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‘This Nest of Dangers’: S.O.S. — Federal help arrives on our deadly shore

By NANCY LLOYD

For the Observer

Published on February 6, 2018 2:29PM

An early lifesaving crew posed for a postcard, circa 1900.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

An early lifesaving crew posed for a postcard, circa 1900.

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This collection of shipwreck artifacts was once on display at the Klipsan Beach Life-Saving Station, which was establishing in 1891.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

This collection of shipwreck artifacts was once on display at the Klipsan Beach Life-Saving Station, which was establishing in 1891.

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This is an early view of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Station at Cape Disappointment, which was established in 1877. It continues today as U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment.

OBSERVER ARCHIVES

This is an early view of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Station at Cape Disappointment, which was established in 1877. It continues today as U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment.

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The Grace Roberts, built in Port Orchard in 1868 at a cost of $30,000, wrecked two miles south of Leadbetter Point in December 1887 after becoming lost in the fog. The ship’s wooden hull remained visible for nearly a century and may still be there today, albeit unrecognized.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

The Grace Roberts, built in Port Orchard in 1868 at a cost of $30,000, wrecked two miles south of Leadbetter Point in December 1887 after becoming lost in the fog. The ship’s wooden hull remained visible for nearly a century and may still be there today, albeit unrecognized.

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An 1889 survey of Willapa Bay’s shoreline just south of Oysterville identified an “Old Wreck” at the mouth of a creek, likely one of several small ships that met their fate in the bay or on its approaches in the early days of the Shoalwater Bay oyster industry.

MATT WINTERS COLLECTION

An 1889 survey of Willapa Bay’s shoreline just south of Oysterville identified an “Old Wreck” at the mouth of a creek, likely one of several small ships that met their fate in the bay or on its approaches in the early days of the Shoalwater Bay oyster industry.

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By the second half of the 19th century in the Oregon country, most business was well established up-river in Portland. Astoria had lost its late, brief battle to supplant the inland city as the regional shipping center.

At the same time, the federal government was recognizing the Pacific Northwest’s need for lifesaving crews, lighthouses, army forts and the dredging of congested rivers.

In the days before hydroelectric dams, the Lower Columbia was a courseway of navigational hazards, a downstream rush of spring snowmelt, snags and logging, and volcanic ash which piled up in moving sandbars. (Mount St. Helens had expressed itself, mildly, at least half a dozen times between 1800 and 1859.) By the late 1860s the U.S. Corps of Engineers had begun to dredge the Willamette and Columbia; by the late 1870s the official depth of the Columbia was approved at 20 feet.

Back east, U.S. military forces were engaged in the Civil War between 1861 and 1865, and while the need for army forts with major artillery out West was clear and clearly stated, it was not until February 1864 that federal forces were able to start building Fort Cape Hancock (also known as Fort Canby and/or Fort Cape Disappointment) and Fort Stevens at the mouth of the river.


Surge of lighthouses


The first attempt to build a lighthouse at Cape Disappointment (Cape Hancock) was flummoxed by the 1853 wreck of the supply ship Oriole near the site which the light was to mark. A second set of supplies was shipped, which included the fabulous first order Fresnel lens. The tower was rebuilt to accommodate the huge lens, and Cape Hancock Light (Cape Disappointment Light) was lighted in 1856. It was the first such built north of San Francisco and, according to an 1855 Weekly Oregon Statesman, the 463rd in the nation, all of which “embrac[ed] Atlantic, Gulf, [Great] Lakes, and Pacific coasts.”

The U.S. Lighthouse Board continued working, building Cape Flattery light at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca (1857); Cape Shoalwater, also known as North Cove, at the entrance to Shoalwater bay (1858); Point Adams at Fort Stevens on Clatsop Spit (1875); Tillamook Rock light offshore of Cannon Beach (1881); Cape Meares west of the city of Tillamook (1890); North Head, north of Cape Disappointment light (1898); Westport light at Gray’s Harbor (1895); and Desdemona light on Desdemona Sands inside the mouth of the Columbia river (1902). The first Columbia light ship was in stationed in the ocean a bit south of the bar in 1892. Ships were being wrecked not only at the entrance to the Columbia but also up-coast, either on the North Beach peninsula or at the mouth Cape Shoalwater; or on the peninsula north of that; or at the mouth of the bay north of that, Gray’s Harbor.


