In the 1920s, silent movie production companies often used Newport Beach and the surrounding coastline as backdrops. Unlike the bustling port of Los Angeles, Newport Bay and Catalina had few people and little development, providing excellent natural backdrops for the movies. One silent film, shot largely off Catalina in 1924, was The Sea Hawk, the story of a 16th century English captain unjustly imprisoned before returning as a pirate.
The production was elaborate by the standards of the day and included four ships that were refitted to look like 16th century galleons, at a reported cost of $84,000. One of these ships refitted for the movie, Muriel, a 162 foot, four-masted schooner was built in Alameda in 1905. After nearly 20 years as a trade ship in the South Pacific, the conversion of Muriel to a movie ship was undoubtedly a sign of her diminishing usefulness. Less then a year later, however, Muriel would become both a landmark and a warning to sailors in Newport Beach.
The Sea Hawk premiered to glowing reviews in 1924. But, by early 1925, Muriel’s movie days were over. Eventually, R. J. Shafer of Newport Beach purchased the ship for use as a fishing barge, anchored off the coast. In August of 1925, Shafer attempted to tow the schooner through the notoriously treacherous mouth of Newport Bay. The towline broke and the schooner grounded on a sand bar on the Corona del Mar side of the harbor entrance. Shafer’s attempts to free the ship failed. In 1926, a strong winter storm dislodged the hulk and sent it to a sandbar just off the Balboa Peninsula. For five years the wreck of Muriel remained at the harbor entrance, accessible to the curious at low tide.
That Shafer lost Muriel in the turbulent waters of the channel is not surprising. Only months before, the charter fishing boat Thelma was swamped while trying to leave the harbor. Five men drowned. More would have died, had it not been for the bravery of a group of surfers, including the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, who paddled out to bring men back to shore.
Then, with Muriel as mute witness, another tragedy unfolded on June of 1926, when 16-year old George Rogers, Jr. drown after his Dodge Water Car capsized in the heavy surf at the entrance to the harbor. The young man’s father, George Rogers, Sr. then embarked on a decade-long campaign to make the harbor entrance safe. Rogers, along with leaders of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, worked to pass a local bond measure and to lobby the federal government for funds to make the harbor safe.
The Army Corps of Engineers removed Muriel in 1930, citing it as hazardous to navigation. Perhaps the only people disappointed by this were the rum runners rumored to use the hulk as a warehouse. It would be another six years until the jetties that made the harbor entrance safe were completed.
Sherman Library’s collections include photographs of Muriel and a large volume of material relating to the development of Newport Harbor, all of which is open for research.