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Park Happenings: The U.S. Life-Saving Service, and the shipwreck Rosecrans

By Stephen Wood

Parks Interpretive Specialist

Published on May 10, 2016 2:04PM

The wreck of the Rosecrans was among the deadliest in local history.


The wreck of the Rosecrans was among the deadliest in local history.

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The following is another historical gem I recently stumbled upon while in the depths and throws of a hastily crafted research binge. The U.S. Life-Saving Service was under the interpretive magnifying glass, and the quest was a primary source of unrivaled quality.

To paint an illustrative portrait of the Service, I needed a source that could speak volumes in sentences: an account of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The history of the U.S.L.S.S. is without doubt, full of these accounts.

To many minds, the Life-Saving Service, 1878-1915, was the greatest contributor in the formation of the Coast Guard. The duties of the U.S. Revenue Marine, later Revenue Cutter Service, and the Lighthouse Service undoubtedly align with those of the Coast Guard; but the timeless mission to save mariners “from the peril of the seas” speaks to the single-minded purpose of the Life-Saving Service.

Locally, the Life-Saving Service had stations at Cape Disappointment and Ilwaco Beach, later named Klipsan. The stations were managed by a keeper, who was often chosen from the community. The keeper oversaw crews of six to eight, and sometimes nine surfmen, who were in many cases locals themselves. The service performed a variety of drills, and more than occasionally for the community and its visitors. The Ilwaco Railroad and Navigation Company, or “Clamshell Railroad,” would advertise a stop at the Klipsan Beach station and allow its passengers to take in the spectacle. Boat drills with a lifeboat or a surfboat, and beach apparatus drills with a Lyle gun and breeches buoy were the thrill of locals and tourists alike. Many Service members were also volunteer firefighters and performed other assistance to their chosen and likely native, homes. On the Peninsula, the Life-Saving Service was almost a fundamental aspect of everyday life — the community loved them and they loved the community.

The excerpt is from the 1913 Annual Report of U.S. Life-Saving Service. The full account, along with a thesis entitled The Preservation of Pre-World War II Coast Guard Architecture in Oregon by David Pinyerd, can be found at the following website, www.hp-nw.com/thesis.htm. On Jan. 7, 1913, the steamship Rosecrans ran aground on Peacock Spit at the mouth of the Columbia River. Of the 36 crewmembers aboard, three survived. The Point Adams and Cape Disappointment life-saving stations responded to the wreck. Keeper Oscar Wicklund of Point Adams provided details of the event.

Wreck of the Rosecrans

“It appears that immediately upon his arrival at the Cape Disappointment Station, Wicklund put off for the Rosecrans unaccompanied by the Cape Disappointment crew… Concerning this attempt, the keeper has the following to say:

All that could be seen of the wreck was the mast sticking up with 3 men clinging to the rigging. I did not have much hope of reaching the vessel, but thought it would encourage those men in the rigging if they saw the lifeboat constantly trying to reach them. I made two attempts, but the boat was entirely submerged, and we were forced to return. I got out only a quarter of a mile from the cape.

When I got back to the Cape Disappointment Station, I talked the matter over with Capt. Rimer [Cape Disappointment], and we agreed that we must reach the vessel if there was any way for us to do so. We concluded we would make another attempt right away, the tide having slackened. We made up our minds that we would not quit trying as long as there was anyone left in the rigging… While the wind had hauled a little to the southwest and moderated somewhat, it was still blowing a gale.

I observed the Cape Disappointment boat [the Tenacious] go out between the wreck and the shore, circle around the bow of the ship, and then rim to a position to southward of her. They seemed to be in trouble, as they lay in the same position for quite a while.

The wreck was lying headed west. I ran in as close as I dared toward the starboard quarter and signaled to the men in the rigging to jump, that being in my opinion the only way in which they could be rescued. I circled five times, and got as near the vessel as I dared each time, signaling to the sailors to jump, but they would not do it. As we got near the wreck the fifth time, a terrific sea struck our boat, turning it almost end over end and washing five members of the crew overboard, including myself. We all managed to hang onto the life rails and were hauled back into the boat… We then returned to the wreck. Just as soon as we got within about 100 yards of the vessel one of the men jumped and was quickly rescued… Then another man jumped [and] was rescued in the same manner.

The sea was still high, and the tide running out strong. We had no chance to return to the harbor, so I shaped our course for the Columbia River Lightship, several miles seaward… The following morning the wind had increased instead of moderated, and the sea was mountain high. The life-saving crew, with the aid of the officers and the men of the lightship, tried three different times during the day to haul the boat alongside… and free the boat of water, but the gale and sea made it impossible to do so… At 9 p.m. it was found that the boat had gone adrift…

The wreck of the Rosecrans will take its place as one of the most lamentable marine casualties in the history of the service. The work of the life-saving crews in attendance, while so meager in results, will likewise stand out conspicuously among the many fine examples of bravery and devotion to duty… Rarely have crews of the service worked against more distressing odds or exhibited a more indomitable spirit… each member of the two life-saving crews who performed service at the wreck (16 persons in all) was awarded the gold life-saving medal bestowed by the department in recognition of heroic daring exhibited in ‘saving or attempting to save life from the perils of the sea.’”


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