In the last four decades, as I’ve driven through Klipsan Beach, I’ve enjoyed the pine forest that borders the highway: it feels like it’s always been there. But then I remember a friend saying that long ago when her family came to visit, they could see the ocean as they drove up the front road. And then, I seem to remember a 90-year-old native Peninsulan once having spoken about being able to look out his second-floor window on Bay Avenue at the Coast Guard Station over there in Klipsan.
That means the shore pines haven’t always been as tall as they are now. Perhaps they weren’t even there.
And now, as I drive past the old Coast Guard Station at 225th and muse about the charmingly crisp white buildings of the one-time Ilwaco Beach Life Saving Station, I realize that the ocean was once much closer to the station than it is now. And it isn’t the buildings which have moved.
So perhaps our ocean-front beach used to look like Cape Cod does now, with sand and sea grass and the waves just there beyond the primary dune.
Placing rescuers where the action was
In the latter years of the 1800s, the number of ships piling up on the Long Beach Peninsula grew relentlessly and the wrecks “showed signs of increasing, not decreasing.” In response, early in 1891 the U.S. Life Saving Service began construction of a life-saving station at Klipsan Beach. Between May 20 and Oct. 27, 1891, the first buildings were constructed — the barracks, the boathouse, a storage building and a flag staff platform.
“The former Klipsan Beach Life Saving Station,” wrote historian Larry Weathers, “is a significant reminder of late nineteenth century mariners’ attempts to battle the vagaries of northwest coast weather. For 58 years this installation stood watch over the transportation lanes near the Peninsula shore. In high velocity gales, dense fog and pounding surf, life-saving crews from Klipsan recovered the drowning victims of many wrecks … [which] took surfmen with strength and dedication. The motto of the service was Semper Paratus (Always Prepared) and in the name of humanity they were. The low pay, non-existent retirement benefits and perilous working conditions attest[ed] to it,” Weathers continued in his nomination of the remaining buildings to the National Register of Historic Places.
He went on to observe, “Living in a world of steadily advancing technology makes it difficult to imagine the emotions that shipwrecks aroused in our forefathers. Generations have now grown up along the shores without ever hearing the cry of, ‘Ship Ashore!’ But at one time … nowhere along the West Coast was it dreaded more than the area around the Columbia River known as the “graveyard of the Pacific.”
Those original buildings were constructed along the siding which the Ilwaco Railroad and Navigation Company built just off the main line so when there was a wreck on the weather beach, the railroad could run a train from Ilwaco, with crew and equipment, to help and bring spectators. The buildings were sandwiched between the railroad’s right-of-way and the ocean’s primary dune.
The boathouse opened toward the ocean and was built to hold the surfboats which were originally oar-driven, rowed out to the wreck by astonishingly hardy crew members.
This particular station was unlike others in the immediate area: it did not adjoin a lighthouse, such as Point Adams, Oregon, or Shoalwater Bay, Washington; it fronted the sandy beach, unlike Cape Disappointment Life Saving Station on Baker Bay; its lookout tower oversaw a stretch of flat, treeless beach, unlike the headlands immediately north of the Columbia’s mouth. Those weather beach sands ran about 12 miles both north and south of the location chosen for what was originally called the “Ilwaco Beach” Life Saving Station.
Weathers explained, “The chosen site was actually the most ideal ... Major consideration had been given to the frequency of wrecks in the immediate area and the good launching and landing position for surfboats. The main track of the railroad running along the border was an added incentive. … [together with the side-track the railroad built, which allowed] a flatcar to sit there “so that the crew and boats from the station could be transported either north or south in cases of emergencies.”
The initial buildings were completed late in October 1891, and the station was manned by volunteers until the end of the year.
Off to a frightful start
Eight days after the building project was completed, the unthinkable happened.
“Six lives were lost on Nov. 3, 1891, off the coast of Washington, near Oysterville, at a point about nine miles north of Cape Disappointment Station, (Twelfth District,) Pacific coast, by the total wreck of the British ship Stathblane,” began the official Life Saving Service annual report of June 1892.
“The Strathblane was an iron ship, of 1,364 tons register, hailing from Glasgow, and was last from Honolulu, Hawaii, bound to Portland, Oregon, in ballast. The disaster was attributed to the ship overrunning her reckoning. She struck at a distance of between five and six hundred yards from the shore.”
The following account is from the report of the district inspector, Capt. John W. White:
From the testimony of the witnesses, among whom are some of the most prominent citizens of the locality, I find the following facts: The British ship Strathblane, bound into the Columbia River, was on the morning of Nov. 3, 1891, wrecked on Ilwaco Beach, Washington, some nine miles to the northward of the Cape Disappointment Life-Saving Station. This is the distance in a direct line from the station, the actual distance necessary to be traveled by the only available route, partly by rail, being about twelve miles.