Dangers of shipping Shoalwater oysters


A lighthouse at Cape Shoalwater was needed early on. Its shipwrecks featured captains who intended to sail there wanting the fresh oysters which brought so much money in San Francisco; and captains who did not intend to sail to there, having been blown off course, or having got moved away from the Columbia by the north-flowing current while they waited for a bar pilot, or having miscalculated their navigation. An error of one degree could result in a captain finding himself 60 miles away from where he thought he was.

About Shoalwater’s fresh oysters, the Daily Alta California of January 1852 spoke of a lawsuit about them: “Who would have imagined a suit about oysters in the shell, a year ago, when our knowledge of the crustaceous bivalve was derived only from suspicious looking tin cans [imported from the Atlantic coast] in which they had been lying defunct for several months, and which upon a close inspection often went ‘fizz, pop, bang,’ making an explosion like a small sized steamboat and emitting a ‘most ancient and fish-like smell.’”

And, in 1854, we have, “OYSTERS — The Oregon Times says that a large ten acre bed of oysters has been recently discovered by the ‘Oyster Boys’ at Shoalwater Bay. They are said to be superior to the Baltimore oysters. This, if correct, is a Godsend to us poor dainty starving individuals, and affords an instance of the natural products of Washington and Oregon.”

The vessels which were seriously injured or lost their lives at or near this bay around this time included the Willimantic (February 1853), the Palos (October 1853 - “…a miserable old hulk [which] … should have been condemned years ago”), the Empire (1857), the Emily Packard (1858), the Calamet (1860), the sloop Fanny (1864), the schooner J.M. Chapman (1865), the Anna C. Anderson (1869), the Ellen (1870), the Lewis Perry (1872), brig Orient (May 1875), schooner Sunshine (November 1875), schooner W.S. Phelps (November 1875), schooner Courser (1880), the bark Lammerlaw (1881), and the bark Great Broughton (1881).


Life-saving stations established


In the summer of 1874, in Washington D.C., Congress passed a bill for life-saving stations to be built along the Washington Territory coast, including Neah Bay, Shoalwater Bay, and Cape Disappointment. “The Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to employ crews of experienced surf-men at such of the life-boat stations on the Pacific Coast as he may deem necessary and proper, for such period and at such compensation, not to exceed forty dollars per month [$40], as he may deem necessary and reasonable,” reported the Daily Alta California. Cape Disappointment and North Cove stations were established in 1877, Point Adams in 1889, and Ilwaco Beach [at Klipsan] in 1891.

In 1890 The Morning Astorian reprinted a chatty letter from Sportsman’s Journal describing an operation by the Shoalwater Bay Life Saving Station and the wreck of the Grace Roberts in 1887:

Perhaps the most interesting feature of being storm-bound at North cove was the opportunity … to become familiar with the United States life-saving station there and its gallant crew. This latter is composed of Captain John Brown and six men, all tried and experienced sailors, used to surf and coast work. … Captain and crew are chosen generally from men who have lived from childhood within sound of the surf. A lifetime of experience on the beaches … inures them to the perils and hardships which obtain along the coast, and makes them familiar with coast currents, tides and places of danger. … as well as familiar with navigation and seamanship.

Like a soldier, the life-saving crew is always on watch and guard the whole year around. The 24 hours of the day are divided into six watches of four hours each, so that each man patrols the beach and maintains a steady vigil of four hours out of every 24, watching for vessels in distress. Each man carries a Coston signal which, when exploded by percussion emits a red flame that can be seen many miles and thus assures the ship-wrecked vessel that help is close at hand.

