Interview with Dennis Powers
on Taking the Sea
1. How did you become interested in writing this book?
As I poured through the voluminous files in writing my last book, Sentinel of the Seas, I became curious about the vessels used to build the St. George Reef Lighthouse—the most dangerous, remote, and expensive one built—especially with one man who owned the ships used in the construction. Starting in 1883, Captain Thomas P.H. Whitelaw not only leased out his schooner La Ninfa for the building crew’s quarters, but the steamer Whitelaw that towed it and supplies to the reef. My question was what kind of a man would rent out good ships in such a risky venture? In answering this, I discovered a new world: the adventurous times of Captain Whitelaw and the master wreckers.
For decades, ships of all sizes and shapes dominated the movement of goods and people. Before countless networks of railroads and airline terminals tied this country together, these were the times when ships were our trucks, buses, and trains. Owing to inadequate charts, limited lighthouses, and inaccurate weather forecasting, vessels continually slammed into reefs, were thrashed by storms, and rendered helpless by strong currents. I became awed by the stories of these shipwrecks, the courage of the men and women, and the epic salvage efforts mustered by the wreckers.
2. What is this world of wrecking and master wreckers?
Wrecking was the term given to the captains and seamen, who for a cut of the goods saved, salvaged goods and saved people when they came upon a wrecked vessel. Wrecking as a livelihood dated back to the rugged coastlines of Europe, which had been a haven for wreckers and smugglers, and immigrants to the United States brought along the traditions. Wreckers in the nineteenth century built the town of Key West. When ships foundered, the first mariner on the scene—from a flotilla of streaking schooners—was designated the master of that wreck and ran the operation. Salvors later received their cut from a share of the auction proceeds or “in kind.” This rough-and-tumble world later became regulated and eventually matured into a competitive business for hire.
The United States had its share of stand-out salvors from the mid-eighteenth to twentieth centuries: from Captains Merritt (New York) and Scott (Connecticut) on the East Coast to James Dunham (Chicago), Tom Reid (Great Lakes), and Thomas P.H. Whitelaw on the West Coast. These “modern-day” wreckers were about salvage—not plunder. They saved ships and people, putting together ventures to refloat sunk or beached ships for a fee; or they might buy the salvage rights to what could be saved. Taking the Sea traces the journey of these legendary men through the story of Captain T. P. H. Whitelaw, the premier ship salvager of his day (1847-1932).
3. And about Captain Whitelaw?
Whitelaw watched as ships and their designs changed. He and his crews pulled tall-masted ships from reefs, refloated steamers whose hulls had been slashed by rocks, and salvaged schooners from the bottom of bays. I discovered that Whitelaw over time had become a large ship owner, in addition to owning huge maritime used-parts lots.
Whitelaw had arrived in San Francisco at age sixteen with twenty-five cents to his name. By age forty-five, he was extensively engaged in mining and real estate ventures, operated a stock ranch of 43,000 acres, and had accumulated substantial holdings of land. Internationally recognized, Whitelaw had become regarded as “The Master Wrecker” and “The Great Wrecker of the Pacific.” His world encompassed that of the other important ship salvagers that operated across the United States, and his career spanned from the era of wooden clipper ships to the huge steel-hulled steamships of today.
4. What type of person was he?
Whitelaw came from a poor Scottish family, and at age twelve apprenticed himself to a British vessel that traveled the East India trade. When this ship docked a few years later in 1863 in San Francisco harbor, he decided to stay. With charisma, persistence, and brilliance, Captain Whitelaw started and built up his operations.
He was an avid reader of the Greek classics, a self-taught philosopher, and literary genius. And he worked on different nationally-recognized efforts to save wrecked ships. One of his most noteworthy was the raising of the steamship Umatilla, which sank in Esquimalt Harbor, British Columbia, in 1884. This feat resulted in the British Admiralty giving international accolades to Captain Whitelaw.
He understood the incredible, combined powers of the winds, waves, currents, and tides that reduced the sturdiest vessels into piles of splintered wood and shards of steel plates. For him, “Ships have individuality, each leading its own life, sometimes against the will of man. Some ships survive almost incredible disasters, as do some men, while others leave their wood and steel bones on the first reef.”
Ranging far from his San Francisco base, Captain Whitelaw’s ventures ranged from Mexico upward along the lengthy West Coast to British Columbia and the Alaskan Bering Sea. Countries overseas and the U.S. government alike called upon him for his expertise. His counterparts on the East Coast such as Captains Merritt, Chapman, and Scott rose at the same time into prominence, as they steamed into savage waters to save ships and passengers. Their stories are a strong part of this book.
5. What was the researching and writing like?
The writing of Taking the Sea required working with numerous maritime museum curators, librarians, and researchers to forge the stories of adventure, courage, and heart-rending wrecks that spanned these times. I tracked down the files and information from a prime source—the San Francisco Maritime Museum—and ranged from Vancouver to the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Newspaper, magazine, and even recordings of interviews with Whitelaw’s grandson, Ken Whitelaw, came together to paint the picture of this man and these eras. Working through libraries and interlibrary loans, I tracked down old publications and articles, as well as interviewing maritime historians, divers, and experts.
In historical research, pictures are very important in supporting ones findings. Reviewing the old pictures of wrecks, cities, Captain Whitelaw’s family, and the times gave as much accuracy to this story as any other resource. In this regard, the maritime museums were very helpful, as well as others ranging from Seattle to British Columbia. Specialists provided very valuable historical and genealogical research.
6. And the book is more than about T.P.H. Whitelaw?
Absolutely—this book is about the eras when shipping was the dominant form of transportation throughout the world. It pictures the savage seas and times that wreckers faced, their human failures, and their triumphs. The stories are about courage, achievement, and the historical challenges of these times.
Using pontoons, powerful tugs, and strong steam engines on huge wreck ships, salvager saved sunken ships—and under terrifying conditions. When performing their work, the same capricious seas and frightening winds confronted them as when these conditions first caused the disasters. The accounts of the most memorable incidents—and bravery shown in the face of death—are in this book. The tales of ghost ships, hunting for gold at the bottom of the sea, and the oddities of this work are also here.
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