About the time Congress was reading Lt. Howison’s recommendations of 1848 — those calling for a lighthouse, lighted and unlighted buoys, bar pilots, and a steam towing tug (read: non-wind-powered vessel) to ease the chaos at the Columbia River’s accursed entrance — other exciting things were happening out west.
In March 1848 San Francisco newspapers began to report the finding of gold — gold! — up in the Sierra Nevadas. Able-bodied Californians tended to drop their axe, plow, type stick, spatula, or whatever tool by which they earned their living, and headed for the gold fields. All of a sudden there was an absence of food and shelter in the face of a mushrooming population.
Up-coast, however, Oregon could supply wheat, potatoes, and lumber. Businessmen just needed to get ships — those over-the-road trucks of their day — up from California and into the river, load them up, and get them safely out over the Bar again.
As maritime traffic increased, so too did shipwrecks. In fact, so many wrecks happened between mid-year 1848 and 1856, when the Cape Disappointment Light was turned on, that it is dizzying.
As I write this in 2017 and imagine back eight years to 2009, I wonder how we out here at the mouth of the Columbia would be surviving emotionally if we had experienced this many wrecks of major vessels in so few years:
• 1848, May: The Hudson’s Bay Co. bark Vancouver, inbound. Another year’s supplies destroyed.
• 1848, August: The whale oil ship Maine, inbound. That wreck was pretty much the end of whale ships using the Columbia for refurnishing before heading home to New England.
• 1849, July: Ship Silvie de Grasse, outbound, with lumber for San Francisco. This wreck bedeviled pilots, ships, and those who would scavenge its remains; parts of it are still there, between Pier 39 and Tongue Point.
• 1849, July 11: Ship L’Etoile du Matin (The Morning Star) inbound from France with priests, nuns (the Catholic Reinforcement), tobacco, and wines. “There is an immense sand-bar stretching entirely across the mouth, which is about eight and a half miles wide, excepting about a quarter of a mile, which is put down by all the officers of the several vessels now in the river as the worst place they ever saw; many of them avow that if they are lucky enough to get out, they will not be caught attempting to cross it again. …”
• 1849, late year: Ship Aurora, outbound, loaded with lumber for California.
• 1849, late year: Brig Josephine, outbound, loaded with lumber for San Francisco.
• 1850, January: Brig Forrest, inbound, out of food, four crew died going ashore in small boat.
• 1851, December: Robert Bruce, inbound for live oysters, for San Francisco, burned to the water line, Shoalwater Bay.
• 1852, January: Wreck, General Warren, steamship, many died. (Details below.)
• 1852, May 3: Wreck, Potomac, brig, outbound with lumber, for California. “…This brig on going out of the Columbia river on the 3d inst., in company with six other vessels, ran on to the bar, in consequence of the displacement of the buoys, by the heavy seas, recently put there.”
• 1852, October: Wreck, Willimantic, wrecked in Gray’s Harbor. “…[T]he schooner Willamantic went ashore at Gray’s Harbor, mistaking the entrance of that inlet for that of the Columbia river.” Two lives were reported lost.
• 1852, November: Loss, small boat from steamer Columbia, three crewmen lost.
• 1852, November: Wreck, Machigone, schooner, nine or 10 died.
• 1852, November: Wreck, Marie, American brig, nine died.
• 1852, December: Wreck, Bordeaux, brig, Clatsop Beach.
• 1853, Jan. 9: Wreck, Vandalia, bark, all hands lost. The Ilwaco real estate subdivision Vandalia was named for this wreck, and the North Head cove Beard’s Hollow is named for the captain whose body washed up there.
• 1853, Jan. 12: Wreck, Mindora, bark. Two wrecks in one day …
• 1853, Jan. 12: Wreck, J. Merrithew, bark.
