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This Nest of Dangers: Pilotless, the Desdemona sails into legend

Published on September 12, 2017 2:49PM

A painting of the doomed mid-19th century sailing vessel Desdemona adorns a wall of the Astoria tavern of the same name.

Don Williams photo

A painting of the doomed mid-19th century sailing vessel Desdemona adorns a wall of the Astoria tavern of the same name.

An early salmon can label, circa 1880-90s, shows the Columbia River estuary and Desdemona Sands, named for an infamous shipwreck. The sands later became a prime site for commercial salmon fishing. Nowadays, the sands can be seen to the west when crossing the Astoria-Megler Bridge, becoming a haven to birds at low tide.


An early salmon can label, circa 1880-90s, shows the Columbia River estuary and Desdemona Sands, named for an infamous shipwreck. The sands later became a prime site for commercial salmon fishing. Nowadays, the sands can be seen to the west when crossing the Astoria-Megler Bridge, becoming a haven to birds at low tide.

Part of the Desdemona Sands can be seen above the water underneath the the southern stretch of the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

Image courtesy of the TIFZ project/www.brighton.ac.uk/columbia

Part of the Desdemona Sands can be seen above the water underneath the the southern stretch of the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

A modern navigation chart shows Desdemona Sands and vicinity.


A modern navigation chart shows Desdemona Sands and vicinity.

Three-quarters of the way through the 1850s, the entrance and exit of the noted entrance to the West’s great river was assisted by bar pilots, buoys, and a lighthouse. Three months after Cape Disappointment light was lit, in the dark of the night on the first day of 1857, the inbound bark Desdemona slammed into sands on the north shore of the river’s mouth. Those sands are now named “Desdemona Sands.”


The American bark Desdemona, according to the shipping news of the Daily Alta California, had come west from Boston in November 1850. From that time until its death it ran regularly between San Francisco and the Oregon Territory’s Willamette River.

A February 1853 notice in The Columbian (Olympia, O.T.) told readers:

“We are informed that the bark “Desdamona” [sic] recently arrived at Portland with a large lot of flour, and that that article had suddenly declined from $24 to $20 per cwt., and that a still further reduction was anticipated. Also — that butter was “stubborn” at $1.50 per lb. …”


Loss of the Barque Desdemona. [Daily Alta California]. In the evening paper of yesterday [Jan. 14, 1857], under the head of Marine Intelligence, is the following notice, purporting to be from the ‘log’ of the steamer Columbia.

Dec. 31st, barque Desdemona, [Capt.] Williams, bound from San Francisco to Portland, crossed the bar without a pilot and grounded on a sandbar in the river; at high water she had not got off, and on Jan. 2d. she bilged. Vessel and cargo total loss.

We give below an extract from a letter written by Captain Williams, who commanded the barque, to D. C. M. Goodsell, the owner, detailing the circumstances of the loss …

Made a good run up from San Francisco to the bar. On Wednesday, 31st, made Killamook [Tillamook] Head, bearing NE by N, 12 miles, it having been blowing from WSW — the ship being under short sail; wind hauling more westerly, made all sail to clear the Head at 11 A.M.; Killamook bearing off the lee quarter. We were struck by a sudden squall, carrying away jib boom, top-gallant sails and topsails. Having thus become crippled, and there being no time for repairs — the bar being dead under our lee — I determined to run the barque in by the north channel which, while being accomplished after passing Sand Island Cut — the lower buoy being gone — I got ashore in the middle sands abreast of Chenook Point, it being then top high water. I did everything circumstances would admit of before the tide fell, but without avail.

The barque remained tight [without leaking] during the night, but at high tide on the morning of Jan. 1st it blew a gale from NE, and the barque striking heavy, she began to leak, and finally bilged. The Captain of the Revenue Cutter, with officers and men, rendered us all the assistance they could.

