Marine Disasters on Pacific Shores

By James G. McCurdy

The Cosmopolitan, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, June, 1899

For every vessel that wears out in service and finds a well-earned haven in the “boneyard,” a hundred fall victims to the vicissitudes of the sea, often in their strength and beauty.

Wreck of the British ship Glenmorag

The Glenmorag As She Lies To-Day. Photograph of the wreck of the British ship “Glenmorag”, beached north of the Columbia River.

What has been done of recent years in the saving of wrecked vessels will almost bear comparison with progress made in the saving of human life. The results now accomplished by the salvage companies, with their skilled  divers, centrifugal pumps, pontoons, coffer-dams, and power­ful machinery, are really wonderful, and many a ship pronounced in press reports a total loss, is raised, renovated and running again, almost before the public has ceased to talk about the disaster.

Shipwreck Glenmorag Just After Stranding

The Glenmorag Just After Stranding

When a vessel is wrecked, insurance companies send a representative to the scene of the disaster and a survey of the damage is made. If it is thought the ship cannot be saved, she is sold by the insur­ance companies to the highest bidder for their benefit, and the insurance paid to the owner.  If, however, as is often the case, the vessel can be saved, and it is worth while doing so, measures are taken toward that end, and the vessel, once again in first-class condition, is restored to her owners.

In recent years the writer has been much interested in the trim and stately vessels that have come to grief upon the Pacific coast. Whenever possible, his camera has been focused upon the ill-fated craft and her surroundings.  Many of these vessels are, thanks to the salver, continuing their career of usefulness quite as if nothing had ever befallen them, while others it has been quite beyond the power of modern science and human effort to save, and their bones are slowly-being scattered in an ocean graveyard.

A ship ashore is one of the most un­wieldy objects imaginable, and the most powerful effort is often unable to make any impression upon it.  In the winter of 1896-97 the British ship ‘Glenmorag,’ one thousand five hundred and seventy-six tons, ran ashore on the long stretch of beach north of the Co­lumbia river. Even in distress she was a thing of beauty— too noble an object to be allowed to go to de­struction. The local wrecking companies worked for the sake of the ship as well as for reward. They got her into deep water, but in trying to save an anchor they allowed her to drift in upon the beach, where she stuck hard and fast again. A famous wrecker from England was sent for. Cap­tain Burns had saved one hundred and thirty wrecked ves­sels with never a fail­ure. He spent thirty thousand dollars try­ing to save the “Glenmorag,” and then gave it up and went home. A recent photograph shows the ship has undoubtedly found her last rest­ing-place. She was left to her fate after as much money had been spent in rescue as would build a much larger and more modern ship.

Wreck of the Southern Chief

Wreck of the Southern Chief

When vessels become old and unable to weather the storms of long voyages, they are usually put into the coasting trade, where for many years longer they are kept at work, until they become veritable float­ing coffins. If they carry lumber, their crews are reasonably safe, but when they are put to freighting lime, stone or coal, it becomes a risky job, to say the least. Hardly a year passes without a number of these coasters coming to grief, some dis­appearing so completely that not a trace is left behind. The old bark “Southern Chief” was a fair example of this type of vessel.  Had she been freighting coal, she would certainly have carried her crew to the bottom. Happily, she was carry­ing   lumber when she began to go to pieces in a storm outside Cape Flattery, and although she be­came a water-logged wreck, she continued to float. She was picked up by a tug and hurried back to port, where she was relieved of her cargo and beached, never to sail the seas again. How these vessels manage to pass inspection year after year is a mystery to the uninitiated. Probably it is one of the tricks of the trade.

Vintage Photograph of the wreck of The Adler after the Hurricane at Samoa

The Adler After the Hurricane at Samoa

The present situa­tion in Samoa natur­ally recalls the terrible disaster of March, 1889. The American navy lost two of its most famous old ships, the “Trenton” and the “Vandalia.” But the most extraordinary wreck of all the naval vessels was that of the German warship “Adler.”  At the height of the storm a gigantic wave came toward her, lifted the huge vessel and carried her far up on the reef, where she landed upon her side. Twenty of the crew were swept from the ship at the same time. Probably never has power of the waves worked so strangely as among the little group of warships that were gathered together a decade ago to settle a political question, which at the present writing is burning more fiercely than ever.

Shipwreck the Partially Sunken Idaho

The Partially sunken Idaho

When duties on opium were high, the smuggling of this drug was such a lucra­tive business that many boats ran the risk of seizure and carried on the illicit traffic between British Columbian and American ports. One of the most famous of the boats caught while engaged in the traffic was the steamship “Idaho.”  She was out on fifty thousand dollars’ bonds at the time she was wrecked on Race rocks, off Vancouver island, in a dense fog. She was old and tender, and after a few half­hearted attempts to release her, she was abandoned. To everybody’s surprise, she floated off on a high tide and went wan­dering aimlessly about the Strait of Fuca. Several small tugs attempted to get her into a harbor, but found her too heavy to tow. The difficulty in towing her was afterward made clear when it was found that her boilers had gone through her hull and were entangled in her anchors. More as an act of charity than from any hope of gain, she was finally towed into shallow water, where she sank and where her timbers still remain.

