It was like peering out a window and seeing your own reflection.
When Andrew Millar opened his newspaper last January, he was stunned to learn that the remains of the beached lumber freighter he once visited near Surf had belonged to his own family.
“Merchant Steamer Ship VisibleC read the Jan. 29 headline. The 215-foot steam schooner Sibyl Marston, with a crew of 23, ran aground in 1909 carrying 1.1 million feet of redwood bound for Redondo Beach.
Millar e-mailed the Record/s editor.
“I was surprised by your January article of the shipwreck at Surf Beach,C he wrote. CI had not previously known the ship/s name was Sybil Marston. I knew that my great-grandfather, Captain William H. Marston of Berkeley owned and sailed a clipper ship he immodestly named for himself, but I had not known the names of his other ships.
>I recently checked family records and found that Sybil Marston was my mother/s eldest aunt and that the ship named for her is in fact the 1909 wreck at Surf Beach.
“I have always liked Lompoc and now I feel even closer to the town knowing that salvage from Great-Granddad/s ship built part of it.C Millar, a clinical psychologist, writes a weekly advice column for the Record. Until last year he was a Lompoc Valley resident and had served as president of the Lompoc Rotary club.
Another local club had organized his visit to the remnants of the wreck, Millar said recently at his Orcutt office, festooned gaily with seashells and children/s drawings. “I/d gone out with the Sierra Club.C
Millar speaks deliberately, with long thoughtful pauses. “I didn/t know of the name until I saw the captionC under the photo in the Record, he said.
The Sybil Marston, considered at the time to be the largest steam schooner built on the West Coast, was less than 2 years old when it wrecked. It had been commissioned in 1907 at the Boole Shipyard in Oakland.
On the stormy night of January 12, 1909, Capt. C. Schillinsky mistook lights at Surf for Point Arguello. Thinking he had reached the Santa Barbara Channel he made a left turn into the coastline. As the ship ran aground lumber on deck went overboard, sweeping two crewmen to their deaths.
The ship/s name is a point of confusion.
In the first 1909 newspaper accounts of the wreck the ship was called the Sibyl Marston, but in later references, and in most history books, it became the Sybil Marston. Millar/s family confirmed last week that his great aunt/s name and the ship were in fact spelled “Sibyl.C
Sibyl Marston was Capt. Marston/s firstborn. At the age of 6 months she was off on a voyage to Hawaii. In 1888, she, her younger brother Ellery and their mother were sailing from Scotland to Australia with the captain when Ellery died off Tristan d/Acuna in the South Atlantic. It was a traumatic loss for the little girl, her mother thought. “She was fond of him,C she wrote.
Sibyl attended UC Berkeley and earned a teaching credential. She was 24 when her namesake, which she had christened, wrecked. She never married, but taught elocution and physical education after taking up fencing in college. She lived at home until she was 41, when her father died.
“She was fiercely independent,C remembers Philip Gale of Berkeley, her nephew. “She was quite a character. She lived alone.C Afflicted with vision problems in her later years, she died in 1975 at the age of 90 in San Rafael.
Capt. Marston, who was not aboard at the crash, lived a life fit for Hollywood. The loss of a ship at Lompoc was but one trifling story from his dynasty. Marston owned interests in more than 30 ships and was reputed to be worth ,6 million. “I didn/t get any of it,C Millar said, grinning.
Originally from Maine, Capt. Marston went to sea in 1852 at the age of 17 and in just seven years rose to the position of ship/s captain. His first command brought lumber from Puget Sound to San Francisco, which he had made his home port. For 30 years he crisscrossed the globe under U.S., British and Hawaiian flags.
During his sailing years, Capt. Marston began to purchase maritime ownership interests and after leaving the sea in 1891 his family fortunes spiked upward.
Marston accumulated a major share of Planter/s Line, which carried sugar from Hawaii, and in 1901 the SS William H. Marston was launched to serve the sugar trade. The captain-turned-executive was named president of the San Franciso Shipowners Association. In 1903 Marston, at age 68, fathered his sixth child.
The former captain diversified into real estate holdings in Berkeley, where he served a term as mayor, and in San Francisco. The eight-story Marston Building at Post and Kearny in San Francisco survived the 1906 earthquake 7 due to its steel framing, which many older buildings lacked.
In 1908 most of Marston/s marine holdings, though not the Sibyl, were merged into Matson Lines. He was elected a director of three different banks.
Among the next generation of Marstons, Otis “DockC Marston, the captain/s fourth child and Andrew Millar/s grandfather, also achieved fame. He left life as a stockbroker to explore on the Colorado River. He ultimately became the preeminent historian of the waterway. His papers are housed in the Huntington Library.
Otis/ daughter, Loel, Millar/s mother, remembers the family being packed up to accompany her father to the river. “Others went to Tahoe for the summer. We went to the river.C
Back at Surf in 1909, an insurer quickly declared confidence that the Sibyl Marston could be saved, but it took two weeks to remove some of 800,000 feet of lumber below deck. Meanwhile a series of storms drove the vessel deeper into the sand. Then a second shipwreck, this at Dos Pueblos creek, required emergency attention. By Jan. 26, with heavy seas continuing, all efforts were abandoned.
Lumber littered the beach for almost a mile. Enterprising Lompocans went after it. The redwood, out of Grays Harbor, Wash., was hauled by wagon into town where it was used for numerous local houses. Those at 326 South H St. and 105 E. Olive Ave. are the only two known to remain.
“The wood was treated with a coating of some sort,C said Don Willis, owner of the Olive Street home which he renovated.
“We had no termites in the studs or beams at all.C
But the wrecked ship was left to the elements.
“Its hull lay in the sand close to shore for a year or two and daring kids boarded her at low tide and shrieked when waves began to break over,C Gertrude Loynachan Learned, a child at the time of the wreck, told the Lompoc Valley Historical Society in 1990.
Later, school children held an occasional picnic at the disintegrating wreck. Only a small portion of the bow is visible now at winter low tides.
“I like that I/m connected to Lompoc,C Millar said. “Especially in California with such a transitory history, there/s a feeling of solidarity, a real connection.C
Millar, born in 1957, grew up in a Marston family home in Berkeley, then in Orange County. He returned north to graduate from UC Berkeley before earning his doctorate at Louisiana State.
In his e-mail Millar quipped, “I considered asking the city council for past rent on the lumber.
“But I think instead I/ll just go visit my inheritance at next low tide.C
Correspondent John McReynolds can be reached at 736-6352 or firstname.lastname@example.org
July 2, 2006