During the voyage, my great grandfather, first mate James Cleaveland was challenged to a duel by a passenger who was apparently drunk. Given a choice of weapons, James, a New England whaleman all his life, chose harpoons. The duel was over before it began!
Upon reaching Buena Vista, the passengers and most of the crew left the Niantic to search for gold. Capt. Cleaveland then beached the Niantic, and she became one of dozens of “store ships” lining the waterfront. San Francisco (then called Buena Vista) was a small village before the gold rush and when news of gold hit, the village grew a hundredfold in a matter of months. Building materials were impossible to obtain. People were desperate for housing and supplies of all kinds. As ships arrived, both passengers and crew deserted for the gold fields and abandoned the ships. Beached ships, with their dry basements, were rented out as storeships and hotels. The Niantic rented for $20,000 a month—an astronomical sum!
In 1978, during excavation for San Francisco’s Trans-Am building, the construction crew unearthed the remains of a ship, which turned out to be the Niantic. The founder of the San Francisco Maritime Museum (now the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park) salvaged the stern section and had it moved to the museum. My mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, learned about the discovery, and offered the logbook of the last voyage of the Niantic to the museum. A young museum employee named Dave Hull came to the Vineyard and picked up the log.
Did I want a painting worth five to six figures hanging in my unlocked house on hardware store hooks, where it would be exposed to wood smoke from the fire, bacon grease from the kitchen, and more spider droppings? The answer was no. I contacted the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Museum staff were delighted to add the painting to the Niantic exhibit and sent Dave Hull—the same man who, 30 years before, had come to fetch the logbook of the Niantic’s last voyage—to pick up the painting.