Cuba (#215771) (1897-1923), 308-foot German-built steel hulled steam-liner owned by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. She ran aground on a reef 500 yards from Point Bennett on San Miguel Island on September 8, 1923 under the command of Captain Charles J. Holland. Her 115 passengers and 65 crew were rescued, along with the $2,500,000 in gold and silver bullion she carried. She was headed north to San Francisco when she became stranded in the fog. Captain Ira Eaton, who was running a resort on Santa Cruz Island at the time, salvaged much of the ship’s furnishings, including tables, linens and silverware. He returned to postal authorities the more than 500 letters he found aboard. It was widely reported that Eaton had armed men fending off other would-be salvagers. Cuba’s insurance agent, Lloyd’s of London, eventually sold the salvage rights to Eaton for $800. Today, prominent pieces of the Cuba are still in place where she wrecked at Point Bennett. It is interesting to note the Cuba was wrecked within hours of the tragedy at Honda, when seven battle-ready U.S. Navy destroyers ran aground on the adjacent mainland coast. Distress signals from both of these disasters cluttered the radio airwaves September 8, 1923. [Eaton 1980: 229-233].
Many artifacts from the Cuba, including her safe, are on display at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, donated by Betsy Lester, daughter of Herbert Lester. The Lester family lived on San Miguel Island in the 1930s.
» Howorth, Peter Graveyard of ships in Santa Barbara Magazine 1: 2 (55-58) Spring 1976
In the News~
September 9, 1923 [Oakland tribune]: “Big mail liner wrecked off Point Bennett. U.S. destroyer Reno picks up survivors of Cuba, which hit rocks. Chief office Wise and eight of crew afloat in small boat in fog-bound channel, hunted. The Pacific Mail liner Cuba, en route from Panama and Mexican ports to San Francisco, ran upon the rocks at Point Bennett, San Miguel Island, yesterday, and has been abandoned by her 176 passengers and 61 members of the crew, according to wireless messages received last night from the U.S. destroyer Reno, which went to the assistance of the distressed help. Radio dispatches reaching here contained only meager information regarding the vessel's plight, but as far as can be learned all of the passengers and crew were saved. Some of these are known to have been rescued and placed aboard the Reno, now proceeding to San Diego. It was learned that the Cuba is breaking up on the rocks. Her forward compartments are filled with water and she is said to be sinking by the head. At the time of the wreck, advices reaching this port stated that the liner's wireless was out of commission, and all the news coming from her had to be relayed. Immediately after striking the rocks, the Cuba's radio operator broadcast the S.O.S., but was unable to give details or the vessel's position because the transmitting apparatus could not function. The Reno's timely arrival at the side of the sinking liner prevented a great sea catastrophe, in the opinion of naval officials who first received the news of the disaster. Somewhere in the fogbank, which obscures the surface of the Santa Barbara channel, drifts a small boat containing Chief Officer Wise and eight members of the crew. The destroyer Melville is standing by in an effort to locate them and her searchlights are sweeping by in an effort to locate them and her searchlights are sweeping the rough surface of the water in an effort to penetrate the mist. At the municipal dock at Long Beach the revenue cutter Vaughan is standing by ready to leave at any moment and join the the search for the nine missing men if the captain received orders. First news of the wreck came at 5:07 p.m. when the U.S.S. Melville sent an urgent message to the Federal Telegraph company, San Francisco, asking that company to inform the Inglewood radio station, located near Los Angeles, that they had a rush message regarding the survivors of the steamship Cuba. The Melville reported the Reno was cruising San Miguel Island picking up survivors. Shortly afterward the radio operator on duty at the Twelfth naval district headquarters copied the following message from the commander of the Pacific squadron:
"U.S.S. Reno has picked up survivors of the steamship Cuba, which went on San Miguel Island this morning. The Reno is now proceeding to the scene of the wreck to pick up any remaining survivors and will continue to San Diego to land them."
