Yankee Blade

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Carved eagle from the wreck of the Yankee Blade (1854)
When the Lobero Opera House opened in 1873, the golden eagle from the Yankee Blade was mounted above the stage.(1873)

Yankee Blade (1853-1854), 274-foot side-wheel passenger steamer wrecked near Point Arguello in a heavy fog on October 1, 1854. The wreck is one of the Pacific Coast's classical tales of barratry. Carrying gold bullion variously reported at up to $3,000,000, she allegedly was run ashore deliberately, by a gang of criminals who had boarded her at San Francisco. There was considerable loss of life. Miscellaneous cargo and contents from the vessel were later found and salvaged on Santa Rosa Island. Survivors were rescued by the San Diego-bound steamer Goliah. Among them was C. F. Spearman, who later served as a Major, presumably during the Civil War, and then settled in Keosauqua, Iowa. His account of the wreck is from the Pioneer Society files.

Letter of passenger C. F. Spearman: I was on the Yankee Blade when she was wrecked off the coast of Point Conception about sixty miles above Los Angeles, about one mile from the coast. It was about 12 o'clock. I was standing in my state room waiting for the dinner bell to ring when the ship struck the rock. I ran up on deck and found out what had happened. I started back to my room for my satchel, but found I could not get to my room on account of the ship was filling with water. I went back on deck. There I found all the passengers (eleven hundred) crowded on the front part of the ship to keep out of the water. We were there from about 12 o'clock the first day until one the second day.

About one o'clock during the night and day the life boats were taking off the passengers. It was slow work for they had to go down the anchor chain. The sea between the ship and shore was full of breakers, so the life boats had to go quite a distance to get to the shore. The boats the women got into were over come by breakers and they were drowned. About one o'clock the second day we saw a ship anchor about one half mile away. They sent their life boats to help us. We all got off by dark.

It was a ship that ran from San Diego to San Francisco. They took us to San Diego the third day. San Diego was a Mexican town. All the houses were of mud. It had a hotel that was run by an American. We had been three days with-out anything to eat except one cracker and a small piece of salt fish. There was a butcher shop where we landed. The boys soon cleaned it out. We went down town and soon cleaned the town out of all they had to eat. Before night the Mexicans in the country heard of us and brought in what they had to eat to feed us with. The next day we had an over supply. Such as it was we stayed there about ten days then, when another ship came down from San Francisco and took us back to San Francisco. I was back to San Diego in 1910. Fifty four years afterwards I went down to old San Diego. The mud houses were fallen down except two. The hotel had been moved away, the town had been deserted, five or six houses were all that was left and the post office.

I still have my meal ticket that I had in my hand when the ship struck. Will send my photo of this. I sent satisfactory write and I'll try and answer any thing more.

Maj C. F. Spearman Keosaukua, Iowa

In the News~

October 10, 1854 [Sacramento Daily Union]: “Terrible disaster! Total wreck of theYankee Blade—from 30 to 40 lives lost—disgraceful scenes on board—$163,000 in specie lost—Opportune arrival of the steamer Goliath. The steamship Goliah, Capt. Haley, arrived this morning from the lower coast bringing disastrous tidings. We are indebted to Pursea Fleming for the following memoranda and list of passengers: MEMORANDA.—Per steamer Goliah. —Sailed from San Francisco Sept. 30, at 41/2 p.m. Oct. 1st, at 7 a.m. arrived at Monterey. Discharged freight and passengers and sailed at 111/2 a.m. Oct. 2 at 8 a.m., weather very thick, off Point Aguillar [sic], discovered steamer Yankee Blade ashore; lowered our boats and commenced taking passengers from the wreck, of whom there were about 700 left on board.—During the day succeeded in taking on board over 600, and assisted in landing the balance on shore. At 4 p.m. sailed for San Diego. touching at Santa Barbara and San Pedro to land freight and passengers. Oct. 4, at 8 a.m., arrived at San Diego, landed freight and passengers, including those taken from the wreck . at 10 p.m. started on our return to the wreck; coming out of the harbor during a thick fog, got aground, where we lay until the next evening, when we got off and proceeded to the wreck; touched at San Pedro and Santa Barbara; at the latter place took off 35 passengers of the Yankee Blade who had came from the wreck by land. Oct. 7 at 6 a.m., arrived at the wreck and took on board the balance of the passengers and crew, 361 in all; at 4 p.m. sailed for Monterey, where we arrived Oct. 8; at 9 a.m. took in 20 cords of wood, being short of fuel, and sailed at 5-½ p.m. for San Francisco, where we arrived at 9 o'clock this morning... To Capt. Haley, of the Goliah, they owe everything. We learn that the following are the names of passengers known to be lost: Mrs. Longston and four children; Mrs. Brabbab and child; Mrs. Sumner and child; Mrs. Smith, wife of Mr. Smith—firm of Smith Brothers & Co;.; Mr. Moore and child; Frank Mitchell... ”

March 1, 1881 [SBDP]: “After many years. Dixey Thompson has in his possession a copy of the American Dictionary, which is one of a number of books picked up by him on Santa Rosa Island in 1856, shortly after the wreck of the Yankee Blade. On the flyleaf of this book was a stencil “S. L. Simmons, Sacramento.” During a recent visit of Judge Denson to Santa Barbara, Mr. Thompson accidentally mentioned the fact, when Mr. Denson at once recognized in the name on the fly leaf an old friend of his, and a practicing physician in Sacramento. Mr. Thompson this week received a letter from Mr. Simmons, who states that he was a passenger on the Yankee Blade in 1854, and had with him quite a number of books. On account of the associations connected with them, Mr. Simmons is very anxious to repossess the books. We are informed that there are quite a number of the books in the possession of persons now living in Santa Barbara.”

