Is the Columbia Bar the Graveyard of the Pacific?

Whether you visit the mouth of the Columbia by boat or live here as I do, you can’t avoid the constant reminder that the Columbia Bar is the “Graveyard of the Pacific–the most treacherous stretch of water in the world,” or words to that effect. Exactly who decided this (or that a river is capable of treachery) has been lost in the sands of time, like most of the wrecks. It certainly has a good ring to it and is regularly quoted in publications from the New York Times to Sunset magazine.

This does fit rather well with other local spots with depressing names like Cape Disappointment (from John Meares in 1788) and Dismal Nitch (from Lewis & Clark). As if that isn’t gloomy enough, it’s always backed up by an impressive statistic of “2,000 vessels and 700 lives lost.” This sounds very official and is quoted as the ultimate proof that we are number one in the shipwreck stakes. It’s a title that is a real point of pride among local residents!

Ranger, a modern-cargo ship, crossing the Columbia Bar in winter. (photo by Captain R. Johnson)

Ranger, a modern-cargo ship, crossing the Columbia Bar in winter. (photo by Captain R. Johnson)

I hate to spoil things, but that number of 2,000 has always sounded suspiciously high and conveniently round, especially when compared to the loss of life. Only one death for every three wrecks? Remember the North Pacific is cold, and most wrecks occurred when most people couldn’t swim, and before inventions like lifejackets, rafts, radios etc.

So I decided to dig a little deeper into these dangerous waters and found several authoritative books with lists of wrecks. James Gibbs was a nautical expert and unofficial coastal historian after WW II, and wrote many books about sailing ships and wrecks including Pacific Graveyards (1964). He counted 205 ships wrecked near the mouth of the Columbia with 45 of them re-floated. Don Marshall, author of the book Oregon Shipwrecks (1984) only added a handful to that total.

In 2006, local entrepreneur and publisher Bill Brooks made an exhaustive inquiry for his “ultimate” wreck map. Using databases and archives, Brooks dredged up over 300 ships wrecked, plus about 100 fishing boats and managed to list them all on the map, which he distributed in a framed limited edition That looks like more than enough nautical disasters to me, although I recently heard a lecture by local historian and wreck diver Jerry Ostermiller who suggested the number of wrecks could exceed 3,000! So take your pick…..

The Fine Line Between Life and Death

Regardless of the total number, the vast majority of wrecks happened in the days of sail. Before any modern inventions that aided navigation or rescue.If the ship did strike the shore on “a dark and stormy night,” it could easily disappear without a trace, taking the entire crew down with it. That was the fate of many a proud ship, but a sailing ship was just as likely to wreck in a calm as in a storm.

The Tango was towed across the Columbia Bar and into the Pacific.

The Tango was towed across the Columbia Bar and into the Pacific.

When the vessel drifted helplessly onto the shore on a windless day, the crew had a good chance of survival. With many miles of sandy beach around the Columbia, they might even be able to walk ashore! Their fate depended on the tide: was it rising or falling? If a heavily-laden ship grounded with a big swell, a rising tide could sweep the decks. But if the tide was falling, the ship could be be high and dry in a few hours.

If you could hold on long enough, there was also the chance of rescue by the US Lifesaving Service (USLS), who were stationed at Cape Disappointment, Washington at the mouth of the Columbia and at Point Adams on the Oregon side. Until 1915, they were only equipped with a single 26′ rowboat to reach any survivors. If the wreck was to the north along the Washington shore, the lifesaving crew could telegraph the railway depot, haul their half-ton boat on its trailer to the railroad track nearby, and load it onto the next train.

The Lifesaving Service rode the rails as close to the wreck as possible and dragged the boat onto the beach—a method that left a lot to be desired if you were hanging on in the rigging! It wasn’t much better on the Oregon shore, where they harnessed their draft horses and hauled the boat through the dunes before trying to launch into the surf. In either case, the public often managed to show up in time to watch the rescue.

So a great many sailors did live to tell the tale, and their ships survived long enough to be photographed by the cameramen of the day. These photos are the ones we see in the history books the ones I have chosen for this story. Ironically, the worse the wreck, the less information there is. If there were no survivors and no wreckage, there were no stories and no photos, just a formal report from the official inquiry.

The Most Photographed Wreck in the World

If it’s not the most photographed wreck in the world, the 287′ four-masted barque Peter Iredale is certainly the most famous on the west coast. Barely a day goes by even in winter without someone visiting the rusty remains on the Clatsop Beach, about four miles south of the river mouth, in Fort Stevens State Park in northwest Oregon. It’s been the center of attention for 110 years after a peaceful wreck that Don Marshall, artfully described as “the most singularly unexciting shipwreck in maritime history.” It’s not hard to take a great photo here.