Finding further attempts to get her off of no avail, I obtained ten men from town and put them to work filling the decks with freight to lighter [transfer in a smaller boat] to Astoria; but on the morning of Jan. 2d, at high water, the barque having become deeply embedded in the sand, the cargo on deck was washed off. Several lighter loads were saved, and if the weather moderates, a considerable quantity of the cargo may be saved in a damaged condition. We lost one man by the swamping of the lighter. The vessel is a total loss.

The same issue reports that the vessel Columbia was unable to sail upriver “on account of the ice.” Stormy, cold weather.

Three weeks later another letter was printed in the Alta:

Portland, O. T., Jan. 19th, 1857. T. R. Anthony, Esq., Stockton, Cal. Dear Sir: — I sailed from

San Francisco, January 6th, on board the fine steamer Columbia, Capt. Dall. We made an excellent run …

Having heard and read much of the Columbia bar, I thought I was fully posted up with regard to its appearance, but I was mistaken, the half not been told me, neither did the description of it which I had read convey even a faint idea of what I then beheld for the first time.

The Columbia, at its mouth, is not more than eight or ten miles wide, but the lines of breakers which is distinctly marked by the meeting of its waters with the Pacific Ocean, which forms the bar … in the form of a crescent, I should judge to be some twenty-five miles long; and when the tide is running out, and the wind from the ocean strong, this crescent presents a fearful sight to the in-bound mariner. …

We crossed the bar Friday evening before sundown, against a strong ebb-tide; so strong, in fact, it was as much as the Columbia could do to make the ‘riffle.’ When within about four miles of Astoria, we discovered a vessel close inland on our left, or starboard quarter. We ran as close to her as it was safe to do, and found she was high and dry on what is called the ‘Middle Sands,’ or ‘Clatsop Point.’ It proved to be the barque Desdemona … with a cargo valued at some $35,000, which, together with the vessel, will be a total loss.

We anchored off Upper Astoria Friday night to put off the mails.

You will understand there are two Astorias, upper and lower. Lower Astoria being the old town, and Upper Astoria the new town: they are only about a mile apart, consequently there exists the largest amount of enmity between the two — both striving for the ascendency. Upper Astoria having the Custom House and Post Office claims to be the Astoria; and as far as I am concerned, I am willing to award to her all the glory the name (for that is about all there is of the town) will bring her. …


Jim Gibbs’ popular book “Pacific Graveyard” (c. 1950, 1964) repeats the intriguing story of a bet between the Desdemona’s owner and its captain: if the captain reached Astoria in the old year, i.e., by midnight, Dec. 31, 1856, the owner would buy him a new suit of clothes. In taking that bet, the story goes, the captain lost both it and his ship, and the owner lost his ship and the profit from the goods aboard.

As I’ve looked for a brass-bound source for this story, the only references point toward regional historian Lancaster Pollard, but I’ve found neither his original telling nor his original source. Nothing shows in the books or newspapers of the day. This is the kind of story that stays with us because of its color. It might be true, but I haven’t found the references which would make me comfortable with it. I believe the wreck to have happened because of the weather and, perhaps, a bit of poor decision-making by the captain.

Other wrecks of the day and another lighthouse

In the handful of years following the lighting of the Cape Disappointment light the number of shipwrecks diminished, particularly when compared with the increase of marine traffic. The fact that the light could be seen miles offshore meant that ships could sail farther out to sea, farther away from the lee shore (the shore on to which the prevailing winds will blow an immobilized vessel), and still be relatively sure of their location. Also, the lighthouse’s visible presence on its headland during the day identified the mouth of the Columbia during those times when breakers frothed the coastline’s entire width.


In the late 1850s miners seeking gold came north to southern Oregon’s mountains, to the Willamette Valley, to eastern Oregon and northern Idaho and hot spots in Washington and in British Columbia. “Naturally enough,” write Lewis & Dryden, “the lucky ones of this big crowd included but a small percentage of the total number arriving, and the disappointed majority drifted into other pursuits — farming, lumbering, trading, fishing, etc. — all of which necessarily gave an impetus to the marine business that it had never enjoyed before …”

(One reference even reported the rumor of gold mines near Shoalwater Bay …)

Oregon Territory-bound emigrants in wagon trains continued working their way west, and when they reached Fort Vancouver and the Willamette River towns such as Portland and Oregon City, they found established merchants there with supplies for sale which had come by sea.


