by John Martini
Originally appeared in SF West History magazine, Oct-Dec 2015
Some historic photos raise many questions while attempting to document a primary subject. The below photo, taken in 1926 at Lands End, is a wondrous yet chilling example.
At first glance the photo appears to record the wreck of the oil tanker Lyman Stewart, stranded beside the stone landmark called Helmet Rock near Lands End Beach. Closer inspection reveals two oddly competing signs painted on the side of the hull: “Mother’s Cakes & Cookies,” located amidships just beneath the ruins of the ship’s bridge, and just forward of that, “KKK-S.F. #2” for “Ku Klux Klan, San Francisco.”
So what’s the story?
Most of us Outside Lands-types know there are multiple shipwrecks at Lands End, of which the Stewart is probably the best known. She came to her resting place on October 7, 1922, after colliding with another freighter in a thick fog. Badly damaged, her captain was able to beach the tanker near Lands End in order to save the ship, crew, and cargo. However, the Stewart was so firmly stuck in the sand she thwarted all attempts to refloat her. Her immense hulk, sitting only a few feet offshore, became a mecca for sightseers and photographers during the coming months. Adventurous types could (and did) wade out to her at low tide.
Once it became obvious the ship wasn’t going to be refloated, the owners made plans to salvage her where she lay. Other people had other ideas. Just before Christmas 1923, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story under the headline “Abandoned by Fair Weather Crew, Battered Hulk Still Is Manned by Old Sailors,” describing how aging merchant sailors had taken over the ship. Hikers along the bluffs and passengers on the #1 streetcars could reportedly hear sea shanties wafting from the rust-streaked hulk.
It’s not recorded how long the ship’s owners allowed homeless seamen to occupy the Stewart, but by the mid-1920s the ship was literally coming apart at the seams. Waves continually pounded her, and parts of her superstructure began to wash away.
She also became popular as a target for the equivalent of today’s graffiti taggers. On April 25, 1926, San Francisco Police Department officers spotted five men dangling from ropes and painting “KKK” in big letters on the side of the ship. The cops shouted to them to come down immediately, and in reply were told, “Come out and get us, we’re going to stay here
until we finish this job.” Not wanting to climb the sheer steel wall of the ship’s hull, the police allowed the Klansmen to finish and, when they descended, promptly arrested them. The five ended up serving 30-day sentences for violating a city ordinance prohibiting “advertising or signs of any description on private property.” (It’s not recorded if the hateful message had any influence on the court.)
Why their letters on the Lyman Stewart also read “S.F. #2” remains a mystery. Could there have been more than one Klan group active in the city?
Also, why was the Klan in San Francisco? The Ku Klux Klan’s presence was part of a vast upsurge in Klan membership that occurred in the 1920s across the country. Usually associated with its origins in the Deep South, by the mid 1920s the Klan claimed three million members,
more than half living in metropolitan areas. A chilling photo taken in August 1925 shows 40,000 white-robed Klansmen marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital. San Francisco, it appears, was not immune to the K.K.K. cancer.
The more benign ad for Mother’s Cakes and Cookies is simpler to explain. In the early twentieth century in San Francisco, many buildings ended up slathered with ad hoc advertisements, sometimes in the form of pasted-on broadsides and sometimes painted on the surface. Historic photos show ads painted on rock faces, even dead whales, around Ocean Beach and Lands
End. Someone obviously felt the side of the Stewart was a ready-made billboard for Mother’s pastries. Whether or not they had permission is unknown.
It took nearly a decade for the Stewart to finally succumb to the elements. A brief notice in the Chronicle for December 28, 1931 served as the ship’s obituary: “The tanker Lyman K. Stewart, which has clung to the rocks off Land’s End for years, was swept to Davy Jones’ locker […] under the pounding of the gales and the heavy seas.”
The last of the K.K.K.’s boastful sign and the Mother’s Cookies ad disappeared with her. All that remains visible of the Stewart today is the top of her engine block, located in the surf just west of Helmet Rock near Lands End Beach.