March 20th in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1920, Santa Ana Register published the firsthand account of James Ott describing his days working as an agent for the Anaheim Landing Company.

The reporter who interviewed Ott wisely let Ott’s own words make up most of the article. Ott tells a tale that is vivid, exciting, and harrowing. It is probably the closest any of us will experiencing and understanding what risky and dangerous life it was to work at Anaheim Landing when it was a port.

It’s also interesting to note that stubs of the pilings left from the first Anaheim Landing on Alamitos Bay were still visible in 1920.

Here is the full story exactly as it was printed forty-nine years after James Ott started working at Anaheim Bay:

Flirted With Death on Treacherous Anaheim Bay Bar Four Years, ’71-’75

There was a time in the history of what is now Orange County that the location of the shipping of the section from Los Nietos to San Juan Capistrano and as far inland as San Bernardino was done through Anaheim Landing.

The man who was agent at the Landing during the height of its business now lives in Santa Ana. He is James D. Ott of 433 South Sycamore street.

Many a time did he risk his life in the treacherous waters over the bar of Anaheim Bay.

Up to the time the Southern Pacific reached Anaheim, Anaheim Landing was a place of commercial importance. The railroad finally put the Landing out [of] business.

An Anaheim company, called the Anaheim Landing Co., instituted and carried on the business. August Langenberger, one of the pioneers of the Mother Colony, which was founded in the late fifties, was the secretary and general manager of the business. Others interested in the enterprise were J. P. Zeyn, F. A. Korn and Ben Dreyfus.

The company first established a warehouse on the bay above Seal Beach, but soon afterward moved to Anaheim Landing, having decided that the bay entrance there was better suited to the management of lighters plying between the land and steamers coming as close inshore as they dared.

Sees Stubs of Piles.

“The stub ends of the piles of the original wharf are still to be seen in the mud near the paved road crossing the tide flats,” said J. D. Ott, referring to the original landing place.

“The stub ends of the old warehouse piles are also to be seen on of the the ocean side of the bridge at the Anaheim Landing’s entrance. I became the agent at the Landing in 1871, after I had worked there awhile, and I remained as agent there until 1875 when business began to drop off by reason of the railroad’s competition, advances in wages were impossible and I quit.

“Yes, I risked my life many a time. I took great chances and in those days did not think much about it. Now, I wouldn’t take those chances for any amount of money. I came near drowning a number of times, but luck was always with me. While I was there not a man was drowned. Three days after I quit three of the longshoremen lost their lives.

“The Anaheim Landing Co. had a little wharf and a warehouse at the Landing. Langenberger and Blockman had a lumber yard there and did a good business. There was a freighting business that covered a wide territory inland.

Lighters Are Used.

We had four lighters, each capable of carrying fifty tons. We had a three-inch rope running from the wharf out to a big buoy about 300 yards from shore. This buoy was firmly anchored. Steamers would come in, anchor, unload what they had for us and take on what we had for them. The steamers came about twice a week, sometimes three times a week.

“The lighters were big flat-bottomed barges or scows. At each end was a heavy wooden bight-head through which the rope passed, and by pulling on the rope the sailors moved the lighter in or out. We had a captain of the lighters crews and generally employed from six to twelve men. We had the rope buoyed along the channel, which changed with nearly every storm.

“I was made agent after Capt. Wolfe was fired. I had just taken a job at the place when a big shipment of wool arrived. Wool was away up in price then, worth forty cents a pound. We were loading up the lighters, taking them out beyond the bar and leaving them there for the next steamer.

“I saw Wolfe was starting to load a lighter that I felt sure was leaky, and I told him the lighter was not safe. He pooh-hoohed the idea, and loaded it anyhow. The lighter was taken out about dusk. The next morning I climbed up on the lighthouse, which stood at the Landing. It was a structure built like an oil derrick and had a big coal oil lamp in it for use at night.

Lighter Is Sunk.

“From the lighthouse I saw that only a few of the topmost bales of wool were in sight.

