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Researcher zeros in on historic wreck

Archaeologist Robert Schwemmer locates the sunken remains of the schooner George E. Billings, which was set ablaze off the California coast by its owner in 1941.

November 25, 2012|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • A 1941 photo shows the Billings aflame, the smoke billowing over rugged hills.
A 1941 photo shows the Billings aflame, the smoke billowing over rugged…

In its day, the five-masted George E. Billings was a graceful schooner that crossed the Pacific with enough lumber to build 100 homes. In the end, it was a barge for weekend anglers, a white elephant so costly that its owner towed it to sea, torched it and let it sink.

A four-paragraph story in the Feb. 12, 1941, Los Angeles Times made a vague reference to its resting place: "a lonely island reef north of here." A photo showed a flaming hulk with smoke billowing over rugged hills.

Just where the Billings lay was anyone's guess. Shipwreck buffs knew, though, that whoever found it would peel back the layers on more than a century of rough-and-tumble Western maritime history.

Robert Schwemmer, an archaeologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who presented a paper on the Billings at a scientific meeting last month, had been seeking the ship for the better part of two decades. A diver, Schwemmer has explored dozens of wrecks off the Channel Islands, including the Gold Rush steamer Winfield Scott, which for eight days in 1853 stranded about 400 passengers on Anacapa Island.

The Billings, though, held a special allure. It was a remnant from the dying days of the age of sail. And it was probably hidden in plain sight off the jagged shores Schwemmer had gotten to know so well.

"We always thought it was just over the next reef, just around the next rock," he said.

On his periodic research expeditions through the 1,470-square-mile Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Schwemmer kept a copy of the 1941 Times photo, comparing the smoke-obscured hills behind the burning ship with the hills before him. Later, he would also use a second photo with a more detailed view of the terrain.

For many years, the Billings was hard to miss. The last and largest of 108 wooden ships produced by the Hall Bros. shipyard of Port Blakely, Wash., the Billings was 224 feet long, roughly the distance between the wingtips of a Boeing 747. Named for a company executive, it delivered Pacific Northwest lumber to Australia and sometimes hauled back a mountain of Hawaiian sugar.

As many as 13 crew members shipped aboard the Billings, sailing it the same way tough crews had sailed similar craft for centuries.

In Solvang, a 73-year-old podiatrist named Jens Birkholm treasures stories of the Billings that he heard as a boy in Denmark. His paternal grandfather, Fredrik Birkholm, was an early captain and his maternal grandfather, Wilhelm Jarlshöi was first mate.

Fredrik's wife, in the custom of the day, accompanied her husband and raised their children amid the towering waves, they told Jens. The Billings' Japanese cook had been a schoolteacher before he was kidnapped and forced to work on ships. The cook was so grateful to serve on the Billings, Birkholm said, that he sent the captain a set of porcelain teacups still cherished by the family.

Before long, the Billings was edged out of business by ships with mighty engines. In 1926, its masts were removed and new owners towed it to Southern California. It became a fishing barge off Del Mar and Santa Monica, hosting day trippers and overnight guests who hopped ferries from the mainland for a two-mile jaunt offshore.

In 1929, Bob Oefinger, the Billings' chief steward and owner, raved about the accommodations.

"Whole families have been coming aboard and making overnight stays, the ship having roomy cabins available," he told The Times. "There are sun decks with reclining chairs, rest salons, a big dining salon and plenty of space for fishing."

To the dismay of local authorities, some barges like the Billings became gambling ships. Tony "Tony the Hat" Cornero, a former bootlegger, ran the S.S. Rex, a luxurious casino off Santa Monica whose slot machines and card tables were thrown overboard by police after a nine-day standoff in 1939. The dapper Cornero said he finally left the old schooner because he needed a haircut and "the only thing I haven't got aboard ship is a barber."

Barge owners had it worse the next year.

In a thick fog outside Los Angeles Harbor, eight people died when a Japanese freighter sliced into the fishing barge Olympic II. Lacking bulkheads that would help keep it afloat, the Olympic II sank within minutes.

Whether the barges were used for blackjack or barracuda, that brought an end to them. Regulators were cracking down and owners could not afford to comply. On Feb. 11, 1941, Oefinger, the owner of the Billings, told The Times that he had destroyed his aging vessel the previous night rather than face fines of $500 a day for not making repairs.

Just why he publicized the scuttling — even as he hid its location — is a question that has vexed many an old salt.

"Maybe he wanted to send a message," Schwemmer said.

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