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Tribune editor, county schools superintendent lost at sea

Madera County Historical Society
Flanked on the left by Matilda Brown and on the right by Mrs. George Goucher, Craig Cunningham poses in this 1957 Old Timers’ Day photograph. Thirty-six years earlier, he was almost lost at sea when he went down with the passenger steamer Alaska off the California coast.


“Coast Steamer Lost on California Reef; 12 Dead, 36 missing. The Alaska Strikes in a Dense Fog and goes down in Twenty Minutes.”


As this headline from the New York Times was repeated across the nation in August 1921, The Madera Tribune ran a first-person account of the shipwreck, because its editor was on the doomed ship and escaped to write it.


On Aug. 8, 1921, Ernest N. White told the whole story in this special dispatch to The Tribune.


“The Alaska struck the rocks off Blunt’s Reef near Eureka at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night. We were three miles off our course. Craig Cunningham (Madera County Superintendent of Schools) was in the smoking room. I had just gone to our stateroom to retire for the night. First, I heard a grinding noise and then a loud crash. I did not think it serious just then, but immediately afterward the boat began to list. Craig came to the stateroom, and we hurried into our life preservers and went on the upper deck. There was no excitement then. We decided to hang together. The boat gave another bad list, and Craig was thrown one way and I another.”


“We helped to launch the life boats and get women and children aboard. The boat tipped over again and I was thrown to the opposite side of the deck. The water was washing the upper deck by this time, as the boat was rapidly sinking. Three boats were launched and I was called as an oarsman in the last boat, in which were 17 women and 4 men.”


“We battled the waves for four and a half hours, hearing terrifying cries for help from all around. The boat leaked and we had to bale the water out continuously. One woman was praying and another singing, both of them hysterical. There was a baby 18 months old in the boat. We also had a woman of 85 years who was so sick at times that she wanted to jump overboard, and we had to hold her inside.”


“The rescue ship, the Anyox, came in sight, and we rowed a mile and a half to her side, and were taken aboard. She picked us up by aid of her searchlight. The night was pitch black and the fog nearly impenetrable.”


“Craig was with the last five to leave the ship. All five, who had practically given up all hope of life, smoked a last cigarette, then said good-bye and were carried off the boat on the last swell before it plunged beneath the sea.”


“Craig and two others managed to grab the top of a table that was drifting by and with their life preservers and the top managed to keep above water, for two hours, when one of them, whose name I do not know, dropped off and was drowned, despite the efforts of Craig and his companions to hold him. They were just about all in from the cold and shock.”


“Craig and his partner drifted around, back and forth, through the oil- covered waters, for eight hours. They were finally located by searchlights on the Anyox and were picked up. They could not have lasted ten minutes longer. They were hardly recognizable, being covered with oil and could barely stand or talk. I had just about given him up for lost. Both of us prayed that the other might be saved.”


“We were landed at Eureka at 2 p.m. Sunday, where everything possible was done for us without thought of pay. We lost everything we had except the clothes we had on and Craig’s were of course absolutely ruined. Several women were lost when the ship sank. One family, consisting of mother, father and baby, were all three separated, and all saved and the re-union was wonderful. One of the oarsmen in my boat saw his wife drop into the sea and thought she was lost, but later found her saved.”


“Four lifeboats went down with the ship. The crew was inefficient and was unable to launch the boats. We had to fight clear of the wreckage of the boat, which was strewn all around when the boilers exploded. The sea was not rough, otherwise it is certain that all would have perished.”


Cunningham and White had been attending a furniture dealer’s convention in Portland that week. White had intended coming back by train as he gets seasick very easily, but was prevailed upon to take the boat.


Apparently neither Cunningham nor White considered their close call on the Alaska an ill omen. They went right ahead with their plans to open a furniture store, and on Friday, Nov. 25, 1921, they invited the public to view their new establishment. They called it “The Store Beautiful.” The place was crowded that day, and no doubt many of the conversations turned to the recent terror at sea, which the new partners experienced in their attempts to bring a new furniture store to Yosemite Avenue. Obviously it would take more than the ocean to quench their entrepreneurial spirit.