Robert Schwemmer

Researcher zeros in on historic wreck

By Steve Chawkins - Los Angeles Times

In its day, the five-masted George E. Billings was a graceful schooner that crossed the Pacific with enough lumber to build 100 homes.

In the end, it was a barge for weekend anglers, a white elephant so costly that its owner towed it to sea, torched it and let it sink.

A four-paragraph story in the Feb. 12, 1941, Los Angeles Times made a vague reference to its resting place: "a lonely island reef north of here."

A photo showed a flaming hulk with smoke billowing over rugged hills.

Just where the Billings lay was anyone's guess. Shipwreck buffs knew, though, that whoever found it would peel back the layers on more than a century of rough-and-tumble Western maritime history.

Robert Schwemmer, an archaeologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who presented a paper on the Billings at a scientific meeting last month, had been seeking the ship for the better part of two decades.

A diver, Schwemmer has explored dozens of wrecks off the Channel Islands, including the Gold Rush steamer Winfield Scott, which for eight days in 1853 stranded about 400 passengers on Anacapa Island.

The Billings, though, held a special allure.

It was a remnant from the dying days of the age of sail. And it was probably hidden in plain sight off the jagged shores Schwemmer had gotten to know so well.


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