The ship was the Abercorn, bound from England for Portland, Oregon, full of iron rails for a regional railroad. Only a few years old, Glasgow-built of iron, she was a solid vessel, and not small. Her gross tonnage was 1,341, her length 238-1/2 feet, her width 36 feet, and her depth 21 feet.
Arriving off the mouth of the Columbia River the first of February 1888, she took aboard a bar pilot; a strong gale and heavy seas were at work so the pilot directed the vessel out to sea to await improved conditions.
The Davidson Current runs north between Baja California and approximately the 48th parallel (offshore of the Olympic Peninsula in northern Washington state). It is an unexpected counter-current, flowing inshore of the southbound California current, hugging the coast and flowing at the surface during winter months.
Fifty-three year old sailor Angus McLeod told a February 1888 edition of The Daily Astorian how it went:
Two days after taking pilot aboard [we] held down to the south and west, trying to keep to windward of the port; [the] lead [a weighted line with differing knots at regular intervals to indicate how much line was out] was hove [dropped into the sea to measure how much water was under the keel] first Friday, January 27th between 7 and 8 p.m.; found thirty fathom [depth]; took sounding next morning 8:30; no bottom at fifty fathoms;
[A]t 4 a.m. January 30th vessel was being steered by the wind, making a course of southeast half east; … at five that morning … the vessel … was going through the water at about four knots an hour; the wind was S.S.W.; [we] heard [an] order to get lead ready to sound and went into mizzen rigging; just then the vessel struck. …
When the ship hit sand, bar pilot Charles F. Johnson was thinking they were off the Columbia Bar, in deep water; they were actually west of Aberdeen, in shallow water, two peninsulas north of the entrance to the Columbia River.
Survivor McLeod continued:
The sea began breaking over the stern; the port boat was got ready but the seas broke all four boats; the ship struck at nearly low water; and [by] eleven [at] nearly high water the fore and main masts went by the board, falling seaward and breaking the deck.
[T]hen a big sea carried off the pilot, the second mate, two men and two boys. The rest of the crew took to the mizzen rigging … the men all thought the mizzen mast would fall to starboard but it fell to port and took all the men with it, tangling them in the running rigging and shrouds, holding them down and drowning them.
The three saved [Rankin, McLeod, and cabin boy Aitkin] made out by the help of the two Indians, Tony and Sam, to get to shore. … They [the survivors] say that at no time did they see the slightest sign of intoxication on the part of anyone on board the vessel. Their belief is that the vessel was lost because soundings were not taken at the time the watches were changed at four o’clock in the morning, when the second mate’s watch came on deck.
Feb. 16 of the same year, The Daily Astorian added, “The loss of the Abercorn indicated another source of danger to those vessels which keep in close along shore, and are ignorant, says [George] Davidson [of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey], of the eddy current which sets northward, with a breadth of one to 15 miles, and which is particularly marked north of the Columbia river. … The pilot of the Abercorn supposed the vessel was off the Columbia, but in fourteen days [of waiting out the fog, to enter the River] the current had set him about fifty-five nautical miles to the northward.…”
Twenty-two or 23 men died in the wreck. Without Tony and Sam, it is probable that the three survivors would also have died.
The Morning Oregonian of Sept. 1, 1888, added, “It may interest some of your readers to learn that, through representations made to James Laidlaw, Esq., British vice-consul at Portland, Or., that gentleman, who greatly interested himself in the matter, has informed this office [presumably that of the Indian agent] his government [that of Great Britain] has granted the following rewards: ‘For gallantry and humanity displayed, and for being instrumental in saving three lives from the wreck of the ship Abercorn, on the 30th of January last. To Sampson Johns, Tony Johns, and wards of this agency, each $35. To Charles McIntyre and S.K. Grover, each $35. To Frank Axtell, $20.’ The last three named are white men, living near the scene of the wreck.
“Some further awards [are] in consideration for the Indians named, who on a former occasion ran great risks in saving the crew of a Chilean vessel wrecked near the reservation … Mr. Laidlaw further informs this office his government has brought the matter of some reward to Charlie Willoughby and four Indians of this agency, who assisted ion saving the crew of The Sir Jamsetjee Family, wrecked off this agency December 2, 1886, to the government of the colony where the vessel was owned. [signed] R. M. Rylatt.”
Four years on, late in January 1892, the British bark Ferndale, just a year old, approached the Columbia River. She was “a handsome steel sailing barque of 1,280 tons register,” with a carrying capacity of 2,200 tons, inbound from New South Wales in ballast with coal, chartered to Balfour, Guthrie & Co. for a cargo of wheat.
The South Bend Journal, under a dateline from Astoria, reported that Capt. Nicholls of the ship Scottish Isles, had been near the Ferndale on Jan. 29, when “a strong wind sprang up from the west. … He supposed Captain Blair, of the lost ship [Ferndale], must have tacked on the other quarter and stood in towards shore and was caught by the fatal current and carried in the swirl to the northeast.” The article mentions an unusually high sea.
One of the three survivors of that wreck was quoted by the Aberdeen (Wa.) Herald as recalling:
I was fast asleep in my bunk at about 3:15 Thursday morning, when one of the sailors aroused me, saying we were in danger. On looking out, I could see we were in the breakers and I rushed aft, where I found the captain on deck and asked him the life-jackets were. He pointed to them, saying: “There is no use to put them on. We are lost, and I have a wife in Liverpool!” … Two of us put on life-jackets, while the officers tried to lower the only boat left. The vessel listed to the starboard side and the idea of lowering the lifeboat was abandoned.
In company with four of the sailors I climbed up the main rigging, and in less than five minutes the officers in the lifeboat were swept from the deck. When the foremast went down with several men clinging to her we let go of the main rigging and jumped into the sea. I recollect making a desperate effort to reach shore, but further than that I recall nothing.
