For many years, my grandparents dedicated a wall in their Santa Cruz home to old family photos. They were mostly run-of-the-mill portraits and snapshots of aunts and uncles, with the notable exception of a blurry image of a dapper man in a white uniform, standing on the deck of a ship, circa 1920. With a waxed moustache and beard, he looked like a cross between Archduke Ferdinand and King Oscar of canned sardine fame. This regal-looking gentleman was identified as Uncle Ryland — long since passed away, and little spoken of by his nephew, my typically reticent grandfather. In 1999, following the death of my grandmother, the home was sold, and the photo disappeared in the disbursement of possessions, either lost in a box in a garage somewhere, recycled, or resting peacefully in a landfill.
That would have been the end of it, had I not been regularly reminded of the photo, with memories triggered by everything from reruns of Love Boat to local hipsters sporting waxed moustaches. I decided to track down Uncle Ryland’s history, and learn more about the man behind the beard.
Ryland Drennan’s passport photo, circa 1920
Ryland Drennan was born August 28, 1877 in Santa Cruz, California, to Samuel Drennan and Louisa Fernald Drennan. The youngest of four surviving children, he was the only son of a moderately successful entrepreneur and real estate agent, and one Santa Cruz’ earliest school teachers. While there’s little biographical material on Ryland as a youth, his 15th year, 1891, was surely one of the most difficult of his life. Two days after Christmas, 1890, Ryland and a friend were playing with a shot gun. For reasons that can only be explained by youthful stupidity, Ryland’s friend aimed the gun at him, and accidentally shot him in the face, tearing away the right side of his jaw. While there were initial fears he might die, Ryland slowly recovered, permanently disfigured by a huge scar on the right side of his face. Compounding Ryland’s woes, his father was sick and dying, spending the year settling his affairs before passing away in September, leaving behind a widow and three daughters still in high school.
By 1900, Ryland was on his way to a life spent at sea. Though listed in the 1900 Census as living with his mother and youngest sister, Dora, at 45 Church Street in Santa Cruz, he was noted as being “aboard ship.” In fact he was far across the ocean, aboard the Shenandoah, where he was soon promoted to second mate, one of several for the crew following the unfortunate drowning of the captain (Ryland otherwise described the trip as quite pleasant). In 1904, he joined the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, where he rose through the ranks.
For the next 28 years, Ryland Drennan spent most of his life on the seas and abroad, living in Mexico, Australia, and Calcutta, while also keeping homes in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. In 1910 he married a childhood sweetheart, Lois Nichols, who traveled with him on many occasions, but largely stayed at their home on Union Street in Santa Cruz, living across the street from Ryland’s sister Mabel, and husband Walter Byrne. The few scraps remaining from Ryland’s life give evidence of a man who took pleasure in his exotic life, and enjoyed sharing novelties from his worldly travels with family members.
The SS Mongolia
In 1915, Ryland was embroiled in a human trafficking scandal involving 86 Chinese laborers hidden aboard the SS Mongolia on its final Pacific voyage to San Francisco. The incident was front page news for weeks in all the San Francisco papers, and was amplified in part by ongoing turf wars between several government agencies over responsibilities for controlling the port. At one point during the investigation, Ryland, who had just been promoted to Captain, was taken by officials from the bridge of the USS China just as the ship was preparing to set sail. After a long investigation, the story faded from the headlines, and no charges were ever filed.
On January 19, 1928, Ryland died of a massive heart attack in San Francisco while preparing for a weekday golf outing. His body was returned to Santa Cruz, where he was buried beside his parents in the Oddfellows Cemetery. He was only 50, but had lived a rich, colorful life, full of adventure, pleasure, and occasional hardship and tragedy.
A postcard from the Pacific Mail Steamship Mongolia