Hawai‘i’s whaling era began in 1819 when two New England ships became the first whaling ships to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands.
At that time, whale products were in high demand; whale oil was used for heating, lamps and in industrial machinery; whale bone was used in corsets, skirt hoops, umbrellas and buggy whips.
In the early 19th century, whaling voyages often took two years or more.
George Pollard was captain of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling vessel that sank in 1821 after being rammed by a sperm whale in the South Pacific.
The Essex’s epic tale inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby-Dick;” however, the author isn’t believed to have used Pollard as the basis for the book’s notorious Captain Ahab.
After the tragedy of the Essex, Captain George Pollard and other survivors endured a 95-day journey in small boats that resulted in sickness, starvation, and, ultimately, cannibalism. However, this dramatic experience was not the final chapter in Pollard’s career as a whaling captain.
Despite the Essex tragedy, Pollard was offered another captaincy soon after, this time of the Two Brothers; before departing, Pollard had said he believed “lightning never strikes in the same place twice.”
Such was not the case.
The Two Brothers set sail for the Pacific, leaving Nantucket on November 26, 1821. By winter 1822, the ship had rounded the tip of South America. The crew was on its way to newly discovered whaling grounds near Japan; she made her way around Cape Horn, then up the west coast of South America.
On the night of February 11, 1823, the Two Brothers hit a shallow reef at French Frigate Shoals (nearly six hundred miles northwest of Honolulu in what is now the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.)
The ship broke apart in the heavy surf. Stunned by the disaster and by his horrible misfortune, Captain Pollard was reluctant to abandon the ship. The crew pleaded with their captain to get into the small boats, to which they clung for survival throughout the night.
The entire crew of Two Brothers was rescued by an accompanying ship, the Martha, and they headed back to Oʻahu.
In 2008, a team of NOAA maritime archaeologists made an exciting discovery at French Frigate Shoals. Following over three weeks of successful survey in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the team began to explore for new shipwreck sites at French Frigate Shoals using tow board surveys in an area near a historic anchorage.
Within minutes of the first tow, the divers spotted a large anchor in approximately 15-feet of water. The age and size of this anchor gave the impression that it was not simply left as a mooring in an anchorage.
After snorkeling around in the area, the team came across the first clue that this site was more than a lone anchor: a blubber pot set into a hole in the reef top. This discovery initiated a larger survey of the area, and soon two more was found.
At the time, researchers did not know the identity of the find. Three whaling ships, all American vessels, have been reported lost at French Frigate Shoals: the South Seaman, wrecked in 1859; the Daniel Wood, wrecked in 1867; and the Two Brothers.
It wasn’t until May of 2010 when a small team was able to return to the site that maritime archaeologists began to believe they were indeed looking at the scattered remains of the Two Brothers.
During the 2010 inspection, the team uncovered more tools of whaling on the seafloor, including four more whaling harpoon tips (for a total of five), four whaling lances, ceramics, glass, and a sounding lead (among dozens of other artifacts) all dating to an 1820s time period.
The preponderance of evidence suggested to the team that they were looking at the Two Brothers, the only American whaler lost at French Frigate Shoals in the 1820s.
Pollard gave up whaling, though he was just in his mid-30s, and returned to Nantucket, Mass., where he became a night watchman – a position of considerably lower status in the whaling town than captain.
This and other American whaling ships lost in Papahānaumokuākea are the material remains of a time when America possessed over 700 whaling vessels and over one fifth of the United States whaling fleet may have been composed of Pacific Islanders.
The whaling shipwreck sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands help tell this part of Hawaiian and Pacific history, and remind us about the way that this remote part of the United States is connected with small communities in New England half way around the world.
“Among the many tales of shipwreck on the Pacific few are more thrilling than that of the rescue of the captain and crew of the schooner Churchill on French Frigate shoals”. (Star-bulletin, October 31, 1917)
Whoa … let’s look back.
In 1850, Captain Asa Meade Simpson, a Maine shipbuilder, came west, drawn by the California Gold Rush. In 1855, he arrived at the “north bend” of the Coos Bay estuary, Oregon. Recognizing the value of the region’s coal and timber, he set up a sawmill; the businesses expanded and turned out a variety of wood products, from fruit boxes to fancy doors.
He also established a shipyard (the first in Oregon) and hired master craftsmen to build ships that would carry lumber products worldwide. Simpson’s son, Louis Jerome (LJ) Simpson, arrived in North Bend in 1899. He purchased the adjacent undeveloped town site of Yarrow, which he merged with his father’s land in 1903 to create the City of North Bend.