The wreck of the Peter Iredale on Clatsop Beach in 1908

The wreck of the Peter Iredale on Clatsop Beach in 1908

Sailing from Salina Cruz, Mexico, the Peter Iredale was bound for Portland with 1,000 tons of ballast and a crew of 27. The voyage up the coast was uneventful until the night of October 25, 1906 when Captain Lawrence sighted the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse at 3.20 a.m. With limited visibility and a SW wind, the crew altered course too soon to enter the Columbia. When land was sighted, the crew attempted to wear ship (a long slow maneuver to tack a square rigger), but a heavy squall drove the ship ashore.

The USLS arrived quickly and enthusiastically set up a breeches buoy (a nautical zipline) that the crew rode to the beach. Had they waited a while, they could have all walked ashore at low tide. The only “casualty” of the wreck occurred the following day when a sightseer drowned after his small rowboat overturned as he paddled around the beached ship. The vessel’s hull was barely dented and there were high hopes of salvage.

But the sand piled up before a capable tug could be found and the wreck was left to the mercy of the weather. The underwriters had to admit defeat and the ship was sold for scrap. All the accessible plating was cut away, leaving the iconic remains that are now protected by the state. The Peter Iredale took on a ghostly patchwork appearance, and became one of the coast’s scenic treasures that you could walk around at low tide.

For the 100th anniversary of the wreck, Shipwreck Week was held in Astoria in Oct. 2006 with English guest of honor Thomas Iredale, a descendant of the ship’s builder. After a short ceremony, I found myself alone with Mr. Iredale on Clatsop Beach as the sun found its way through the clouds. The wreck of the Peter Iredale stands alone today, but in 1906 it was a common occurrence. In fact, just three weeks later, another splendid British ship, the 290′ Galena, almost identical to the Iredale, was washed ashore just a mile to the south. It was undamaged but firmly stuck, and was completely scrapped.

The latest book on local wrecks, Man & the Sea (2014), put the Galena on the cover and included 214 wrecks. The book describes six more square riggers blown ashore in 15 years with no loss of life, all recorded in nostalgic splendor. They were the Glenmorag and Potrepos (1896), Poltalloch (refloated 1900 and wrecked in Ireland 1916), Alsternixe (refloated 1903 and lost at sea 1906), Galena (1906), Alice (1909) in Ocean Park, on Long Beach, Washington. It was carrying 3,000 tons of cement, which hardened around the mast to keep it upright, providing a landmark until 1930.

Bad Luck, Booze, or Barratry?

The Peter Iredale is arguably not the most famous wreck in the area. That honor must go to the 260′ Glenesslin, which also involved no loss of life. It became infamous for the bizarre inaction of the officers and crew as it sailed and drifted straight onto the rocks of Neahkanie Head in broad daylight in 1913. Captain Owen Williams ordered a line to be shot across the rocks where a group of spectators from Nehalem had quickly gathered to view this surreal scene. They made the line fast and all 21 crewmen reached the shore safely.

Why would a full-size windjammer and crew simply sail into a 1600′ mountain? The captain remained silent on the cause of the wreck and his officers followed suit. Were the crew drunk or was this just a rumor that spread along the coast? They were certainly happy to pose for the local photographer Paul Bartels who had hiked down carrying his tripod, box camera, and plate glass negatives. The opportunity was soon gone, as theshipt began to slip back down the rocks into deep water at the foot of the cliff.

.A Court of Inquiry was held in Astoria, consisting of the British Consul in Portland and two British ship captains. After questioning the officers and the crew at length, the officers were held responsible and found to be negligent. The court revoked the master’s certificate for three months and the second mate’s papers for six months. The first mate got off with a reprimand for the drunken behavior of the crew.

How a Horse Saved the Columbia Lightship

The first lightship on the Pacific coast arrived in 1892 to take up its station off the mouth of the Columbia River. There were only five stations on the west coast, all located miles off the shoreline and exposed to everything the weather could throw. With no means of propulsion except sails, it was not a grand arrival for Light Vessel No. 50 (LV 50). She was towed north from the builder’s yard in San Francisco by the steam-tug Fearless.

The crew dropped the 5,000-lb. mushroom anchor west of the whistle buoy marking the Columbia River entrance and about five miles from the Oregon shore. LV 50 was vital to the safety of the hundreds of sailing ships bound for Portland to load wheat. The U.S. Lighthouse Board had specified the strongest, heaviest boat possible for this duty. LV 50 was 112′ long and heavily built from 4” thick pine planking bolted to heavy frames and sheathed with 1 ½” thick oak.

Life was hard and dull on the lightship crews at that time, with no communication to the shore for weeks at a time. In low visibility, it was not uncommon for ships to sail directly to a lightship’s fog horn and collide with the lightship. LV 50‘s two small coal-fired boilers had to be run round-the-clock to keep up the steam pressure just to raise the light frame to the masthead every night, and in case there was a need for cabin heat, to work the anchor windlass, or for the fog signal.