“I called Wolfe and for a while we were a busy lot. A bale of wool was heavy enough without being wet, and when it was wet it was certainly hard to handle. Finally, Wolfe decided to drag the lighter through the breakers to shore. We hauled the ‘ wool out on to a grassy hillside, back of where Seal Beach now is, and spread it out to dry. The wetting took all of the oil out of the wool, and cut its value down tremendously. The company had to make good the loss. It sold the wool in San Francisco for seven cents, dug up over $3,000 to make up the loss, fired Wolfe and made me agent.

“I’d have to [go] out to the vessels to turn in my bills of lading and sign the papers. I couldn’t swim. That is, I couldn’t do anything more than a stroke or two, and how I escaped drowning is more than I know. That bar was mighty treacherous, and in rough weather it was exceedingly dangerous.

“The closest shave I had came just a little while before I quit. We had never lost a man, and we took more chances than were necessary.

A Dangerous Ride.

“One Sunday morning I rode horseback over to Westminster, where my cousin, John Anderson, lived. He was the first settler of the Presbyterian colony at Westminster. I had no sooner gotten there than I heard a shot and I knew a steamer had come in. I turned back and rode to the Landing. The lighter crews had gone out to make the exchange freight, and there was no way for me to carry the papers out unless I took chances in a little skiff that belonged to Fred Langenberger.

“There was only one man left on shore, a sailor named Billy. The bar looked bad, but Billy said he would risk it if I would. We started out. How we ever got through I don’t know. There was just one pair of oars, and Billy worked like mad. I baled. That boat filled up a dozen times. Half the time we were two-thirds full, and waves throwing us around like a chip. The bucket I was using was washed out of my hands. I had a brand new hat that I had put on to wear to church at Westminster, and I used that hat. Believe me, how I did work that new hat!

“Finally we got through the breakers, and the lighter crew saw us and came to get us. Poor old Billy was all in. He was so exhausted that when we got to the lighter they had to tie a rope around him and pull him up. I wasn’t much better off.

Boat is Capsized

“When the loading was done, we decided that it wouldn’t do to try to take the lighters in. It was too rough, and they were well anchored and would ride where they were.

“We started ashore in the big row-boat, a heavy sea-boat as good for taking the breakers as anything we had. There were eight of us aboard, and I had the steering oar. I was a husky those days and I thought I could stand up against anything. We reached the bar, and when the water hit that oar and the boat just right I was pitched off.

“I had on a heavy overcoat, and in the inside coat was my long pocketbook in which I carried my shipping papers and paper money. How I did what I did I don’t know. When I came up I had shed my overcoat and I had that pocket-book gripped in one hand. I shoved it inside my coat pocket, and grabbed a rope.

“The boat had been turned completely over. I yelled, and one man answered. By shouting we finally got everybody located but Jack Westerling. We couldn’t locate him hanging to the boat anywhere, and thought he was gone. I yelled to the men to hang on, as the tide was going into the bay and we would be carried in.

“That boat was bucking like a cayuse horse. The breakers were all around us, pounding the boat and breaking all over us. There was an awful roar. It is a wonder we weren’t all killed by the boat.

“Pretty soon, we were carried inside the bar, and it was not long before we got our feet on sand.

“When we lifted the boat, we found Jack. He had come up under the boat, got across a seat with his head above water. He clung on to keep his brains from being beaten out, and was saved. |

“It was right after that that I quit. I quit on a Sunday. The next Wednesday the men were crossing the bar when a toll pin, the oar rested between two toll pins, broke. The crew had neglected to fill the bag with pins, and there was not an extra pin in the boat. The Boat swamped, and three of the men drowned. One of them was Jack Westerling.

“I was in Los Angeles when I heard about it. I rode down, and found that they had recovered the bodies. The three men were taken to Anaheim and were buried in the cemetery there.”

James D. Ott passed away on February 20, 1922 at the age of  80. A Civil War veteran of Company H, the Virginia 14th Calvary Regiment, he is buried at the Santa Ana Cemetery.

ADDENDUM: Something was niggling in the back of my mind about today’s post, so I checked my Anaheim Landing bookmarks and clippings and found these contemporary accounts about the three men who drowned after Ott left the Anaheim Landing Company.

Their names were Jack Westerling, Tom Lloyd, and James Garabraith. Attention must be paid.

– Michael Dobkins


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