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‘This Nest of Dangers’: Queen loses her way

Capt. Flavel to the rescue as luxury vessel blunders onto Clatsop Beach

By Nancy Lloyd

For the Observer

Published on September 11, 2018 1:40PM

The Queen of the Pacific, which was nearly shipwrecked on Clatsop Beach 135 years ago, was a technological marvel of her time.

The Queen of the Pacific, which was nearly shipwrecked on Clatsop Beach 135 years ago, was a technological marvel of her time.

Capt. George Flavel is often credited with being the first white bar pilot on the Columbia River. This key position, which he avidly defended, made him into one of the region’s wealthiest men in the second half of the 19th century. His actions in coordinating the salvage of the Queen of the Pacific suggest that his success was well justified by hard work and heroism.

Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest

Capt. George Flavel is often credited with being the first white bar pilot on the Columbia River. This key position, which he avidly defended, made him into one of the region’s wealthiest men in the second half of the 19th century. His actions in coordinating the salvage of the Queen of the Pacific suggest that his success was well justified by hard work and heroism.

As the uproar continued about the need to try to control the mouth of the Columbia River — “When are we going to get a jetty?!” — the turmoil was periodically punctuated by yet another wreck. This time it was a new pride of the coast-wise fleet, and it carried VIPs.

In the June 20, 1882, edition of The Daily Astorian, editor J.F. Halloran took a deep breath and launched into verbiage: “The fleet that plies between Astoria and San Francisco is justly famed for the elegance of its appointment, the courtesy of its officers and the regularity of its arrivals and departures. The new steamship ‘The Queen of the Pacific,’ now en route from Philadelphia is pronounced by those who have seen her to be even superior in finish to the Columbia, or State of California. … She is 336 feet long, 38.6 feet [a]beam … She is 2727.80 tons custom house measurement. She has 1,200 tons dead weight cargo capacity, 400 tons bunker capacity on 16 feet draft. She is half-brig rigged with iron masts all one piece, and is well canvassed. She has an inverted direct-acting compound engine, with 45 and 90-inch cylinders and 48-inch stroke of piston.

“She has valve pistons, the first ever applied in this country … and is expected to develop 3,000 horsepower, and a minimum speed of engine of 80 turns per minute, which, with 100 pounds of steam, will give her a speed of 16 knots an hour. She has eight boilers, 11 feet in diameter and 12 feet long; with shells one inch thick, and 370 feet of grate surface, and will burn about 60 tons of coal per day, working up to its full speed. The propeller wheel is 16 feet in diameter and 23 feet pitch, the blades, and a spare set on board, having been made in England of manganese …” [Imagine the size of this propeller, twice the height of an eight-foot ceiling.]

“One of the features of the Queen of the Pacific is the dome which covers the main staircase. … a true circle 14 feet in diameter and six feet high … made in twenty-two segments … of figured stained glass, and from the center hangs an exquisitely jeweled electric chandelier. … She is lighted throughout by the Edison electric light system, which has been put in under the personal superintendence of Mr. Wilson S. Howell, and she is the most perfectly lighted of any vessel in the world, there being 250 electric lights distributed through the ship, with connections for placing lights on wharves at her loading and discharging ports … This system uses the incandescent light, which is small, soft and steady, and neither tiresome or hurtful to the eyes. The lamp consists of a pear-shaped globe about 4-1/2 inches in height, exhausted of air, into which is sealed a filament of carbonized bamboo, slightly thicker than a horse hair. …

“The vessel will arrive here about the 15th of August [1882] when our citizens will have an opportunity of inspecting her.”

This was a first-class vessel, and a sure sign that the Oregon Country was coming up in the world.

Luxury ship aground

“ASHORE ON CLATSOP SPIT. … The Passengers All Safe,” read the Morning Astorian’s shocking headline the 5th of September 1883.

“At two o’clock yesterday afternoon the sound of heavy guns was heard in the direction of the Cape. The supposition in the city was that the firing was from Fort Stevens to enable the incoming steamers to form some idea of their whereabouts. The densest fog that has been known for years hung over the mouth of the river, and a vessel could not be seen at twice her distance. About three o’clock the General Canby came up from the fort with the news that the Queen of the Pacific was ashore on Clatsop spit. The absence of any definite news concerning the ship or her passengers occasioned the greatest excitement.

“The [steam] tugs Pioneer and Columbia immediately started for the scene of the disaster, the Brenham being at the Cape; and steam was got up on the Astoria, which with the Tom Morris and two other steamers started to render all the assistance possible. About eight o’clock the Brenham came alongside Gray’s dock with about 150 rescued passengers aboard.”

