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Dr. Preston & Captain Clark

Dr. Russell Preston served the town of Mendocino as physician for thirty years, from 1909 to 1939. Even after his retirement he still saw some of his patients for assistance with their milder maladies. Preston not only doctored the denizens of the town, he traveled up and down the coast, out to Comptche and beyond to tend to illness and injury in a time when roads and modes of transport were not the best. Circa 1930, he motored to Sunny Slope, about seven miles east of here up the south fork of the Albion River, to treat my mother when she was seven or eight, once to get her through a severe bout of scarlet fever and another time to remove a barnyard nail from her foot. 

Preston's father moved his family from Michigan to California in 1894 when Russell was sixteen. He worked at a pharmacy before beginning his studies at Cooper Medical College, the forerunner of the Stanford University School of Medicine. He earned his medical degree in 1903 then interned at San Francisco City and County Hospital. At the same time Estelle Clark also worked at that institute while studying for her graduate degree in nursing.

Estelle Clark (full name Hannah Estelle Clark) was a Mendocino native, six years the young physician's junior. While Russell Preston specialized in eye, ear, nose, and throat disorders in the City he and Estelle courted. They planned to marry on April 25, 1906, but the great earthquake on the 18th changed things. Both doctor and nurse spent most of their days and nights caring for those injured in the disaster. A hurried ceremony in Alameda on Saturday April 21st had to suffice after the planned locale for the nuptials, Estelle's mother's family home on California Street burned in the fire that ravaged San Francisco after the quake.

Estelle's mother, Elizabeth Jane Johnson, and father, John Luther Clark, both grew up in Maine, as did so many early settlers of Mendocino. John Luther Clark's brother, Byron, also emigrated to the Mendocino coast. Byron Clark was the father of Lenora Elise Clark, who married my second oldest uncle, Charles Macdonald. Thus, the Macdonald-Clark-Preston connection as in-law cousins.

Estelle's father John Clark stemmed from Ellsworth, Maine. He went to sea as a teen and followed the sails until disembarking in California in 1876 for a short spell only to take up the ocean ways again, traveling up and down the west coast for a couple more years before settling on the Mendocino Coast. He worked in the woods then at the Big River boom. Clark rafted logs with Joshua Grindle for two decades. He made his home in Mendocino, marrying Elizabeth Johnson in January, 1881. Estelle's birth in 1884 preceded that of her sister, Ivy Beryl Clark, three and a half years later. John Clark not only worked long, hard hours in the rafting trade, he became a director of one of the local banks, a Masonic lodge member, and a school board trustee for several years. Those who knew him best regarded him as a man out to advance himself in the world, but also someone who was ready to help others as well.

Having raised his girls to the ages of twelve and eight, back to the sea John Clark went in 1896, first as a purser on the steamer Point Arena then he and several others bought the barkentine Portland and refitted her. He captained that vessel several years as she hauled lumber from coastal ports in Northern California and Oregon south to San Francisco and San Pedro.

In the early morning hours of June 19, 1906, less than two months after his daughter, Estelle, was wed, the Portland, carrying 700,000 feet of pine ties and bridge timbers from Astoria, and sailing in a dense fog, ran aground on a sandbar two miles from the Point Hueneme lighthouse. The second mate and a handful of sailors rowed ashore in the dark, prevailing against rough breakers that swamped their craft more than once. From Hueneme they wired telegrams to San Pedro for a tug to pull the Portland free. The first tug failed and Captain Clark came ashore with it to seek additional help.

More than a month later, Clark and his company were still engaged in seeking assistance to salvage the lumber and the ship. The cargo was fully insured, but the vessel was not.

In early October, Clark hitched a ride north with Captain H.P. Hansen and his crew on the steamer Shasta, bound for Bellingham, Washington to pick up a load of lumber. A relatively new vessel, the Shasta had been built less than three years prior at a cost of $150,000.

Despite functioning lights at Point Conception lighthouse, fog blanketed the coastal waters thereabouts. Around five o'clock in the morning a large swell took hold of the Shasta, carrying her far up on the rocks and smashing large holes amidships. She quickly took on great amounts of water.

The lighthouse keeper heard distress signals approximately a mile and a half south, but with only small boats and the thick fog he returned to shore unable to reach the ship. A fellow steamer, the Roanoke, responded to the signals within the hour and sent her boats to the Shasta, retrieving all but two of the men stranded aboard.

The Roanoke tried to pull the Shasta from the rocks, however the cable attached to the wrecked vessel snapped under the strain of the ordeal. Captain Hansen and his exhausted crew slept at the Conception lighthouse that night, but Captain Clark had remained on board, endeavoring to free the ship from the rocks. When it was apparent that the vessel could not be saved, he took to a small boat, but that craft proved no match for the waves and rocks, drowning John Clark in the Pacific. 

The U.S. Navy's torpedo boat destroyer Preble went on the rocks itself while attempting to render aid to the Shasta. Though the ship Paul Jones pulled the Preble free from the rocks with little damage, her commanding lieutenant stood trial at court martial a month later. Captain Hansen had his license removed for one year as a result of the destruction of his ship.

Down to the sea in ships and back to the land at

One Comment

  1. George Hollister August 15, 2018

    It is interesting how fast we have evolved in such a short period of time. We are also so out of touch, with so many things. Imagine Jonah Raskin writing what he is writing about, but in 1900. Hard to imagine. Dr Preston would not believe it.

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