Thursday, May. 23, 2019

Wireless Station Opens with Tragedy at Its Doorstep

By Richard Nielsen · January 06, 2017

The SS Hanalei as it appeared the day of the wreck. <span>&copy; Richard Nielsen </span>

The SS Hanalei as it appeared the day of the wreck.

The site of the wreck of the Hanalei here at Bolinas Point looks deceptive during high tide on a peaceful summer day.  Rocky reef is exposed beyond the white caps for over a hundred yards during low tides. <span>&copy; Richard Nielsen </span>

The Marconi Wireless Station at Bolinas initiated operations amidst a lot of fanfare on  September 24, 1914.  Partial responsibility of the station was communicating with ships at sea, particularly those in distress.  Almost exactly two months later, personnel were saving the lives of passengers and crew, not far out at sea by radio, but at their doorstep. 

On November 23, the SS Hanalei headed south from Eureka with sixty-one passengers and crew, lumber, and livestock. After passing Point Reyes, the second mate failed to hold a correct heading as the ship encountered pea soup fog, exacerbated by stormy seas.  Before the crew could react to the cry from the lookout, "Breakers ahead!," the northern edge of Duxbury Reef snagged and placed a stranglehold on the ship at Bolinas Point just below the newly constructed wireless station.  

Trapped 300 feet out on the reef, a breeches buoy failed to reach the stricken ship.  After sending out the first SOS, radio equipment was destroyed aboard the wave battered Hanalei.  Personnel from the station improvised with car headlights and Morse code to communicate with the surviving radio operator, who used a flashlight.  However, they could only obtain an assessment of the situation aboard the ship and advise that those aboard would be on their own. The last message received from the ship was "We are coming ashore as best we can."  Survivors largely did so by clinging to wreckage.

Three men valiantly aspired to bring a line from ship to shore.  Two drowned in the attempt  and the third lost the line before reaching shore.  Without a line between ship and shore, passengers and crew had to make their way through the surf and over the oil coated reef to reach the shore.  Throughout the night ranchers and townspeople joined the personnel from the station in the rescue effort.

The fog was so thick that a photographer who rushed there to take pictures found his equipment to be useless.  The glow from fires built on the shore from driftwood acted as a beacon.  When survivor's struggled within sight of rescuers, rescuers helped them to shore.  Survivors were them helped up the cliff to the warmth of the Marconi Hotel at the station.  A few survivors managed to reach rescue ships lying just offshore.  Nearly two dozen, however, lost their lives.

Many blamed the federal government for failing to rebuild a burned lifesaving station at Bolinas.  As a result of the tragedy, a Coast Guard lifesaving station was built on Wharf Road in Bolinas to provide a more rapid response to ship wrecks on the West Marin coast.  The SS Hanalei was not the first, nor would it be the last ship devoured by Duxbury Reef, however.

The irony in this tragedy was that the Hanalei's SOS was only received in San Francisco, and not by the Marconi Wireless Station perched above the Hanalei, thus delaying help. 

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