to sink here, followed in 1851 by Tarquin, and in 1855, the SS America burned in the harbor and was intentionally grounded. America was a wooden side-wheeled steamer built by William H. Brown in New York and launched in April 1853, and then sailed from New York to San Francisco where she entered the coastwise service northward to Humboldt Bay, Crescent City, Port Orford, and the Umpqua River. In June 1855, America briefly anchored in Crescent Harbor in calm conditions to offload mail and supplies. She was bound for Puget Sound carrying 132 U.S. Army infantry under the command of Major Prince. After the mail had come ashore, smoke began billowing from the vessel. Lightering boats and canoes quickly surrounded the burning vessel while those on board tried to fight the fire. The soldiers were soon sent ashore and the captain ordered the anchor raised. He got the vessel underway and she was intentionally run aground in shallow water about 450 feet (137 m) from shore. Buckets, ladders, ropes were sent aboard but to no avail. The vessel was soon a mass of flames from stem to stern and claimed as a total loss. Part of the military cargo included several cannons and three were salvaged and mounted on what would be later be called Battery Point. Another notable shipwreck was the steamer Brother Jonathan that struck an uncharted rock near Point Saint George, about 4 miles (6 km) northwest of Crescent City. Brother Jonathan was already infamous for setting off the 1862 Pacific Northwest smallpox epidemic which killed thousands of people in the region. On July 30, 1865, the ship was carrying 244 passengers and crew, and a large shipment of gold for the annual treaty payments to various Native American tribes, when she anchored in Crescent City harbor on the first leg of a trip to Portland and Victoria. After leaving the safety of the bay that afternoon, the ship encountered more stormy conditions that were so bad that the captain ordered the ship to turn back for the harbor at Crescent City. But 55 minutes later the ship struck a rock, tearing a large hole in the hull. Within five minutes, the captain realized the ship was foundering and ordered the passengers and crew to abandon ship. Although there were enough lifeboats to hold all of the people on board, only three boats could be deployed and only 19 people survived, making it the deadliest shipwreck up to that time on the Pacific Coast of the United States.

In 1855, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of a lighthouse on the small islet connected to Battery Point by an isthmus that is visible and can be traversed on foot at low tide. The U.S. Lighthouse Service contracted the construction of the first eight lighthouses on the west coast and the Battery Point Lighthouse with a fourth-order Fresnel lens was first lit in 1856. In May 1907, a new fourth-order lens was installed in the lantern room, changing the station’s light characteristic from a white flash every 90 seconds to a white flash every 15 seconds. The lighthouse was automated in 1953 with a more modern lens of 14.8 inches (375 mm). The lighthouse was often battered by storms and waves because of its exposed location atop a rock islet. Large waves have broken glass panes in the lantern room and deposited water in the tower. The 1964 Alaska earthquake caused a tsunami that raced across the northern Pacific at a speed of nearly 600 mph (966 kph). The waves reached Crescent City around midnight with crests of up to 20 feet (6 m). Remarkably, the lighthouse was not harmed, but the tsunami killed 11 people, destroyed 21 boats in the Crescent City harbor, and damaged 91 homes. The total cost of the destruction was in excess of seven million dollars. The lighthouse survived intact, but the following year the light was switched off. In 1982, the Battery Point Lighthouse became a private aid to navigation, operated by the Del Norte Historical Society as the Battery Point Lighthouse and Museum. Read more here and here. Explore more of Battery Point and Crescent City here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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