When a wreck is discovered the man on guard burns his Coston signal if it be dark, and then rushes to the lighthouse and fires a small signal cannon. This gives warning to the rest of the crew back at the lifeboat station. Every man then springs to his place in the boat house, all their actions and movements being governed by an exact, and defined and studied drill …

The Grace Roberts, a large bark from San Francisco, went ashore in December [1887] in a fierce southwest gale, 15 miles south of the Shoalwater bay station. It was early in the evening when she struck, and the vessel was not seen until next morning at 9 o’clock, when John Hansen, (No. 1 of crew), being on watch, saw the distant wreck dimly through the mist, but only for an instant. … Hansen gave the alarm and the beach wagon was manned and on the march for the shore. Captain Brown, ascertaining the position of the wreck, and seeing that it was quicker and best to go fifteen miles south by water on Shoalwater bay, and then across a narrow sand spit four miles to the ocean, immediately secured the tug Hunter, Capt. A. T. Stream, commanding … Captain Stream had been Captain Brown’s predecessor in charge of the life-saving station at Shoalwater …

The beach apparatus was taken aboard the tug and the light cedar surf boat belonging to the station was towed through the raging sea, with all the crew at their posts in the surf boat and Captain Brown at the steering oar. … Capt. Stream put on all steam the tug would stand, and in about one hour landed the life-saving crew on the south shore, four miles from the wreck, having towed them 15 miles and fairly driving the tug through the raging seas.

Here Capt. Brown was luckily able to hire four horses with which he hauled the beach wagon and the apparatus on the run across the sands to the ocean beach … The Grace Roberts lay broadside on to the shore, full of water and her hull nearly submerged. Bulwarks and housing were all washed away, and the crew were aloft in the mizzen rigging, to which as many as were able had lashed themselves. Every sea broke clean over the vessel’s hull, and the cold spray dashed constantly over the exhausted and benumbed crew. It was early in December, and the waters were icy cold.

Capt. Brown calculated the wreck to be about 400 yards from the shore. At his first shot he succeeded in throwing the projectile [used to rig the breeches buoy] over the bark’s rigging between the fore and main masts. A strong southward-flowing current carried the slack of the rocket line almost at once within the grasp of the imperiled crew. … Then the breeches buoy went out to the Grace Roberts with a rush and Capt. Brown soon shouted out the welcome commands: “Man the lee whip!” “Haul ashore!” Eight exhausted and nearly frozen men were hauled to land in safety, and the ninth trip brought Captain Larsen, the last man to leave his ship.

Every life was saved, and then the energies of the life savers were directed to administering brandy and other restoratives to the rescued men from the little medicine chest which is always carried on the beach wagon. Just as Capt. Larsen was lifted out of the breeches buoy on shore up came the life-saving crew from Cape Disappointment, having galloped 20 miles with four horses attached to their beach wagon from their station at the mouth of the Columbia river. They were too late to take part in the rescue, but gave three cheers for the gallant crew from Shoalwater bay …

A law should be passed in congress for pensioning these men in old age, and caring for their widows and orphans when the men lose their lives in this noble service … Soldiers and sailors who serve their country destroying human life are pensioned, … The seamen of the life-saving service are always on guard; … Which is the more honorable service? … The same might be said of Capt. Stream, Brown’s predecessor.

When keeper of the station, [Capt. Stream] saved with a lifeboat and volunteer crew, at greatest peril to himself and men, the captain and fourteen men — all hands of the British ship Lammerlaw, wrecked off Shoalwater bay. Three times Capt. Stream had to turn back from the raging sea, and most men would have abandoned the attempt. But he persisted … and saved fifteen lives. For this Queen Victoria bestowed on him a beautiful medal of honor, and decreed him a life pension.

In 1931, Ilwaco’s North Beach Tribune reported, “Ocean Park clam diggers report than an oak timber which is presumably a part of the frame of the wrecked schooner Grace Roberts, is uncovered this winter and projects up out of the sands of the beach several miles north of the road from the beach to Oysterville. … This is the first time in years there has been any sign of the ancient wreck.”

The Grace Roberts lay broadside on to the shore, full of water and her hull nearly submerged. Bulwarks and housing were all washed away, and the crew were aloft in the mizzen rigging, to which as many as were able had lashed themselves. Every sea broke clean over the vessel’s hull, and the cold spray dashed constantly over the exhausted and benumbed crew. It was early in December, and the waters were icy cold.



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