It was a dark December night with pea soup fog that caused the high speed contact with the reefs of Anacapa Island that were enough to end the short but colorful career of the Gold Rush steamer, Winfield Scott. The loss of the Winfield Scott 154 years ago provided California divers with a truly unique dive experience.
The Winfield Scott was built in New York in 1850. She was a four-deck, three-masted side-wheel steamer, 225-feet in length with a beam of nearly 35 feet. She began her career on the east coast running between New York and New Orleans, but a change of owners brought her to the Pacific Coast in early 1852. The Scott collected eager gold seekers from the East Coast when they reached the Pacific ports of Panama and transported them to the gateway of the Gold Rush, San Francisco. On her return trips she carried home many unsuccessful and disappointed Argonauts who failed in their attempts to gain golden wealth from the Mother Lode of the Sierras. The Winfield Scott also carried more than a few successful miners and considerable treasure from San Francisco to Panama.
Such was the case on the evening of December 2, 1853. On that evening, two days out from San Francisco, headed to Panama with over 400 passengers and $800,000 in gold, the Scott’s captain decided to try and save some time and take a short cut between the Channel Islands and the mainland. The fog and faulty navigation caused the Winfield Scott to crash ashore at the Middle Island, Anacapa. In the confusion of the wreck, the dark and the fog, it is almost a miracle that no lives were lost, but all the passengers and crew survived. Amazingly all the consigned gold was removed from the vessel at the time of the wreck as well. Some of the mail she carried was lost to the sea, along with some passenger’s baggage and belongings. The passengers and crew spent a miserable night on a nearby beach, but the following morning some passengers were taken aboard the San Francisco-bound steamer California. For those who stayed behind awaiting a ship large enough to take the remainder of the survivors, it was to be an uncomfortable and longer than anticipated wait. It wasn’t until a week later that the steamer California returned to collect the rest of the castaways.
The “Winnie” was written off as a total loss and left in the shallow water off Middle Anacapa where she sank. Over the years, her bones were picked at by professional and weekend salvors. In 1854, an enterprising sea captain (and early recycler) harvested enough lumber from the wreck of the Scott to build his home in Santa Barbara. That home, the Trussell-Winchester Adobe, still exists today and is noted as California State Historic Landmark 559.
Today, the remains of the Winfield Scott lie in generally warm, clear water off the north side of Middle Anacapa. Depths, where the wreckage of the steamer can be seen, range from 5 to 35-feet, and is one of the few shipwreck sites that can be snorkeled. The bottom is mostly rocky with moderate kelp growth and scattered sand patches. For several years after the last El Niño, the kelp was nonexistent in the area, so the structures on the site were easy to find and see. With the return of the kelp beds, it is slightly harder to access, but far more interesting. Kelp bass, sheephead are prominent across the remains of the Winnie, as are large numbers of the California State saltwater fish, garibaldi. Somehow it just seems appropriate to have a large contingent of garibaldi living on the wreck of a Gold Rush steamer.
For the visiting diver the site has some interesting examples of 19th Century technology. The remains of the two side-lever steam engines that powered the ship are scattered across the site. Immense structural pieces such as the paddle-shaft support and one of the paddlewheels hubs and shaft are just amazing. To the northwest of the main site you’ll find the immense spoked pattern of one of the paddlewheels encrusted to the rocky bottom. Nearby, an observant visitor can find the remains of copper-sheeted oak planks that made up the Scott’s hull–a testament to the builder’s skill and the quality materials used to construct the ship a century-and-a-half ago. A dive to the Winfield Scott is like taking a trip back in time to glimpse, for just a moment, the technology of the period, and imagine what it might have been like for travelers of the day.
Because the Winfield Scott lies within the boundary of Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, it is a protected site. Touching or disturbing the site in any way is strictly forbidden, and of course nothing can be removed from the area. Visitors are welcome to come and take pictures, gaze in wonder and consider the hardship of a Channel Island shipwreck a century and a half ago, but please, leave the site as you found it.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: On the North side of Middle Anacapa Island.
Access: Boat only; this spot is visited regularly by dive charter boats.
Skill Level: Beginner+.
Depths: 5 to 35 feet.
Visibility: Good, 20-35 feet.
Water temperature: Similar to the other Channel Islands, expect temperatures of low 60°s in summer; lower through the rest of the year.
Photography: Great opportunities to photograph 19th Century marine technology.
Hunting: This is a reserve area and no marine life may be harvested. See California Department of Fish and Game Regulations or NOAA or National Park publications for more information.
Hazards: Occasional current along the outer edge of the site, wash rock NW of site and thick kelp in summer.