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‘This Nest of Dangers’: Great Republic — Giant steamship slams onto Sand Island, making national news

By Nancy Lloyd

For the Observer

Published on January 1, 2018 9:16AM

The wreck of Great Republic on Sand Island in the Columbia estuary was a famous maritime disaster but could have resulted in much worse loss of life. More than a thousand passengers were safely evacuated, but 11 crewmen lost their lives.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

The wreck of Great Republic on Sand Island in the Columbia estuary was a famous maritime disaster but could have resulted in much worse loss of life. More than a thousand passengers were safely evacuated, but 11 crewmen lost their lives.

An 1870 nautical chart of the mouth of the Columbia shows the location of Sand Island at the time of the wreck of the Great Republic. Before jetty construction, the Columbia’s entrance had two channels separated by the shifting sediments of the Middle Sands and semi-permanent Sand Island. It made for an extremely hazardous navigational challenge. Jetty construction and other modifications by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers eventually shifted Sand Island into Baker Bay.

U.S. Coast Survey

An 1870 nautical chart of the mouth of the Columbia shows the location of Sand Island at the time of the wreck of the Great Republic. Before jetty construction, the Columbia’s entrance had two channels separated by the shifting sediments of the Middle Sands and semi-permanent Sand Island. It made for an extremely hazardous navigational challenge. Jetty construction and other modifications by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers eventually shifted Sand Island into Baker Bay.

Great Republic was photographed while under construction at the yard of Henry Steers, New York, 1866.

Wikipedia/Maritime New York in Nineteenth-Century Photographs

Great Republic was photographed while under construction at the yard of Henry Steers, New York, 1866.


The Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s Great Republic was a huge side-wheel masterpiece built on Long Island, New York, in 1866. At the time, she was the largest wooden steamship “ever built in the United States [378 feet long by 47 feet abeam, and registering almost 4,000 tons],” the Buffalo (N.Y.) Commercial newspaper reported proudly, and her work was to sail between San Francisco and the Far East.

The New York papers followed her career with interest: from the Commercial: “San Francisco, Sept. 3, [1867]. The steamship Great Republic sailed yesterday for Yokohama and Hong Kong with 700 passengers, mostly Chinese, and a large and valuable freight, including a large amount of quicksilver, wheat, flour, potatoes and salmon, and $1,000,000 in gold and silver;” and from the New York Times: “The steamer Great Republic sailed for Yokohama today [Dec. 2, 1870], carrying 563 passengers, all but sixteen of whom are Chinese going home to spend the Winter. She also took out $324,000 in treasure, and a cargo valued at $55,000, including 1,300 barrels of flour.”

At some point in the 1870s the steamer was damaged in a storm and was laid up in China for repairs. After that, her heavy use of coal plus the advent of a more efficient means of propulsion — propellers — made of her a has-been on that route. She was sold cheaply and her new owner put her on the coast-wise trip between San Francisco and Portland, where she continued carrying mail, merchandise and passengers. “Despite her mammoth size,” Lewis & Dryden reports, “she was a rapid traveler and on her last trip out from Portland made the run to Astoria in five hours and fifteen minutes.”

Lewis & Dryden charmingly describes her success on the coastal run: new owner P. B. Cornwall conducted a rate war, and “… despite the low rates [he charged, the Great Republic] carried such crowds that even the enormous running expenses failed to consume all the profits.” Before her arrival, it cost between $12.50 and $25 (steerage, first class) to take a ship between the two cities; after her arrival, her owner drove the rates down to $2 and $4 (steerage, cabin) with freight traveling at $1.50 per ton. “On her down trips she took fully as many as when northward bound, passengers traveling back and forth because it was cheaper than boarding ashore.”


The magic ends


In mid-April of 1879 the magic came to an end.

She was brought over the Columbia bar in the dark of the night of Friday, April 19, 1879, under the control of bar pilot Doig and with the close attention of ship Capt. Carroll, in testimony reported by the Oregonian:

“It was clear starlight. Not a ripple on the water, which was as smooth as a mill pond. We came in over the bar on a slow bell … I had a pair of glasses and … I reported Sand Island to the pilot. He had not seen it.

“We ran along probably two minutes and I then told the pilot that I thought we were getting too close to the island, and that he had better haul her up. He replied, “I think we are not in far enough.” A minute after I told him to ‘port your help and put it hard aport as I think you are getting too near the island.’ He made no reply but ran along about five minutes. Then he put the helm hard aport. The … ebb tide caught her on the starboard bow and … set her on the spit. She went on so lightly that only a few knew it; but as the tide was falling we had no chance to get the vessel off that night.

