Sierra Nevada 1877 - 1900

Text: Wayne Caldow & Eric Langenberg

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The Sierra Nevada was built in 1877 by Oswald, Mordaunt and Co., at their Southampton, England shipyard. The Sierra Nevada was owned by the Sierra Shipping Company managed by Thompson, Anderson and Co. of Liverpool. The British registered vessel is described in the Lloyds Shipping Register as being
The Sierra Nevada. LaTrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
The Sierra Nevada. LaTrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.
233 feet long, 37.6 feet in breadth and 23.5 feet in depth. The vessel was a 1470 ton (net), 1523 ton (gross), two deck three masted ship. The hull was of iron with a single cemented bulkhead. The Sierra Nevada had a 100A1 classification with Lloyds of London (1). The Sierra fleet consisted of fourteen vessels all of steel or iron construction and all fully-rigged three masted ships apart from one barque. Features common to all vessels of the Sierra line were the French grey hulls, white spars and short naval mastheads. The ships were mostly built for the Rangoon rice trade, and were therefore more carriers than fliers.

The Sierra Nevada left Liverpool, England on 16 January 1900 under the command of Captain John Scott of Manchester, and a crew of 27 bound for Melbourne, Australia with a particularly large and valuable cargo comprising in all 2,600 tons of general merchandise (3). On May 8 after 112 days at sea the vessel arrived outside Port Phillip Heads in very rough weather. While waiting outside the heads blue lights were burned as a signal for the pilot schooner. A strong southerly was blowing and shortly after midnight the ship was driven inshore on to the reef in vicinity of London Bridge. On striking the reef the captain gave the order to let go the anchor but it failed to hold and the ship drifted broadside on. Up until the impact no distress rockets had been fired as the captain was unaware that the vessel was in danger. It appears that in the squally conditions the Sierra Nevada had unwittingly overshot the pilot ground despite the pilot schooner burning white flares regularly. A subsequent investigations revealed that the pilot was unaware of the the arrival of the Sierra Nevada. On this particular morning the pilot station was some five miles out from the heads which was some distance further out than usual due to the heavy weather (4,5). The Sierra Nevada rapidly went to pieces in the pounding surf with the loss of 23 of the 28 crew. A memorial gravestone is located in the Sorrento cemetry marking the spot where Captain Scott and ten crewmen are buried, and is dedicated to the 23 crew lost. At daybreak the beach west of London Bridge was seven feet deep in wreckage. Locals rushed to the scene some to render assistance others to help themselves to numerous casks of whisky that had been washed ashore. Pilfering became so rife infact that a detachment of Permanent Artillary were stationed about the beach the following morning. On the 5 June 1900 the remains of the Sierra Nevada were sold for 53 pounds.

On the 19 January 1989 the Sierra Nevada and fourteen other Victorian shipwrecks were protected under The Commonwealth Government Historic Shipwreck Act 1976. Despite the fact that the site lies in the wave zone along a normally exposed part of the coastline and is rarely diveable the remains, prior to the declaration, had been looted by divers. Divers now face heavy fines of up to $5000 or imprisonment for removing artifacts or damaging the remains of the Sierra Nevada or any other protected shipwreck. Divers will continue to have access to most historic shipwrecks, including the Sierra Nevada, as long as a responsible attitude towards our cultural heritage is maintained.

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(1) Lloyds Register of Shipping, 1878-1900.
(2) Sea Breezes, Vol. 9, 1926.
(3) The Argus, Thursday May 10, 1900.
(4) Weekly Times, 19 May 1900.
(5) Australasian Shipping News, 12 & 19 May 1900.

This site was constructed and is maintained by Eric F. Langenberg.

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Last modified: March, 2011