One of them, an Astorian, gave the following account of the affair:

We left San Francisco all right and had good weather all the way up, a light wind and fog now and then. We made the whistling buoy at eight o’clock this morning and anchored inside. All the morning it was so thick you couldn’t see two ship lengths ahead, but along towards noon the fog lifted a little and some of the passengers were very anxious to get in. Finally, about half past one we started, picked up the red buoy or buoy No. 4, and were making the turn all right when the fog closed down and the first thing we knew we struck. The pilot sung out “Put your helm hard-a-starboard,” but as she struck again the fog lifted and we saw the buoy about 400 yards to the north and east and found we were on Clatsop spit, south and west of No. 4 buoy and directly across the south channel from the wreck of the Great Republic.

The ship struck at two o’clock. In a few minutes the captain sent second mate Hall for assistance. At a quarter to three the Brenham came in sight; she had the lifeboat from the cape. By this time there was a heavy swell, but the work of taking on the passengers immediately began. I came up on the Brenham and when I left, the Pioneer and Tom Morris were taking on a lot more. There was no excitement or confusion. Some of them were a little scared, but the most of them took it coolly. One lady [a ship stewardess] had her leg crushed between the boat and the tug as she was being lifted in; she fainted and was brought back to the ship. A man had his ankle hurt. That is all I heard in the way of accidents.

When I left the ship she was hard and fast, listed to starboard.

The Morning Astorian continued, “As soon as the news reached Astoria preparations were immediately made for the rescue of the passengers. Tugs and steamers were dispatched, and a tow of fishing boats sent by the Tom Morris. These boats did good service for they could live where no other boat but a life boat dare venture. The chamber of commerce and citizens generally made provision for those who came up, and saw that all were given a place to spend the night. … The Queen had very little freight … but had a special delegation of prominent men aboard who were going to the scene of the driving of the last spike on the Northern Pacific railway next Saturday. …

“By half past nine all the passengers were safely transferred to Astoria. Capt. Alexander and his crew worked hard and were ably aided by the large force that went down from here. Everything was done that could be done …. The hotels were filled and all who could find no other accommodations were taken in charge by various citizens and made comfortable for the night. The Canby and Astoria remained at the vessel; this morning the Pioneer and Brenham will go down and see what can be done to get her off. …”

Teamwork saved the day

The next morning, Sept. 6, 1883, The Astorian reported, “EVERYTHING ALL SAFE! The Queen Arrived at Four P.M. Some Splendid Work At The Spit.”

“‘Is there any one that has no accommodations yet?’ was the inquiry of twenty or thirty citizens last Tuesday night … This was solved by private citizens who singled out each a group of three or four and provided them with quarters for the night. … When the news of the disaster reached Astoria Tuesday afternoon the first impulse was to go to the rescue. In no city in the Union of its size are there more experienced men ready to face the elements ….

“The bar pilots and crews, the smaller craft, Capt. Gray’s steamers, and indeed all the craft made immediate preparations. Capt. Flavel’s instructions were ‘Spare no expense, make every necessary provision and get there as soon as you can.’ … Capts. Al. Stream, of Shoalwater bay and Al. Harris, from the Cape [Disappointment Life Saving Station], were there and did efficient service, as indeed, did every man there. … By ten o’clock every one that wanted to was on shore safe [from the Queen] at Astoria …

“[N]ow came the question … ‘Can the vessel be saved!’ Yesterday morning at two-thirty-seven was high tide; to attempt anything then was out of the question. Capt. Alexander and his men were worn out; all Astoria was tired too; the night was intensely dark and the dense fog … hung low in thick smoky folds [from autumn’s forest fires].

“At daybreak yesterday morning all was in readiness …. Dan Graham, the bar pilot of the Columbia, had brought down the Astoria; the other tugs started for the spit, Malcolm on the Columbia, McVicker on the Pioneer and Staples on the Brenham. The Canby and Tom Morris with smaller craft were there too, the one object being to save the magnificent vessel if possible.

“There was but one man who had the means and the ability to save the Queen of the Pacific … Capt. Geo. Flavel. He was asked ‘What are the chances?’ His answer was, ‘Don’t know; will try.’ He went down with the tugs and the early hours of morning was spent in reconnoitering.”

[During the night Capt. J.H.D. Gray, using his tug Miles, had taken the Queen’s anchor out into deep water to keep her from working farther up onshore.]

“There was a heavy swell, and the tugs tossed and bumped and rolled as Capt. Flavel went first to one point and then to another and finally decided just what to do and how to do it … and about two o’clock, the attempt began to save the finest vessel on the Pacific coast.