“Next tide on Saturday morning was a small one and we were still unable to get off. The barometer was going down, indicating a storm. …I sent … a small boat to the [tug] Canby for assistance and boats to remove the passengers. The tugs Brenham[,] … Columbia and the Shubrick had by this time arrived, each taking a load of passengers. … The Brenham made two trips. The entire crew remained on board [and] … I had the crew employed heaving coal overboard to lighten the steamer.

“At 8 o’clock last night [Saturday] a southwest gale started in, making a heavy sea, which chopped to the southeast about midnight. … The heavy wind and sea drove her higher on the spit. Shortly after midnight the ship began to work, breaking all the steam pipes and disabling the engines. … The ship at 6 o’clock was breaking up, so that it was dangerous to remain longer aboard. The last boat left the ship at 10:30, and in going ashore the steering oar broke, the boat, containing 14 [crew] men, capsized, and all but three drowned.

“About the same time a heavy sea boarded the ship and carried away the state rooms on the starboard side, gutted the dining room, broke up the floor of the social hall and carried away the piano. Afterwards several seas boarded her forward, carried away the starboard forward, guard and officers’ room forward and steerage deck. The same sea carried a number of horses overboard. … I consider the cause of the wreck an error of the pilot’s judgment, and a miscalculation on his part as to the distance from the island. The ship is partially insured.”

The Oregonian also reported, “Each swell careened her over and drove her higher on the sands. On the receding of each swell the weight of her immense hull, machinery and cargo, drove her deeper into the sands. At this time, the creaking of her over-strained timber, and grinding of her keel in the engulfing shoals beggars description. Her passengers described it as resembling the uproarious din of battle. The position of the vessel could be seen from this city [Astoria], 12 miles distant, and her dangerous situation quickly inferred.”


Astoria’s full attention


This wreck galvanized Astoria.

“As near as we could ascertain,” reported The Daily Astorian, “there were about 1,150 passengers, men, women and children, on board the Republic. … Too much praise cannot be [given] to the men in those [rescue] boats. It was very difficult to receive passengers on board, in consequence of the heavy swell of the sea, but they worked nobly …

“…The town is full of people, many of them without money. Churches, public buildings and residences are all thrown open for the accommodation of the passengers who have lost everything. …”

The Daily Astorian’s editor went for a late night walk, reporting, “The loss of the steamship Great Republic suddenly placed in Astoria a very large number of people who were unable to provide themselves with sleeping comforts, but the citizens of Astoria never yet failed to respond liberally in cases of this kind, consequently that whole mass of shipwrecked men, women and children were safely housed before one o’clock in the morning. … Besides those faithful guardians of night, the police, not a saloon in the city was closed, and order reigned supreme, to our great astonishment. The same thing was noted Sunday night. The Episcopal church, lodge rooms, Chamber of Commerce rooms, etc., were all thrown open for sleeping accommodations, besides which private families took as many as possible in their homes.”

• • •

Baggage beached itself from Sand Island to Shoalwater bay. One case of black walnut chairs drifted ashore in July at Whidbey Island, perhaps 300 miles north, according to Honolulu’s The Hawaiian Gazette.

• • •

“A farmer immigrant with nine children who has lost all his earthly possessions by the Republic, [had] two of his horses …returned to him yesterday, and it is said the scene was affecting when the family and the dumb brutes met on the streets of Astoria,” The Daily Astorian reported.

• • •

“OYSTERVILLE, April 20 — I found one leather-bound trunk, on the weather beach this afternoon, marked James A. Miller, San Francisco, which please advertise in your paper. I suppose it came from the steamer Great Republic, as it has not been in the water long. Trunk damaged some, but all the papers and clothing are in good order, for being in the water. A. WIRT.” The Daily Astorian.

• • •

Some rotters rushed to Sand Island to scavenge and burn trunks, and steal things, but a picket guard from the U.S. Corwin and forts Stevens and Canby soon put an end to that.

• • •

“Card of Thanks. ‘We, the undersigned passengers by the steamer Great Republic hereby tender our sincere thanks to Capt. James Carroll, the officers and crew of the steamship Great Republic, and also the officers and crew of the steamer Shubrick, and the tugs Canby, Brenham and Columbia, for their untiring energy in rescuing the passengers from the wrecked steamship Great Republic. We especially desire to express our indignant denial of any scandalous and scurrilous reports, which have been, or may be, circulated upon the conduct of Captain Carroll, his officers and crew.’” The Daily Astorian.