Another survivor said:
I saw nine men in the fore rigging, the captain in the mizzen rigging and there were five of us on the mainmast. The cold was intense and we nearly froze to death. One of the men with us — a native of New Zealand — took off all his clothes and leaped into the sea and swam for shore, which was the last we saw of him. The surging water in the hold made the deck heave with each roll of the vessel and soon, with a crash, it broke into fragments, carrying away the foremast, and drowning the men clinging to it. The masts, yards and rigging were all of steel, and what little woodwork there was about the ship was broken to splinters, so there was nothing for the men to cling to.
Knowing it was but a question of time ere the other masts would go by the board, and day having broken, I determined to swim for life, and fastening a life buoy securely under my arms and kicking off my shoes I watched my chance, slipping down the rigging and jumped on the crest of a wave. I was so cramped by cold that for a time I was stiff and would surely have drowned had I not had the buoy, but the water was warm and I soon began to swim.
No words can express the horror of my situation and it is a miracle that we three ever reached land. Sometimes I was dashed against the very bottom, turned over and over, and the next moment I was carried like a race horse on the crest of a wave fully twenty feet high, only again to be almost smothered by a following comber.
After tossing about for half an hour I was thrown on the beach and managed to crawl out of the water in fairly good shape but much exhausted. I met a woman — Mrs. Edward White, who lived nearby — who said her husband had gone further up the beach, as the current was setting that way, to render possible assistance, and that she had prepared a big fire, hot coffee and eatables at the house for any who might get ashore.
I had gone but half way to the house, when I heard cries for help, and turning saw Mrs. White in the water up to her waist dragging [sailor] Carlson onto the beach. I helped him to the house, and hearing more cries ran out and saw Mrs. White struggling in deep water with [sailor] Patterson. She got him safely ashore, but he was delirious with exhaustion and would certainly have drowned had that brave woman not rushed to his rescue. We carried him to the house, put him to bed and he was all right in a few hours. …
The Herald’s report continued, “During the day the bodies of Mate Galesboro and seaman John Anderson with life preservers on were washed ashore. Anderson had evidently been killed by wreckage, as his skull was crushed and his body fearfully cut and bruised. The body of Galesboro was buried on the shore last Sunday by H.D. Chapman and others, and the remains of Anderson were buried at the same place by a party headed by William Farrell. The bodies of O’Brien, Olson and the cook, name unknown, came ashore Monday and were buried near the others.
“The wreck is broken amidships, and only the jib-boom and part of the bow are visible at high water. The shore is lined with coal and broken timbers for more than a mile, but nothing of value has been discovered. J.F. Soule, of Hoquiam, by instruction of the British consul at Astoria, has taken charge of these three survivors and will send them to Portland on the next trip of the Alliance. Patterson was in the wreck of the emigrant ship Scotia which sank last year in collision with a British man-of-war at Gibraltar in which over 600 lives were lost. He also lost a brother on the ill-fated Abercorn, which was wrecked two miles north of where the Ferndale lies, in 1888.”
That anyone survived the wreck is due to the work of Copalis Beach resident Martha White, whose custom it was to walk the beach at daybreak.
In November 1892 Mrs. White gave an interview to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reciting her experience:
A high southwest gale was blowing and the waves were rolling mountains high when the Ferndale stranded at North Beach, fifteen miles north of Grays Harbor, at 3 o’clock in the morning. My husband [Edward White] and I saw the vessel at break of day … and he went down to the beach with his gun and fired signals. I followed and climbed on a big [tree] root about twenty feet high, which had been thrown on the beach by the waves. The sea was so terrible that a boat could not have lived in it …
After watching for an hour we saw the masts go over, one after another, and then we realized that some of the sailors were coming ashore. Nine men went down on the mizzen mast and were never seen again, but the others had life-preservers.
My husband gave me the shotgun and told me to signal to him when I saw any men coming ashore, as there was such a thick fog that we could not see any distance. He then went down the beach about half a mile to watch for any of the men who might come ashore. After a while I saw a sailor thrown up on the last breaker … . I jumped into the water and helped him up to the sand ridge and then went back to the big root.
Then I saw another man float in unconscious, and waded in and lifted him up out of the water. He could not speak, but he tried to put his hands together to thank me. I floated him ashore and put him on the beach and went back again. I saw something away off in the water which looked like a man.
I took off my upper garments, because the wet sand which clung to them was very heavy, and waded in after the man. I had just got hold of him, to all appearances dead, when we were struck by a big breaker, which washed us in. I was unconscious at first, but soon came to, and dragged the sailor up on the sand ridge. Then my husband came and found me lying on the sand, and said to me: “You have killed yourself to save these men.”
Then he helped them and me up to the house. The last of the men was in his bunk when the ship struck and had no clothing except a coat and vest and a life preserver. Another poor fellow, who had broken his leg a week before by falling from the mast, lay in his bunk, crying for a light, and the other sailors saw him washed up from below by the waves. I helped to bury him.
That is a terrible coast for southwest storms, and we ought to have a life-saving station there. … There are nine wrecks along the beach north of Grays Harbor. Two miles from the Ferndale is the wreck of the Abercorn, and two or three miles below that is the Lillie Grace. They have built a wharf out into the ocean to the Abercorn and taken out 7,000 rails, but there are 2,000 still there. There are no lighthouses nearer than North Cove, on the other side of Grays harbor.
Several months later, Mrs. White was honored from Portland by a gift of donations totaling $275, “as a partial recognition of her heroic conduct …” And, too, the Portland Chamber of Commerce designed and had struck a gold medal for her, citing her heroism. A second gold medal, this one from the Congress of the United States, was also awarded for “… heroic deeds in rescuing three men from drowning.”