On November 28, 1899, gale force SW winds broke the heavy anchor chains and drove the ship toward the bar as the crew struggled to hoist sail. The crew managed to prevent the ship from drifting onto Cape Disappointment until two tugs looking for incoming sailing ships realized the lightship was adrift. They tried to pass a tow line, but failed. When the lightship  tender Manzanita arrived on the scene, a rocket line was shot across to the lightship, but it floated back, caught in the tender’s propellers, and had to be cut. Now there was no hope.

LV 50 was driven over the deadly Peacock Spit and seemed headed for the rocks until it miraculously grounded on the small stretch of beach between McKenzie Head and Cape Disappointment (before the north jetty was built). The crew climbed down at low tide and walked ashore none the worse for their experience. The lightship sat high up on the beach for the next 16 months. Thanks to the stout construction, the hull appeared to be unharmed, so the Lightship Service was reluctant to order a replacement vessel built and settled for a merchant ship as a temporary replacement.

Through the summer, there were several attempts at salvage by dragging LV 50 back to sea but it was all to no avail. The best option seemed to be stripping the hull for parts, but the government asked for bids to move it onshore. Two Portland house movers, Andrew Allen and H. H. Roberts, won the job. They gambled that they could move it up the beach and inland across the narrow isthmus joining the Cape to the mainland and into Baker’s Bay (a distance of about 660 yards).

Early in 1900, they assembled the equipment, a team of laborers and a few draft horses. During low tides, they jacked the ship level, built heavy frames around the bilges to hold it upright, and set up parallel lines of railroad ties in the sand to support log rollers. Then they rigged up multiple blocks and tackles to create a huge mechanical advantage and led the running line round a windlass on shore turned by a pair of horses harnessed to a very long handle. This was enough of a reduction in gearing to enable “two horsepower” to inch the ship slowly up the beach.

Through the spring, a small army of laborers toiled all day, felling trees to create a path, picking up the ties behind the ship and moving them ahead, and re-rigging the lines. At night, the work continued with a steam generator set up on the ship’s foredeck throwing a ghostly light on the scene. The distance traveled per day ranged from a few inches when the ropes broke to a best day’s run of 205 feet. It was such a spectacle that the ferries ran excursions from Astoria on Sundays at $1 per head. Families picnicked on the hillside below the gun emplacements of Fort Canby and watched the ship “sail” slowly through the woods.

When it reached the sheltered shore of the bay, the sternpost was quickly repaired and a replacement rudder fitted. On June 2, 1901, the tide floated LV 50 and it was towed across the Columbia to Astoria, then to Portland for drydocking. The movers won $17,500–about 1/3 the value of the ship. It was repaired and returned to service for another nine years. (Today you can see and board old lightships in the water next to the maritime museums in Seattle and Astoria.)

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2 Responses to Is the Columbia Bar the Graveyard of the Pacific?

  1. I remember my dad talking about the Irdale. And a lot more names while we were out fishing. Dad had me on a boat at the age of 5. In 1967. Dad servered in the Navy. Got in trouble when they figured out he lied about his age. Funny story though. And Yes it is the mighty fisherman’s Graveyard. At age 12 I was a deckhand out of Iowa do. I loved it & would not change it for nothing. They only way that I respect more is the rouge wave. Have lost a number of Friends on that stretch of water. Sad days happy days, I guess in my heart and soul it’s where I would have wanted to be in the end. I know a coupe of the chiefs deckhands and how I wished just one trip with her. She does enormous work. Thanks for listening. I Miss not being out there as much anymore.

  2. Norman Luxton says:

    Two points:
    1. Cape disappointment was named by John Meares in 1788, not Vancouver.
    2. Although James Gibbs, in “Pacific Graveyard” (1950, Binfords & Mort, Portland) identifies the Columbia River mouth and adjacent areas as the Graveyard of the Pacific, the last of his shipwreck trilogy “Shipwrecks Off Juan de Fuca” (1968, Binfords & Mort, Portland) identifies the mouth of the Strait as the Graveyard of the Pacific; it would seem that additional research convinced Mr. Gibbs that the Graveyard’s extent greatly exceeded his initial presumed boundaries. Today, this title is generally accepted to include the area of the northwest coast from approximately Tillamook to Nootka Sound. It was not uncommon for a ship to become disabled well off the California coast only to discover a deadly landfall somewhere north of Tofino. In short, while Oregonians in general and Astorians in particular would seem to cherish the ‘Graveyard’ appellation as their deeded right, a cursory reading of Gibbs’ trilogy should convince even the most casual reader that Pacific Graveyard is not a title specific to the mouth of the Columbia River.

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