When the Reno steamed to the side of the grounded liner, passengers were being transferred ashore on life lines which had been carried from the Cuba's decks to the beach. These sagged heavily and, in some instances, the passengers were submerged during their journey to land. The Reno, it was learned at San Pedro, was on her way from San Francisco to San Diego when she happened onto the Cuba by chance. The destroyer was expected to arrive at San Diego late last night. Naval regulations keep the speed of destroyers to 15 knots an hour to save fuel, but inasmuch as she carries the passengers and crew of the wrecked vessel, she is expected to speed up. With her wireless equipment out of commission, holds No. 1, 2, 3, and her engine room flooded, the Cuba is breaking up rapidly in the heavy swells of Santa Barbara channel which are forcing her further and further up on the jagged rocks. When it was first discovered that the vessel was in a serious plight, Captain J. C. Holland. her master, called for volunteers to put out in a small boat and try to locate help. Frantic attempts of the radio men to put the wireless into working order so that an S.O.S. which would carry details and her position to distance great enough to assure help, were fruitless. During the hot weather the generator supplying the current for long distance transmitting had been burned out and the only signals the operators had been able to "get through" since had been the feeble flashes from batteries. Chief officer Wise and the eight men stepped forward and offered to row to the nearest island where communication could be established. The boat containing the nine men was slowly lowered to the water and as the crew manned the oars, she vanished in the fog while passengers hung over the rail watching them anxiously, relying upon the ability of these men to find their way through the mist to land probably depended their chances for rescue. This was the last seen of the sailors in the small boat and the Melville is cruising the waters in the vicinity of the wreck with all lights brought to bear on the sea in an effort to find the volunteers. Proceeding slowly through the fog, the destroyers Reno and Melville sighted the wrecked vessel and stood by to render aid. Both destroyers immediately began sending out wireless messages to all other ships in the vicinity to stand and be prepared to rush to aid if called upon. When it became apparent that the Reno could take care of all the 176 passengers and members of the Cuba's crew of 61, the Melville prepared for the search for the nine men at sea in the small boat. Other craft may be called later to assist in combing the sea. The commander of the Reno had his craft anchored a short distance from the Cuba and small boats in charge of naval officers were dispatched to the shore to pick up the survivors. Many of the passengers, mostly women and children, who had been drenched by the seas in their perilous journey to land over the lifeline, were exhausted and medical attention was given as soon as they were placed aboard the Reno. Owing to the jagged rocks which form the shore line of Point Bennett, the passengers and crew were transferred to the Reno only with great difficulty. In the heavy sea the launches from the destroyer bounced about like corks, and several times the waves threatened to dash them upon the ragged rocks. All were loud in their praise of the officers and members of the crew of the doomed vessel, and paid a high tribute to the manner in which discipline was maintained, and particularly of the bravery of Wise and the eight seamen who left to secure aid. Loss of vessel will be complete. According to radio messages from the Reno the Cuba will in all probability be a loss. It is not thought that she can stand on the rocks against the heavy swells without going to pieces for many hours more. Latest reports said that she is more than half submerged and breaking up rapidly and will be a total loss.”
September 17, 1923 [SBMP]: “Cuba life boat is found near San Clemente. Badly battered about its flimsy hull, wind-tossed and waterlogged, a lifeboat from the ill-fated Pacific Mail liner Cuba was picked up Friday by the lighthouse tender Sequoia 11 miles below San Clemente Island, according to word received here. The Sequoia, which was enroute to San Pedro from this port, took the lifeboat to San Pedro. The finding of the little craft 127 miles south of the point where the Cuba went aground and is now being pounded to pieces on the sharp rocks, had led to the expression of several conflicting opinions as to how the little vessel found its way down the coast to San Clemente seven days after it left San Miguel Island. Unless it is learned how the craft made the long voyage in its waterlogged condition, an investigation will be made, it was indicated. Capt. J. A. Sellaman of the lighthouse tender, first sighted the drifting vessel bobbing upon the open ocean like a cork in a bucket. It was first sighted at latitude 32.43, longitude 118.32, approximately 11 miles west and south of the southeast tip of San Clemente. In the opinion of the skipper of the tender, it is utterly impossible for the little boat to have drifted 127 miles in seven days. Others stated that it might have been carried by the Japanese current, which is reported to have shown irregularities since the earthquake in the island empire. The Sequoia is scheduled to sail within a few days for San Francisco, and she will carry the little lifeboat with her to be turned over to the superintendent in charge of that port.”
September 21, 1923 [SBMP]: “Sea Wolf skipper clears fortune. Captain Eaton expects to clear $20,000 from Cuba salvage. Loaded to the gunwales with salvage of all kinds, the launch Sea Wolf, Captain Ira Eaton, returned yesterday from the scene of the wreck of the Pacific Mail liner Cuba, on the northern end of San Miguel Island. Captain Eaton spent several days at the scene of the disaster, taking off all salable articles, following the admission of the Pacific Mail Company that no attempt would be made to salvage the contents of the steamer. The powerboat, Marcella, of Los Angeles, has been at the scene of the wreck for the past week, and daily brings salvage to Stearn’s Wharf, where it is sold for whatever it will bring. The radio outfit of the Cuba was brought to Santa Barbara Wednesday, and was still unsold yesterday. Several amateur adventurers are thinking of chartering a boat to save a bit of the cargo of the coffee that is still intact in the hold of the vessel.”
September 29, 1923 [REG]: “San Francisco. Second Officer John Rochau of the ill-fated steamer Cuba, which grounded September 8 off San Miguel Island, was held responsible for the disaster yesterday by the United States supervising inspector. Rochau’s license was suspended for ninety days.”
October 19, 1923 [SBMP]: “Captain Ira Eaton of the Sea Wolf is expected to return to Santa Barbara today with 10 seals from Santa Cruz Island. An order was received Wednesday from an eastern firm, according to Harry Greenwood, and Captain Eaton left immediately to fill the order. Upon is return here he will take on a crew to work on the wreck of the steamer Cuba on the north end of San Miguel Island, leaving some time this evening.”
October 23, 1923 [letter, on file at SCIF]: “Captain Ira Eaton, West Guiterrez Street, Santa Barbara, California. S.S. Cuba Dear Sir, I enclose herewith Agreement of Sale, in duplicate, in connection with the sale of the above wreck. Kindly sign these and return the original to me keeping the duplicate copy for your own files. On receipt of this Agreement, duly signed, I will send you a Bill of Sale. Yours faithfully, W. R. K[illegible]. Lloyd's Agency, 246 Battery Street, San Francisco.”