“The fog lifted and showed a great gray waste of heaving water to the south and west; right in front lay the stranded steamer, presenting a pitiful appearance, while right and left bobbed the only salvation in the shape of the tugs. Pianos, whiskey, fruit, chairs, baskets, vegetables, etc., comprising freight to the amount of 700 tons which an army of Astoria longshoremen had thrown overboard during the night, littered the sea.

“At twelve o’clock preparations were made for a final effort. The tide was making and would be full at half-past two. To where the vessel was lying stern on, a hawser was got out from the Columbia and another from the Pioneer, a little to the right. The Astoria was placed in front of the Columbia, and the Brenham in front of the Pioneer, thus making up a tremendous four-horse team, with wheelers of strength and leaders of spirit. ‘Now then, boys,’ said Capt. Flavel, ‘this vessel has got to come off and this is the moment. All together.’

“All together it was, and the united force of the tugs was concentrated. She leaned, swayed, slid, and with a lurch, listed to port and swung into deep water, coming on with such force as to cause the tugs to cut their hawsers, lay back their ears and fly. She rounded to as gracefully as a swan, and such a cheer as went up was never heard on that spot before. A breeze blew aside the fog, the sun shone out, the flags were dipped, and the great steamer, preceded by the tugs, stood up the bay.

“The news had preceded them and a delighted throng gathered at the dock to welcome the vessel and the men that had saved her. As she rounded Kinney’s dock a cheer broke from the crowd, the tugs and steamers turned loose, the Queen’s deep bass sounding amid the treble of the small craft. Capt. Hustler gave her a salute of welcome with his battery of ordnance, and such another hubbub as has been rarely heard greeted the safe arrival of the vessel that many supposed was irretrievably lost. She leaves for Portland this morning.”

Financial rewards

A year later, in September 1884, Oregon’s highest-ranking jurist, pioneer judge Matthew Paul Deady, decided the inevitable “libel” case against the owners of the Queen of the Pacific. When vessels saved part or all of a ship or cargo that otherwise would have been lost, the law allows for a charge to be placed against the vessel’s owners, a process known as libel.

“JUDGE DEADY’S DECISION,” reported The Astorian, “wherein Capt. Flavel of this city and others libeled the Queen of the Pacific for services as salvors, on the occasion of her being on Clatsop spit, on September 4th and 5th, 1883, and which has been in the U.S. district court nearly ever since, was decided … yesterday.

“… Following are the main points in Judge Deady’s decision. … He says: ‘After careful consideration of the whole matter I have concluded to award the salvors the sum of $64,000, or a little less than nine per cent of the value of the property, the same to be distributed as follows: For repairs on the Brenham, Columbia and Astoria, including a new hawser to each, the sum of $820, $1,120, and $560 respectively, and to the Pioneer on the same account, $700. To the tug Pioneer and to her crew is awarded the sum of $14,000. To the tugs Brenham, Columbia, Astoria and their crews is awarded the sum of $27,000. To the Gen. Canby and its crew is awarded $4,500. To the Gen. Miles and its crew is awarded $500, and to the scow and its crew, $500.

“From the sums awarded to second tugs and their crews, except the Miles, there must first be paid to each of the persons comprising said crew on the 4th and 5th of September, 1883, a sum equal to the following multiple of the monthly wages he was then receiving or was entitled to receive for ordinary services: To each master or person acting as such, eight times a month’s pay; to each pilot and engineer, six times a month’s pay; to each mate, four times a month’s pay, and to each seaman or other person of said crew two times a month’s pay. For the sums awarded to the Gen. Miles’ crew and the scows and their crews there must first be paid to the persons comprising the latter as follows: To the master and pilot of the Miles $70; to the engineer, $50; to the mate $30; to the fireman, three deck hands and cook, $20 apiece. To the foreman of the scow sixty dollars, and to three deck hands forty dollars each.

“The remaining portion of the award, amounting to $15,000, is allotted to Capt. Geo. Flavel and Capt. J.H.D. Gray; two-thirds of this amount is to go to the former, and one-third is to go to the latter.

“The conduct of both these men on this occasion was highly meritorious and commendable, and deserves in my judgment special recognition in the award. Nor is the fact to be overlooked in this connection that the latter has but one arm, and the former is crippled in both hands; and looking at Capt. Flavel’s relation to this subject generally as well as in this particular transaction … it may be justly said, substantially in the language of the counsel, that the enterprise and gallantry displayed by him on September 5th, 1883, was such as would reflect great credit on a much younger and abler man than himself.”


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