Although there must be over a thousand ships lost along the Oregon coast in the last 200 years, only a handful belong in a category generally referred to as “mystery” or “phantom” ships. This is because they have the remarkable ability to suddenly appear for a short time then vanish! Now this might sound like a sailors’ yarn: a tall tale of a crew too long at sea or an Indian legend about a beautiful maiden and a young captain. But that is not the case at all. This winter of 2011, at least three mystery wrecks have recently been seen and photographed by dozens, perhaps hundred of people.
Having spun my own yarn so far, I will now confess that they did not appear out a fog bank when the moon was full, they actually exposed their bones to the world when the shifting sands that buried them were blown or washed aside by winter storms. The only documented “phantom ship” on the north coast is the Emily G. Reed, a 209-foot three-masted wooden schooner that re-appeared in January 2011 on Rockaway Beach. This time locals and visitors were ready with video cameras and the scene was soon publicized on the web and featured on local TV.
The ship had set sail in November 1907 from New South Wales, Australia, with a cargo of 2,100 tons of coal, bound for Portland. After 102 days at sea she sailed too close to shore looking for a landmark like the Tillamook Rock to fix the position. Other ships were in the area and reportedly saw the Emily G. Reed was off course, but she was blown onto the shore near the Nehalem River Bar early on a windy Valentine’s Day on February 14, 1908.
Seven or eight sailors died in the wreck. Four of the crew recklessly launched a lifeboat and rowed away from the surf, but they suffered terribly while they drifted north along the entire Washington coast and did not get ashore until they were in Neah Bay. But six of the crew, including the captain and his wife, clung to the poop deck until low tide allowed them to walk ashore. The hull of their ship soon broke in half and began to drift south down the shore.
Some of the cargo was spilled in the shallows as far as Tillamook Bay. Local families retrieved the coal at low tide and it kept their houses warm until spring. (A few pieces were preserved and are on display at the Coast Guard station in Garibaldi and the Pioneer Museum in Tillamook.) Parts of the ship drifted ashore in several locations, with the biggest section over 100′ long coming to rest south of the site of the “natatorium” (swimming pool) in Rockaway Beach—now a state wayside.
The hull laid on its side and was soon stripped of its valuable planking. It began to sink into the sand until only the topside frames were visible, and remained that way until the 1950’s, when the sand began to cover it for longer periods. Then it was lost to sight for around 35 years, according to Don Best, a longtime resident, historian and photographer whose pioneer family have lived in a beach house near the wreck since the early 1900s.
Best generously invited me into his house and regaled with stories of the early days of this resort town and showed me many of the finds he has made at low tide, which now decorate his garden. He was born in 1943, and recalled that at Christmas during his childhood people burnt the wood from the wreck that could not be re-used and the copper fasteners and sheathing gave off strange blue and green flames, so they called it ‘magic wood.’
The Emily G. Reed re-appeared briefly in 2008 after the Great Gale, then made another appearance around New Year’s Day 2011 after winter wave action had cut away the sand several feet deep. It was about 50 yards from the high tide mark, between the wayside and St. Mary’s by the Sea Catholic Church. Best, went to work to catch the scene in the best light and add another fine picture to his collection.
Earlier photos show him as a baby in his mother’s arms on the wreck, then him as a boy playing on the framework. One summer, at the age of eight, he decided to dig around it, found an air pocket, and he “scooted in under there on my belly and looked inside.” Another time, he found an object that turned out to be a pocket whistle. He also has pictures of an excavation he made of a large chunk of an unidentified wooden ship’s hull that he found protruding from the sand south of Rockaway.
The Emily G. Reed was built in 1880 on the Medonak River in Waldoboro, Maine by the Reed family, who assembled a small fleet of ships bearing their name. Its length was 209 feet, beam 40 feet and draft 24 feet. The ship had operated on the Pacific routes for many years and had been extensively repaired. The frames are probably oak and seem to be standing up to the elements quite well. Doubtless it will appear again one of these years.