From 1859 to 1903, at this location he would have 56 ‘world class’ tall ships built for the growing lumber empire. (Tall Ships SFO) Large wooden schooners were the economic mainstay of American shipping between the Civil War period and World War I. They were the sailing workhorses of the Pacific. (NOAA)
One of them was the Churchill.
Launched on March 4, 1900, the 178-foot, 600-ton four-masted schooner Churchill was built by the Simpson Lumber Co for their own account. Later, the Churchill was owned by Charles Nelson & Co of San Francisco.
Then, the fateful voyage.
“The Churchill left Port Angeles on May 27 with a cargo of lumber for Sydney. After discharging at Sydney the vessel proceeded to Tongata, where a cargo of about 800 tons of copra was placed aboard. Her destination from there was Seattle.”
(Copra is the dried meat of the coconut. Coconut oil is extracted from it and has made copra an important agricultural commodity. Also coconut cake is extracted mainly used as feed for livestock.)
On board the Churchill were Captain Charles Granzow, his two sons Carl (age 7) and Loftus (age 14,) and nine other crew members (Chief Officer: Henry Anderson, Second Officer: Fred Wilson, Carpenter John Wessick, Seamen: A. Anderson, William Miller, Daniel Pinzoin, Pedro Romos, Sterling Jones and Hugo Munch.)
“Capt. Granzow has been master of the schooner Churchill for the past three or four years. She has called at Honolulu on infrequent voyages, but been chiefly in the lumber trade between the Northwest and Australia.”
“The Churchill was 27 days out from Nukualofa, Tongata, when she drifted upon a reef of the French Frigate shoals. This was after winds had carried her westward from her course and following a calm of several days. ‘Currents after that was the only reason for the wreck,’ declared Mate Anderson”.
Fortunately for them, some folks from the Islands were nearby fishing from the Makaiwa.
“The power sampan Makaiwa left Honolulu on Monday, October 22. In the party were Harold W Rice; Lieutenant KE Ferris, USN, formerly captain of the Kestrel; Arthur Rice, HL Tucker and the captain and crew of the sampan, as follows: William Feuerpeil, crew captain; Johnny Vasconcellos, chief engineer; Manuel Deponte, second engineer; Levi Faunfata, a Samoan seaman.”
“Arthur Rice, who had intended only to fish as far as Kauai and leave the party there, carried out his plan, so he was not with the sampan when it turned westward from the Hawaiian group. The party had fished on the way to Kauai and also after starting for Bird Island.”
Rice and the rest of the party “were bound for the Western Islands on a fishing trip when they sighted the Churchill … slowly pounding to pieces.”
“Captain Granzow told the Honolulans that the night before, that is the night of October 25, the schooner had struck the big reef about 9 o’clock. The vessel seemed to come off after striking, but then went on again and pounded heavily all night.”
“The Churchill was sighted in acute distress on the morning of Friday, October 26, by the fishermen and the sampan immediately went to her rescue. … Had it not been for the timely arrival of the sampan at French Frigate shoals, Captain Granzow and his men believe they would surely have perished by fire, water or sharks.” (Star Bulletin, October 30, 1917)
“That he was true to all the traditions of the sea is the tale told of Capt Charles Granzow, master of the wrecked schooner Churchill, by the members of his crew.”
“Unable or unwilling to relate their own experiences these sailors of the destroyed schooner tell how Capt. Granzow elected to remain aboard the doomed vessel while the only remaining hope of surviving the wreck was made by five others in a small lifeboat.”
“But while Capt. Granzow with other volunteers remained aboard the vessel as the water rose about her hulk he ordered his two sons into the lifeboat which he placed in command of his first mate, Henry Anderson, while they attempted a landing on the only promontory not washed by the ocean’s waves.” (All were saved)
In October of 2005, the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division reported a potential shipwreck site to NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program after spotting anchors and scattered rigging at French Frigate Shoals.
In 2007, a team of NOAA maritime archaeologists were able to begin to investigate the site. The 2007 survey uncovered clues that may help solve the mystery of the unidentified shipwreck. Diagnostic artifacts at the site, anchors, rigging, pumps and deck equipment, all correspond to the Churchill’s size and construction.
In August of 2008, a team of NOAA maritime archaeologists returned to the site to complete documentation and interpretation of the shipwreck site. (Lots of information here is from NOAA, Oregon Historical Society and Star Bulletin, October 30 and 31, 1917)
July 12, 2003 was an extraordinary day in my life; the experiences that day helped me as Chair of Board of the Land and Natural Resources make the recommendation to the rest of the BLNR (and we then voted unanimously) to impose the most stringent measures to assure protection of the place.