March 17, 1881 [SBDP]: “At the time of the wreck of the Yankee Blade, I was living on the island of Santa Rosa, in the employ of my uncle, A. B. Thompson. One day while riding on the northwest end of the island, I found a number of pieces of cabin furniture, also cases of lard, and saw many pieces far out in the kelp. The next day, very early, I took a whale boat from the west harbor and a man with me, and went up to the head of the island. On the way up to the kelp, we picked up a chest of medical books, and a trunk or two with nothing in them of value. This was, I think, in 1854. Supposing a steamer to be wrecked somewhere near, the next day we went up to the head of San Miguel Island to see if we could make any discoveries of a wreck, but of course found nothing… The most valuable wood work of the Yankee Blade that we picked up was a carved eagle which came off of the paddle-box. This relic is now an ornament in the [Lobero] Theatre here [Santa Barbara]. D. W. Thompson.”

October 31, 1894 [SBDI]: “The wrecking scow San Pedro arrived early this morning from Hueneme, where they have been overhauling buoys. On leaving here they returned to the wreck of the Winfield Scott at Anacapa Island, but, as they had no giant powder, they could do nothing. They then returned to Hueneme. Captain Macguin says that they will now proceed either to the wreck of the Goldenhorn at Santa Rosa Island or to the Yankee Blade around Point Concepcion. They will not again visit the Winfield Scott.”

January 7, 2022 [atlasobscura]: “SHIPWRECKED, TRADED FOR A BOTTLE of whiskey, shot with an arrow, then twice lost for decades and recovered, the gilded wooden sculpture known as the Lobero Golden Eagle is now—finally—back at the Lobero Theatre* in Santa Barbara, California. The eagle owes its most recent rediscovery and rescue to Brett Hodges, a board member of both the theatre and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, who first learned about the battered bird while digging into the Lobero’s history in preparation for its 100th and 150th anniversaries. (More about the double celebration later.) The eagle’s long and eventful story begins, Hodges discovered, when the 1849 California gold rush lured fortune seekers from around the world, sparking the biggest migration in American history. That’s when Cornelius Vanderbilt saw an opportunity. The business magnate who made his fortune in railways and shipping quickly assembled a fleet to carry “forty-niners” to California and deliver gold on return journeys. The Yankee Blade, a side-steamer built in 1853, became the star of the fleet on its run between San Francisco and Panama. (This was long before the canal was built. After crossing Panama to the Caribbean side, passengers would transfer to another Vanderbilt ship headed for New York.) To adorn the luxurious Yankee Blade, an unknown artist gilded every inch of a wooden eagle’s white oak body and California redwood wings with gold leaf. In October 1854, tragedy struck. “The idiot captain was racing full speed in the fog as a bet with another captain to see who could make it to Panama first,” says Hodges, who found the story in the October 10, 1854 edition of the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper. The Yankee Blade struck rocks a couple hundred yards off Point Pedernales about 70 miles north of Santa Barbara. When she broke up and sank, up to 40 of an estimated 1200 passengers went down with the ship, as did a fortune in California gold bullion and freshly minted $20 gold coins. A couple months later, a boy named D. W. Thompson was riding the beach on Santa Rosa Island, about 40 miles from the site of the sinking, where his uncle ran a cattle ranch. In an 1881 letter to the editor of the Santa Barbara Daily Press, Thompson himself told the story of how he spotted something floating in a kelp bed. It was the golden eagle and other wreckage from the Yankee Blade.

Less than a year later, someone from the ranch carried the eagle across the channel into what was then the small town of Santa Barbara. As the legend goes, soon after, it was traded at Jose Lobero’s saloon for a bottle of whiskey. As a recent Italian immigrant and a trombone player,* Lobero dreamed of bringing European culture to the Wild West. To that end, he converted a huge, old adobe schoolhouse into an opera house. When the theater opened in 1873, Lobero hung the golden eagle over the stage’s proscenium arch where it presided for at least 40 years. But Lobero had greatly overestimated his potential audience. The population of Santa Barbara was only 3000—his new theater seated 1300. For a town Hodges describes as isolated and unsophisticated, the best Lobero could manage was to sprinkle a little opera in with the more popular vaudeville acts, minstrel shows and melodramas that featured nefarious villains. And when the Potter Theatre opened in 1907, it stole much of the Lobero’s business. The Lobero went dark in 1917. But that wasn’t the end of the story. A group of theater lovers took possession of the Lobero, but realized it was beyond repair. They tore it down and built a new theater in 1924.

Thus 2023 and 2024 mark the Lobero’s 150th, then its 100th anniversary. Between the loss of the original Lobero Opera House and the construction of its replacement, the eagle disappeared, its whereabouts a mystery for 43 years. It wasn’t until an amateur historian sleuth named Walker Thompkins connected the dots in 1960 that the eagle was found. It turns out a turkey farmer named Mary Kinevan had purchased the eagle at an auction for $5 in 1929 and perched it atop her ranch’s entrance gate. During its stay there, someone shot it with an arrow. The arrowhead remained lodged in the wood, even after the Kinevan family donated the eagle to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum in 1961. Hodges rediscovered it in the museum collection and he and Dacia Harwood, executive director of the museum, set about restoring the eagle and returning it to the theatre.

When they found the eagle, it looked like it did when the Kinevan family turned it over to the museum—slightly damaged with that arrowhead in its chest and covered in what Hodges describes as layers of gloppy, brown paint. Over a nine-month period, restorer Chris Bailey painstakingly sanded every speck of paint off of each of the hundreds of carved feathers before gilding the eagle again in gold. The eagle will be on display in the Lobero’s lobby in all its restored glory through 2024. Beyond that, the golden bird’s future is as up in the air as it has always been.”