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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
Article from Flux Magazine: Braving the Bar: Shipwrecks
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