• • •

“At noon yesterday we met Capt. Carroll just from the wreck. He has turned matters over to the agent of the board of underwriters, Capt. George Flavel, and as will be seen by advertisement this morning, the ship and cargo will be sold so far as the board have authority to dispose of the same. There remains on board the wreck yet, about from eight hundred to one thousand tons of cargo.” The Daily Astorian.

• • •

“The work of wrecking the lost steamer is pushed rapidly forward … Our friend Hanson is getting ready to go into the drug business. He purchased at the sale yesterday four dozen bottles of Jamaica ginger; half a barrel of paregoric, and a dozen spades. Others made equally as valuable purchases, and thus helped to save the wreck. … The public schools of Astoria had a vacation yesterday, and a great many of the pupils, and some of the teachers, visited Sand island on board the Brenham, accompanied by parents, and friends. …Of all the dilapidation, partially ruined and squandered elegance … Silks and satins, horse-shoe nails, patent medicines, sewing machines, soap, sugar and socks, all tumble together, and there isn’t warehouse room enough in Astoria to string it all out, nor weather to dry it. …” The Daily Astorian.

• • •

“We have the fragments of a family Bible at this office, from the wreck, belonging to Stephen M. Dillard. … Several pages of a book belonging to some short-hand reporter, was found at the wreck and left at this office for the owner. … A trunk, supposed to belong to Lyman Stearns, may be found at councilman John McCann’s house in this city. Mr. and Mrs. McCann have dried the things as well as they could. The trunk was badly broken when found, but the contents are intact.” The Daily Astorian.

• • •

“A family oil painting of a matronly woman, saved from the wreck by J. Wm. Welch, has been left at the Occident [hotel] for identification. … The whole afterpart of the Great Republic went to pieces yesterday. There is nothing of her stern left aft of the wheel houses. … Anyone having seen any of the following things among the baggage … will do a passenger a favor by reporting at this office: Photographs, with the initials E. M. L. Medical notes and verses in manuscript. A medical compendium, surgeon’s instruments, Ophthalmoscope, Coddington lens, etc.” The Daily Astorian.

• • •

“Findings. … After a full investigation and a care-full review of all the testimony inquiring into the loss of the steamship Great Republic, we find that Capt. James Carroll did wrong in giving the ship in charge of Pilot Doig and allowing him to attempt to cross the Columbia river bar in the night. We suspend his license as master of steam vessels for six months from date. We find that Pilot Thomas Doig acted imprudently in attempting to bring the Great Republic over the Columbia river at night, thereby endangering the lives of so many persons and so much valuable property. We suspend his license as pilot on steam vessels for twelve months from this date. After a very careful investigation of the condition of the steamship Great Republic, we find that she was tight, staunch and in a seaworthy condition when stranded near Sand Island. (Signed) GEO. H. FLANDERS, Inspector of Hulls, JAMES LOTAN, Inspector of Boilers. Portland, Oregon, May 12, 1879. …” The Daily Astorian.

• • •

“Portland, Or., May 29th. — … Charles C. Bemis, Supervisor Inspector of the First District, has examined the finding of the Board of Local Inspectors regarding the Great Republic disaster and rendered a decision to-night. He decided that all the blame and responsibility of the disaster belongs to pilot Doig. That portion of the findings relating to the suspension of Captain Carroll is set aside by Mr. Beemis [sic], and he restored to him his license which had been revoked by the Local Board.” Oakland Tribune, (Oakland, CA)

• • •

The thing is, the bones of the Great Republic are still there.

In the 1980s a professional fisherman from Chinook who wearied of snagging his net had the obstruction brought up and checked out. The crew at Astoria’s Maritime Museum studied a resultant wood fragment plus the measurements divers took of the exposed timbers and concluded that it was most likely from the Great Republic.

As the ship’s 1879 obituary had run in newspapers the width of the country, meaning that her sinking mattered to the United States, it would be nice to see a bit of her preserved, above water or below.

• • •

Finally, imagine salmon slipping between worn, broken, and exposed timbers as they work their way upstream, through the gauntlet of August’s fishermen, to their spawning grounds.

The bones of the Great Republic still lie at the bottom of the Columbia estuary. In the 1980s a professional fisherman from Chinook who wearied of snagging his net had the obstruction brought up and checked out. Investigations concluded that it was most likely from the Great Republic.



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