Wreckers Raising the Blairmore

Wreckers Raising the Blairmore

The British ship “Blairmore” capsized in San Francisco bay, May 5, 1896, while lying at dock, and went to the bottom, carrying six men to death.  A contract for raising her was at once made with the owners.  Her masts and yards were dyna­mited out of the mud, her hatches were sealed tight and the water was pumped out of her hull, which brought her quickly to the surface.  She was pushed into shallow water, put on an even keel and repaired at great expense. Eventually, she was sold to her present owners and is now known as the “Abbie Palmer,” under American registry.  The fine steamer “Whitelaw,” which so ably assisted the “Blairmore,” and dozens of other vessels in distress, was herself lost recently while making a trip to Alaska.

The Kilbrannan Ashore

The Kilbrannan Ashore

“Wrecked in port” will tell the story of the ship “Kilbrannan” that met dis­aster in January, 1896, at the entrance of Puget sound. She was bound From Callao to Port Townsend, and in running up the Strait of Fuca encountered a hurri­cane that tore her sails to ribbons.  She continued her way under bare masts, but in rounding Point Wilson, kept too far in, and getting caught in the tide rip, was driven ashore.  Had she gone one hun­dred feet farther on her course, she would have rounded the point and reached a snug anchorage beyond. Her hull was badly cut by the sharp boulders, but these damages were quite easily repaired for the time being, as she was left high and dry at low tide.  She lay in this uncomfort­able berth for over a month, when six tugs, giving “a long pull, a strong pull and a pull to­gether,” succeeded in getting her into deep water. Over twelve thousand dol­lars was spent by the un­derwriters upon the ship, and when she was sold at auction, she brought but four thousand dollars. She was put under American registry, and is now the handsome ship ”Marion Chilcott.”

The rush to the Klon­dike gold – fields, though brief, has resulted in the loss of a number of vessels, and mishaps to many more. Among those fortunate to escape total loss after going ashore was the steamer “Corona,” which had just been put upon the northern route to replace the steamship “City of Mexico,” sunk August, 1897.  On the morning of Jan­uary 25, 1898, the “Corona” struck a reef near Lewes island.  She settled deep into the water, her after-house being almost submerged, her bow being firmly fastened upon the reefs.  Her two hun­dred and twenty-five passengers reached land and were soon picked up by a pass­ing vessel.  The saving of the “Corona” was as remarkable as any on record, owing to her severe injuries and the dangerous waters in which she was lying.

Divers were sent down and the largest holes were stopped up, after which the huge centrifugal pumps, capable of dis­charging ten thousand gallons of water per minute, were put in motion.  These kept the vessel partly cleared of water while she was hurried to a dry-dock for repairs. She was completely overhauled and is now running again, seemingly none the less stanch for her experience.

Shipwreck The Oregon Beached High and Dry

The Oregon Beached High and Dry

The steamship “Oregon” likewise came near leaving her bones in Alaska waters. On February 20, 1898, she was blown ashore near Juneau by a hurricane.  She remained in her perilous position thirty-six hours, when she floated off on a high tide and went on her way rejoicing, after a providential escape from serious injury. It seems almost marvelous that she man­aged to keep her equilibrium so well on a sloping beach.

There are few mariners on our North Pacific coast who did not know the “old steamer ‘Beaver,’ ” as she was affectionately called. Her origin was a distinguished one. Built on the Thames in the early days of steam navigation—1830, to be exact—the launch was a noted event, wit­nessed by King William and one hundred and thirty thousand of his enthusiastic subjects.

The Last of the Historic Beaver

The Last of the Historic Beaver

She at once proceeded to the North Pacific ocean, where she ran for the Hudson Bay Company, in various capacities, for many years. The vessel encountered many mis­haps, but triumphed over them all. until the fatal trip in July. 1888, when she ran on the rocks at the entrance to Vancouver harbor.  After hanging on the rocks for some time, she slid off into deep water—not deep enough, however, to preserve her ancient timbers, for enterprising dealers tore away portions of her hull, converting them into mementoes of the historic old craft, which in this form are scattered world-wide.

Wreck of the Potrimpus

The Potrimpus

Very near to where the stately “Glenmorag” met her fate, and in the same winter, the German bark “Potrimpus,” one thousand two hundred and forty-six tons, from Portland, Oregon, to Manzanillo, encountered a heavy blow and was forced ashore.  Grounding at high tide, the vessel was soon cradled hard and fast in the yielding sand, upright, and quite uninjured by the storm that caused the mishap. Numerous attempts have been made to float this vessel, all of which have proved unsuccessful.  The last at­tempt was made last winter at extreme high tide.  The ship was worked off the beach and into deep water, but, being without proper ballast, she capsized in the surf.  There she lies to-day in a condition much worse than the first.  It is interest­ing to note that the great anchors and chains used in the endeavors to float the ” Potrimpus” came from the ill-fated “Vandalia,” lost at Samoa.

A most curious mishap was that which befell the ship “Alliance” in the summer of 1886.   While lying at the dock at Portland, Oregon, minus her ballast, she toppled over without warning and came down with a crash upon the tugboat “Oklahoma,” which had brought her in from the Columbia river bar.  Strange as it may seem, the stanch little tug bore up the ship’s immense weight until measures could be taken for righting her.  The tug was considerably damaged, her pilot­house and smokestack being thoroughly wrecked. It took a lawsuit to determine which should stand the damages to the tug, and the decision making the ship liable seems to have been a thoroughly just one.

You may find these Shipwreck links of interest:

Wreck Report for “Glenmorag”, 1896

Article from Flux Magazine: Braving the Bar: Shipwrecks

Wiki entry on The Steamship Beaver

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