• 1853, Sept. 19: Wreck, Oriole, bark, carrying lighthouse supplies for Cape Disappointment and other lighthouses. Crew saved. “The Oriole has been in use for the past few months in carrying supplies to the light-houses on the coast, and at the time of the catastrophe, she was deeply laden, drawing twelve feet of water. What renders this occurrence more singular, is the fact that five vessels crossed the bar a short time previous to the wreck, and the schooner M. Vassar, Capt. Dodge, was within hail at the time of the occurrence.” Sacramento Daily Union, Oct. 3, 1853.
• 1853: Wreck, Palos, American brig, Shoalwater Bay. “The bodies of Capt. Shultz and two of his men have since been found and decently interred. The Palos was a miserable old hulk, and should have been condemned years ago.”
• 1854, late February: Wreck, Firefly, steam tug, five died.
• 1854, Apr. 8: Wreck, Gazelle, boiler explosion.
• 1854: Wreck, Empire, schooner, outbound with oysters, Willapa Bar.
• 1855, Dec. 25: Wreck, Detroit, brig, outbound. “…the bark sailed about [in] the offing for twenty-four hours, finally going ashore near Tillamook head…”
• 1856, Oct. 15: Lighthouse at Cape Disappointment begins operation.
That is 24 wrecks of named vessels in eight years, ordinary cargo-carrying ships, with crew and sometimes passengers, representing the growing economy of the Columbia River drainage basin.
These days, as we cross the Megler-Astoria Bridge, we see perhaps 10 freighters anchored within view: how would we be feeling if they had all come to disaster in a handful of years within our sight here?
It’s something to muse about as a fog horn sounds out of the nighttime darkness while a ship eases its way upriver or down …
The itemizing of these vessels which wrecked and sank, or wrecked and survived, in the years between 1848 and 1856 is numbing. There were lives lost in these wrecks — several dozen — but the wreck of the General Warren was the horror story that told the nation that navigation markers were required out here at the mouth of the Columbia River. And soon.
What a maddening passage that changes from one month to the next, or even one moment to the next, allowing one ship across and killing the next.
• • •
General Warren and Captain Flavel
“Wreck of the General Warren. Forty-two Lives Lost,” exclaimed the horrified Oregon Spectator in early February 1852. The propeller-driven steamship, built in Maine in 1844, was on her way back to San Francisco from Portland in January when the worst happened.
One survivor, Gen. J. B. Wall, was in Astoria in 1893 for the funeral of his good friend Capt. George Flavel; he spoke to the Daily Astorian about the wreck:
“On account of the stormy weather [in the north Pacific], the Warren was unable to touch at either Humboldt or Trinidad, and all the passengers were compelled to come up to Astoria. We were piloted in by Captain Flavel. At Portland the steamer was deeply laden with grain, and at St. Helens a deck load of some 500 or 600 [live] hogs was taken aboard …” [Imagine the noise.]
“We again crossed the bar in safety with Captain Flavel as pilot.
“It was about dark when we went out and the weather was rough, with a strong breeze blowing off the land. We hoisted sail [to augment to streamer’s power], but at 11 [p.m.] the topmast was carried away, and we returned to the bar that night. Captain Flavel had not crossed in with his pilot boat, and he came alongside in the morning, telling us we could not cross in that morning, but that if the bar quieted down he would take the steamer over in the afternoon. Captain Flavel then boarded the Warren, telling his men to remain alongside.
“None knew the danger so well as he, and while he was very quiet in his demeanor, he told the captain firmly that his advice was to remain outside [and not attempt to cross in] till the weather moderated. The passengers added their entreaties and solicitations to those of the captain and crew, and finally, with many misgivings he yielded, sending his men back to the pilot boat with word that he would take the Warren in.
“When we got on the bar a thick fog settled down and I heard Captain Flavel tell the captain that the sound of the breakers would have to be his guide in keeping in the channel.”
