The Newbern was constructed by the firm C & R Poillon in Brooklyn. N.Y. in 1862. The government bought her during the Civil War and christened her the United States, but later changed her name to the Newberne. She was 198 feet long, had a 29 foot beam, measured 943 tons gross and was coal powered by a 250 horsepower steam engine. After her service during the Civil War, she sailed to the West Coast via Cape Horn in 1867 and was sold to Hartehan & Wilson. The new owners changed her name by dropping last "E" and gave command of the ship to Capt. Eugene Freeman. In 1869, Capt. Metzger sailed the Newbern from San Francisco to Mexican ports in the Sea of Cortez. In 1871, the Newbern was sold to Capt. George A. Johnson of the Colorado Steam Navigation Co. who continued to turn high profits from the trade with Arizona and Nevada, now accessible via Port Isabel at the foot of the Colorado River. In 1878, the ship was sold to John Birmingham, was refitted with new engines and boilers in San Francisco in 1878 and on July 14, 1888 it was sold to the Oregon Improvement Co. The ships new owners appointed Capt. John Von Helm as the Newberns new (and last) master.
Because of duty taxes on some Mexican goods. Smuggling of Mexican cigars and silver coins was common aboard the Newbern. Customs officials made many seizures aboard the ship, resulting in the confiscation of thousands of cigars.
During the last twenty years of its career, the Newbern carried many tons of silver between the ports of the Sea of Cortez and San Francisco. To avoid paying a 40% duty on Mexican coins, the Newbern was said to have quietly sneaked into the harbor under the cover of night, while the crew tossed bags of the coins overboard. Strings with corks were attached to the bags so that they could later be recovered. On one occasion, the string broke, only to be recovered at a later time when snagged by an anchor and brought to the surface by a luck.
October 12, 1893, the Newbern left Ensenada en route to San Francisco with seven first class passengers, 25 second class passengers, and 36 crew under the command of Capt. John Von Helm. She carried a 250 ton cargo consisting of oranges, sugar, tan bark, orchilla hides, 85 live sea turtles, and silver bullion (which was stored aft in the specie tank). In all, the cargo was valued at $200,000 but neither the vessel or the cargo were insured.
While passing the Coronado islands, just south of San Diego, the compass was found to be error. The captain stood watch for 24 hours, and gave the order to first officer Gallagher to change course at 3:15 AM. Early that morning, the Newbern encountered heavy fog so a watch was posted and the fog horn was sounded, but she continued to make 10 knots. At 3:10 AM of October 14, 1893, the Newbern came to a grinding halt as she struck rocks near shore. The passengers, startled but unhurt, quickly jumped out of their bunks and onto the deck. Seawater rushed into the hull, causing the Newbern to list to port and fill with water within an hour. Fortunately, for those on board, the sea was calm and no surf was running. At daybreak, the passengers and crew made shore by use of the five lifeboats. H. A. Childs, the purser, walked 13 miles to Redondo Beach seeking help. The Redondo Co. sent wagons to the aid of the passengers and crew of the Newbern. Mail and baggage were later sent ashore via a line and all the silver bullion was brought ashore, with the exception of two bricks.
Such a tragedy provided an opportunity for some--the Southern Pacific Company added train runs to San Pedro where the Wilmington Transportation Co. took out sightseers to the wreck of the Newbern for $1
The Newbern couldnt have been in a better position or place for salvage. Only fifty feet from the shore, and with little surf, the salvage of the Newbern was accomplished with little difficulty. The tug Pelican and the steamer Coos Bay aided in the salvage, as well as a small lighter that was used to remove the ships anchor and chains. Divers recovered the remaining silver bullion and other salvageable items, but the wave action rocked the wood hull back and forth on the rocks, slowly breaking it up. Only a few days later, she was broken in two and decks razed with her hull almost completely underwater
By October 17, the Coos Bay departed the wreck site, leaving behind the second mate and three men behind in a small boat. They made fast to the kelp and fell asleep. When they awoke, they found the forward part of the Newbern's hull destroyed by fire. Two days later, divers completed recovery of the silver bullion.
Although Von Helm was a respected seaman, having made 63 voyages on the same route, his ability as a ships master was questioned by many after the loss of the Newbern. However, ten days after the wreck an inspector found no grounds for censure of Von Helms or any of the Newbern's officers. On October 21, the steamer St. Paul was purchased by to replace Newbern and Von Helm was given command.
The winter storms finished off the Newbern, and on February 19, 1894 a large part of her stern, still holding the propeller, was said to have drifted out to sea some 12 miles south of Point Vicente.
Diving the Newbern
Little remains of the Newbern, her engines and large hardware are long gone, either salvaged are pulverized by her century of immersion in a surf zone. A few pieces of brass and copper plating can be found scattered about the bottom, but few discernable parts can be located, except for a shaft. Kelp often clutters the area, but at other times can be sparse. The depth is averages about 15-20', so the wreck can be dived only in calm conditions with little surf running. In such conditions, the visibility is usually fair, averaging 15-20 or more.
The Newbern can be accessed for shore, but most prefer to dive it from a boat. Situated in the middle of the Palos Verdes peninsula, may find this a fun site to dive on the way home after making deeper dives in Santa Monica Bay.
Sources: Los Angeles Times; San Francisco Chronicle; Hazel E. Miles " The Arizona Fleet", American Neptune, Vol. 1 1940; Patrick Smith, "The Marineland Mystery Wreck", Skin Diver, Vol. 35, No 5.