Weird California
Weird California - By Joe Parzanese

The Lost Gold of the Ada Hancock

Map Los Angeles Harbor, Los Angeles, California

Around 5pm on April 27th, 1863, the Ada Hancock, a ferry boat in Los Angeles Harbor, exploded in a large fiery ball of flame, gun powder, and debris. Twenty six of the over fifty passengers were killed, including a Wells Fargo employee who happened to be carrying $125,000 in gold bullion for transport up to San Francisco. The wreckage of the Ada Hancock, and much of what it was carrying sank to the bottom of the harbor and still hasn't been located to this day.

Back in the 1860's the Los Angeles Harbor not only wasn't large enough to accommodate coastal steamers, but also only had two docks, neither of which was big enough for that sort of traffic. One was Banning Dock, owned by a General Phineas Banning and located in the town of Wilmington. Since the steamers couldn't fit in the harbor, Banning acquired several smaller ships to act as ferries bringing cargo and passengers between his dock and the large steamers sitting a mile off the coast. One of these ferries was the 85 ton, 65 foot Ada Hancock. Formerly the Milton Willis, it was renamed when it was repainted and acquired by Banning.

Back then, Wells Fargo employed messengers and agents to move their gold bullion from office to office and bank to bank. One of those agents was Louis Scheslinger who regularly delivered gold between San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Update: Wells Fargo has flat out denied that Scheslinger was an agent of theirs). Scheslinger was also a loan shark who ran a variety of money lending operations including loaning money to landowners that couldn't obtain normal bank loans. Scheslinger always charged exorbitant rates until the landowner was unable to pay at which point he would foreclose on the entire property and make back all his money plus some.

One such landowner was Ricardo Vejar who Scheslinger lent $30,000. However, Vejar suffered from an accident, falling from his horse and sadly passing away. As a result, Scheslinger believed that the debt would not be paid, and rode out with two of his friends to the ranch to foreclose on the property. At the ranch, Scheslinger was met by Vejar's son, Ramon, who instead of giving into Scheslinger retaliated, attacking him and his men. One of Scheslinger's friends was killed and the other severely injured as the three men fled the ranch.

Afterwards, Scheslinger learned that Ramon Vejar was planning on coming after him and murdering him, so frantically he sold off the remainder of his loans to a man named Clark who paid him with a draft of $100,000 from Wells Fargo. Which brings our story to the morning of the 27th on April in 1863.

Scheslinger withdrew the $100,000 worth of gold from Wells Fargo, and soon met with his friend and fellow Wells Fargo agent, William Ritchie, in the lobby of the Bella Union Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. (Update: Wells Fargo does confirm that William Ritchie was a well respected Wells Fargo Messenger whose primary task was to protect treasure and he was in fact transporting treasure on board the steamship). There Scheslinger informed Ritchie of his plan to have the $100,000 placed in a special account in San Francisco while he was off securing a place to flee to in the east. Within a year, he would retrieve the gold and return to his place of hiding with all the money, effectively leaving Ramon Vejar and Wells Fargo behind. He subsequently handed over the gold to Ritchie who was to escort it up to San Francisco. What Scheslinger didn't realize was that Ritchie, who was already escorting $25,000 to San Francisco for Wells Fargo, had different plans. (Update: Wells Fargo claims $10,755 not $25,000 in gold dust and bullion from the Colorado River mines). Now with $125,000 Ritchie made arrangements to leave San Francisco immediately upon arriving and head to the South Pacific, retiring in a life of luxury with his ill-gotten gold.

That night the S.S. Senator was anchored off the shore of Dead Man's Island, and all ready for its voyage up the coast to San Francisco. Dead Man's Island is no longer in the harbor as it was dredged away in 1928 in order to widen the channel there. The steamer only awaited the Ada Hancock to deliver its last passengers, their cargo, and the Captain of the ship, Captain Seely. When the Ada Hancock pulled away from the dock, thus beginning its fateful last voyage, it carried the Captain, General Banning and some of his family, three locked boxes filled with $125,000 in gold, and William Ritchie.

The Ada Hancock's lines were thrown off and she was beginning to pull away from the dock when a late boarder ran up demanding to be let on the ship. It was Scheslinger who had learned of Ritchie's deceit and was here to confront his fellow Wells Fargo messenger. As it was not uncommon for passengers to buy their tickets on board the ship, the Ada Hancock allowed itself to be pulled by line back into the dock to permit Scheslinger to board the ship. The Ada Hancock then set sail towards the S.S. Senator as Scheslinger ran along the top deck, armed with a pistol in hand, looking for Ritchie.

Ritchie, of course, ran from the advancing Scheslinger, and sought safety below decks near the boiler room. Seconds after both Wells Fargo agents disappeared below deck, roughly 1000 yards from the dock and halfway to the S.S. Senator, the sound of gunshots emanated from the ship. Then the Ada Hancock exploded.

Those watching from the S.S. Senator reported that bodies and debris were propelled into the air by the explosion. The deck and wheel houses were blasted up and into the passengers. Captain Seely was sadly killed, but General Banning and his family luckily survived, suffering injuries as they were thrown from the ship. The Ada Hancock immediately sunk into the harbor, taking twenty-six of the over fifty passengers with it. All but two of the survivors were injured. Scheslinger and Ritchie also both died in the blast.

What actually happened aboard the ship? No one really knows. But some believe that the boiler was hit by a wayward gunshot, causing it to explode and take the ship with it. Others suspect that Scheslinger's gunshots hit barrels of gun powder that had been loaded on the Ada Hancock earlier in the day, but regrettably not yet unloaded. Spectators on the docks stated that the air was thick with the smell of gun powder. On the other side, a Banning employee claimed that the Ada Hancock's boiler was defective.

The disaster was compounded by the sad fact that about an hour before the explosion, the telegraph wire, and only means of communication, went down, somehow cut halfway between the harbor and Los Angeles. Soldiers from nearby Camp Drum, however, heard the explosion and came to the aid of the survivors. Although, the disaster was very tragic, the S.S. Senator still left that night for San Francisco.

Three days after the explosion the mutilated corpse of William Ritchie washed up on shore. Scheslinger's body was not discovered until 1912 when workers excavating the shoreline uncovered a skeleton with a silver belt buckle marked with the initials "L.S."

After the disaster, Wells Fargo began an investigation into the fate of their messenger, Ritchie. At first they assumed he only had $25,000 in gold, but soon it became apparent that he, in fact to their horrified surprise, had $125,000. Wells Fargo eventually pieced together the duplicity of Scheslinger, the double crossing which Ritchie was part of, and also deduced that the explosion was caused by the two of them fighting over the gold on board the Ada Hancock. As a result of the two Wells Fargo agents, twenty-six people died and $125,000 in gold sank to the bottom of the harbor never to be found again. (Update: Wells Fargo claims the treasure was blown to bits). Somewhere, approximately a mile from where Dead Man's Island laid (it as mentioned having been dredged in 1928), in between there and the location of the old Banning dock, now also long gone, lays the wreckage of the Ada Hancock and the three Wells Fargo boxes full of the gold therein.

Update: Overall as seen in a few comments above, Wells Fargo disputes much of the above story basically calling it a flight of fancy made up by romantic treasure hunters. Their reasoning behind the explosion was a squall that hit the Ada Hancock causing cold water to hit the hot iron of the boiler, thus resulting in the explosion. Which could very well be true. But of course, a story about murder, deception, gun fights, explosions, and missing treasure is a much better story.

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Last Edited: 2009-03-05


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