SS Farallon, Black Reef

SS Farallon, Black Reef

by | Jul 26, 2021

Black Reef is on the west shore of Cook Inlet about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) offshore, between North Head and Knoll Head on a peninsula between Iliamna Bay and Iniskin Bay, about 130 miles (209 km) northeast of King Salmon and 71 miles (114 km) west of Homer, Alaska. The descriptive name was published in 1915 on a chart by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. In 1910, Black Reef was the site of a mid-winter shipwreck when the wooden steam schooner SS Farallon went aground. Farallon was built for the Dolbeer & Carson west coast lumber trade by Alexander Hay on Sixth Street in San Francisco. She was fitted with a triple-expansion steam engine and rigged as a schooner with both a foremast and mainmast. She was named after the Farallon Islands located off San Francisco Bay, from the Spanish word “Farallones”, meaning rock or cliff in the sea. She was 171 feet (52 m) long with a beam of 34 feet (10 m), a gross register tonnage of 749, and a cargo hold more than 10 feet (3.0 m) deep. This deep hold allowed the ship to transport over 400,000 board feet of lumber at a time. In 1902, Farallon entered service as the fourth ship in the Alaska Steamship Company fleet to compete with the Pacific Coast Steamship Company for Puget Sound and Alaska Gold Rush traffic. The vessel’s homeport was Port Townsend, Washington,

On January 2, 1910, Farallon departed Valdez bound for Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, with stops in Cook Inlet and Sand Point. The ship was under the command of Captain J.C. Hunter, with 30 crew members, 8 passengers, and a cargo of 30 tons of general merchandise and mail. On January 5, the ship was navigating west across Cook Inlet and bound for Dutton in Iliamna Bay when a blinding snowstorm with extremely high winds enveloped the ship. Farallon ran aground on Black Reef at about 5:00 am when the tides were very high. However, within a matter of hours, the waters receded and the ship was irreparably damaged. The ship had no radio and the survivors had no way to call or signal for help. The passengers and crew of Farallon took to the lifeboats, and all on board eventually evacuated the ship, although the extremely high surf and a large amount of sea ice made landing on the coast exceptionally dangerous. Once ashore, the men faced relentless cold, snow, and a lack of adequate food and supplies. They lived off the few provisions salvaged from the wreck, including food, sails, tarpaulins, passenger baggage, and mattresses. They built driftwood fires and makeshift stoves to melt snow for water and endured extremely cold temperatures. On February 3, after 28 days ashore, the SS Victoria under the command of Captain “Dynamite” Johnny O’Brien sounded the steam whistle to signal the survivors that they had been spotted. They gathered on the shore jumping for joy in their sack-covered boots. Jack Thwaites, the Farallon’s mail clerk, mainly served aboard SS Dora, a ship owned by the Northwestern Steamship Company, but also was assigned to other schooners traveling the Alaska routes. He was one of the men that survived the Farallon shipwreck. Thwaites was an amateur photographer who owned a Kodak 3-A Special camera, popular in the postcard industry. He used photography to document the events of the wreck, and the subsequent efforts of the shipwrecked men to survive while stranded on the shore. He depicted the desolate and harsh environment of the men and documented their survival efforts. Once rescued, Thwaites helped push off from shore the lifeboats, each loaded with bearded, gaunt-faced men, but one lifeboat and six crew members were missing.

On January 7, just two days after the Farallon shipwreck, six men including second mate Gus Swanson, seaman Charles Peterson, seaman Otto Nelson, passenger Albert Bailey, passenger Charles Bourne, and passenger Captain Weiding set out for Kodiak Island in a lifeboat. The small rowboat stood no chance against the heavy seas and ice of Cook Inlet and the freezing spray soon weighed down the boat to the point where it could hardly stay afloat. That evening, heavy pack ice completely crushed the lifeboat. Luckily, the men were not far from shore, and when the boat sank off of Cape Douglas with almost all their provisions, they were forced to walk to shore through ice-cold water. The following morning, 9 January 1910, the party trekked to the top of the cliff above the beach for protection from the high seas and wind. The physical state of the men was deteriorating quickly, all of them were frostbitten. Once the strong winds died down, the men walked 2 miles (3.2 km) south and found the cabin of fur trapper Michael Pablow, They did not leave until 7 February because of intense storms. Albert Bailey and Otto Nelson then led the way to Kaguyak, also known as Douglas, while Swanson, Peterson, Bourne, and Weiding followed in a bidarka, an Aleut skin-covered boat. At the village of Kaguyak, they found an old skiff and made their way south to Kaflia Bay, arriving on 12 February. Charles Bourne was forced to stay with the natives at Kaguyak because of physically debilitating frostbite. From Kaflia Bay, the men crossed Shelikof Strait and were able to reach Cape Ugat on Kodiak Island, between Spiridon Bay and Uganik Bay, before a fierce wind once again destroyed their skiff. Fortunately, the party was able to travel overland to the village of Uganik but remained stormbound there. On 5 March, the people of Uganik provided the men with a dory, and leaving Captain Weiding behind due to hypothermia, the remaining four men reached the village of Afognak where they were rescued by the U.S. Revenue Cutter Tahoma that had been searching for the men for almost three weeks. Finally on 11 March 1910, just before midnight, Swanson, Peterson, Nelson, and Bailey were brought into Seward, Alaska, two months after the Farallon wreck. Tahoma then retrieved Bourne from Kaguyak and Captain Weiding from Uganik. See a documentary video with the story of the Farallon starting at around 22 minutes here. Read more here and here. Explore more of Black Reef and lower Cook Inlet here:

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