[At this point, the vessel was discovered to be leaking rapidly. Reported the Oregon Spectator, “Capt. Thompson ordered the pilot [Flavel] ‘to beach her without delay.’ The pilot, amazed, inquired of the captain — ‘Will she not live half an hour?’ The reply was, ‘No.’” The General Warren was apparently a rotten old tub known by the captain to be unsound.]
‘God bless him’
Gen. Wall’s interview in the Astorian continued:
“A moment later we struck on Clatsop spit. Before an anchor could be got out the steamer forged off the spit, the water pouring into her from all directions. As a last resort the steamer was again sent up on the spit, remaining fast, but washed by every ‘comber’ that came along.
“Two hours after she struck the whole after part of the vessel was gone. That night the captain proposed that a crew man the only boat and go for relief. He selected nine men, of whom I was one, and placed the boat in charge of Captain Flavel. We had many escapes from being swamped, and the men decided [contrary to instructions] to head for shore and take their chances.
“Lifting an oar over his head, Captain Flavel told the oarsmen at their peril to disobey him. ‘Your only safety lies in keeping to the channel; to your work, now!’ he said, and the battle was over. In a few minutes the frail craft was in smooth water. We rowed to Astoria, manned the surf boats and put back again for the wreck, but not a vestige of it remained.”
[The Spectator’s article underscored the crew’s shock, “… the pilot and his wearied associates manned a large surf boat and proceeded to the scene of disaster, when, to their horror, they could discover no vestige of either wreck, passengers, or crew.”]
Gen. Wall continued, “Among the party saved [in our surf boats] there was not a dollar, everything having been lost, and Captain Flavel paid for board, lodgings and clothing for all of us. Upon the arrival of the mail boat Columbia, we were taken aboard and introduced to the captain by Captain Flavel. The former coldly stated that if we could pay our fares he would take us to California, but not otherwise. ‘Send the bill to my office,’ said Captain Flavel, and then he bade us goodbye.
“Everything that could be done for our comfort while here he did, and as we left, from more than one thankful heart went up the prayer, ‘God bless him.’ “
Battered but not robbed
Afterwards, one well-known citizen who walked the beach looking for survivors, or bodies, wrote to the Oregon Spectator to counter printed gossip that corpses were being robbed of valuables:
“…Allow me to say, that 20 bodies have already come on shore. If the citizens of Clatsop are what they are represented to be can you imagine their feeling, I can tell you mine, when I went a day or two since, and found two parts of bodies, or rather the bones of one, less the head, the body of the other, less the flesh from the face and skull, the flesh in a putrid state, it was that we are at this moment in a charnel house. …
“Eighteen of the 20 bodies had scarcely anything on them, except fragments of their garments, it is impossible to identify them. The skeleton had a strong rope yard around the waist, indicating that the person had while on the wreck fastened his body to some spar or plank from which it had been dashed by the action of the surf. Under any circumstances a wreck, on our bar or along our coast, is dreadful. — That of the Gen. Warren is peculiarly so, 42 lives, many of them our fellow citizens and acquaintances, in a moment were swallowed up in the contending waves of the ocean and Columbia.
“Such of their bodies as have come on shore have been committed to the grave. The shock has been more or less felt all over our country; it is momentary elsewhere, and will soon be forgotten, but with us it is not so. Fragments of the vessel, of property, and bodies of men, keep this dreadful judgment in mind. … W. H. GRAY. Clatsop Plains, Feb. 24, 1852.”
Courage in the face of violence
New York newspapers and papers across the nation printed and reprinted the story; it made undeniable the reputation of the violence possible at the river’s bar, and the courage possible in the person of men such as Capt. Geo. Flavel.
The New-York Daily Tribune added a hopeful comment in April 1852: “Capt. Flavel and others are engaged in buoying out the Channel of the bar at the mouth of the Columbia.”
Late in March 1852, the Daily Alta California reported, “A beautiful gold medal has been presented to Capt. Flavel by the citizens of Portland for his praiseworthy exertions in rendering assistance to the passengers and crew of the shipwrecked steamer General Warren.”