On Shoalwater Bay — later Willapa Bay — the exports of oysters and timber were the commodities which brought the vessels from California. One, the schooner Emily Packard, was blown ashore late in February 1858. “The vessel and cargo are a total loss. All hands were saved,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union. The Oregonian added that the cargo amounted to 2,500 bushels of oysters.


That was the year the Cape Shoalwater/North Cove Lighthouse was built on the Bay’s northern point. It was lighted for business on Oct. 1, 1858, using a fourth-order Fresnel lens in a short tower perched will above the water. Less than a year later, the light was turned off for lack of oil with which to light it and the difficulty of transporting supplies out to that remote spot. In summer 1861 the light went on again, and then off less than a year later. Apparently this light was plagued with troubles, not the least of which was the uncertain and sandy foundation on which it was built.

Cape Shoalwater’s north point has since come to be known as “Washaway Beach,” for the fact suggested by its nickname.

Late in 1940 the original building, its light moved to a steel tower inland, collapsed into the rising tide below.


In April 1860, downcoast from the Columbia River, toward “False Tillamook Head,” the schooner Rambler went ashore, becoming a total wreck. “ … (H)er cargo — one hundred barrels of oil — floated ashore and was salvaged by the people living there. No person was on board at the time of the wreck.” The reporting newspapers assumed that all four crewmembers died.

Olympia’s Pioneer and Democrat reported the oil as whale oil, and that the ship “had apparently been long at sea, as its rigging was much rotted. The body of a woman was seen to float out of the cabin, and was carried off by the surf. For the want of a boat, the body was not recovered. The ‘Rambler’ had a fine large anchor on her bow. Whence she came, whither she was bound, or what has become of her crew, no one knows.”


In 1860 the schooner Calamet sailed from Shoalwater Bay bound for the Columbia, but sailed into oblivion; she and the seven persons aboard were not heard of again.


A year later, another windship outbound of the Columbia — the Woodpecker — wrecked on Peacock Spit; she was in charge of bar pilot Capt. Alfred Crosby. “She left Baker’s Bay at 1 o’clock, with a N. W. wind, supposed it ebb tide, but found after leaving that the tide was still making flood. Just inside of the first buoy [she] tacked ship and mis-stayed, let go the anchor and slipped it, but was too near in. Struck in 10 feet of water. Bilged in 15 minutes. Ship and cargo total loss. All hands saved … Her cargo consisted of 8000 qr sks of flour, 104 head of cattle, oats, wheat, &c., &c., valued in all at $11,700,” reported the Oregonian and reprinted Olympia’s Pioneer and Democrat.

(To “miss stays,” the “Visual Encyclopedia of Nautical Terms” tells us, happens when a sailing vessel attempt to tack — pivot the sails from port to starboard or vice versa, so as to cause the ship to continue moving to windward in a slightly different direction — but fails for lack of wind, a mis-handling of lines, or a steering mistake at the helm.)


Lewis & Dryden mentions a few wrecks in 1864, that of the Fanny, off Shoalwater Bay, and the Jennie Ford, a barkentine sailing between San Francisco and Puget Sound. She “went to pieces on North Head soon after leaving the city, January 28th. A passenger named Osgood lost his life but Captain McCarty and crew reached to shore in safety.”


“The schooner J.M. Chapman, which sailed from Showalter [sic] Bay, November 1st [1865], has not been heard from since,” reports the Sacramento Daily Union. “She was owned by Morgan & Co., oyster dealers, of San Francisco, and commanded by Captain August Richards. Caesar Crellin was a passenger. Vessel and cargo were valued at $15,000.”


So went the maritime interleaving of development between settlement and commerce in this new corner of the United States.


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