The evidence of Chief Mate Murray shows that the ship approached the land in very stormy and thick weather; that she struck at about twenty-five minutes after 5 o’clock in the morning; that in a few minutes thereafter the captain succeeded by the proper disposition of the sails in swinging her afloat again in five fathoms of water, and that at about 6 o’clock she again struck and there she remained, and in a few hours was a total wreck.
There were thirty persons on board, including two passengers. Twenty-four of these were saved, and six, including the captain, lost. [Later, a seriously-injured sailor also died.]
The first and only boat from the ship landed through the surf with eight men in it at about half past 7 o’clock. At this time three of the crew had been badly hurt by the broken spars dangling from aloft and swinging about the desk.
It was also at about this time that Mr. Goulter, secretary of the Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Company, at Ilwaco, was notified by the telegraph operator from Mr. L. A. Loomis’s house [near Klipsan Beach] that a large ship was ashore near there, and that as the wires to Astoria and Fort Canby, (the latter near Cape Disappointment,) were both down, owing to the storm, he could not communicate with the life-saving stations.
Mr. Goulter therefore immediately dispatched a messenger on horseback to the Cape Disappointment Station with the news of the wreck, the messenger reaching there at about 8 o’clock.
Keeper Harris at once ordered the surfboat to be lowered and the beach apparatus loaded into it, and with five willing volunteers, (including Assistant Surgeon E. C. Carter and Lieutenant Sidney S. Jordan, of the Fifth United States Artillery, stationed at Fort Canby, both of whom rendered most valuable service at the wreck in rescuing exhausted men from the surf at the risk of their own lives,) the oars were double-manned and the railroad wharf, two miles distant, was reached in a little over ten minutes.
There the boat, with all the beach apparatus, was placed on a flat car that was in readiness through the thoughtfulness of the officers of the [rail]road, and the train immediately pulled out of the station. After a brief stop at the town of Ilwaco the train proceeded to the scene of the wreck, where it arrived at about half past 9 o’clock. The breeches buoy apparatus was at once taken to the beach but a short distance from the railroad track, and the [Lyle] gun placed in position as near to the ship as was practicable.
[The procedure was to shoot a line aboard the wreck, tie progressively heavier ropes to the foregoing line, haul them aboard until the rope between the ship and the shore would support the breeches buoy — a life ring with attached pegged trousers—together with a victim. The imperiled soul would then be hauled hand-over-hand to the safety of the beach. Think of an antiquated zip line.]
With the first shot a small shot line and four ounces of powder were used, and the shot fell to windward and apparently beyond the ship, which lay broadside to, with her head to the south. … A second shot was fired with a dry Whiton line and a like charge as before — four ounces. This shot struck against or near the main rigging and rebounded, or by the heavy rolling of the vessel was thrown back clear of her side into the surf. The fact that this shot took out the entire length of the line (five hundred and forty-five yards) proved the ship to be farther off than was at first supposed. …
The tide meanwhile was flowing rapidly, and the surf with every roller would force its way up to and amongst the drift logs that are strewn along the beach from high-water mark back a distance of from seventy-five to one hundred feet, so that when the second shot was fired it became necessary, in order to keep the gun out of the water, to retreat with it towards the inner edge of the assemblage of logs.
From this position four shots were fired in quick succession, using the same two lines alternately, except at the sixth or last shot, when as a last resort to if possible avoid breakage, a large (No. 9) line was used. At each of these discharges, even to this last one, the line had broken near the shot. So earnestly active were the men that the entire six shots were fired within a period of forty minutes, and this, too, with the wind blowing at a velocity of from forty to sixty miles per hour and the rain falling in heavy showers and drenching everybody every few minutes.
The sand also was flying in such clouds that one could scarcely face it. The wind being from south-southeast, or along the shore, it caused a strong current to the northward, its velocity being estimated at several miles per hour, while the sea in terrible fury was sweeping directly on shore and at right angles to the wind.
The ship’s topgallant masts had been carried away early in the day by her constant rolling down on her beam ends and striking the lower and topsail yards on the bottom, this latter no doubt preventing her from rolling bottom up. One eyewitness stated that the rolling motion of the ship was at one time so frightfully rapid that the yard arms were dipping into the water as often as from three to six times a minute. …
At about a quarter after 10 o’clock, the last shot being expended, the beach apparatus could be of no further use, and recourse was had to the surfboat, which was taken from the flat car and launched. With the wind then at its maximum velocity of fully sixty miles per hour, the strong northerly current, and the frightful condition of the sea, no one on the beach, so far as I could learn, expected to see any of the life-saving crew escape with their lives; but in spite of these dangers and difficulties a very determined and gallant effort was made to pull to the ship.
[My goodness! …]
Twice the boat was swamped and forced back to the shore, but this did not deter the brave fellows from making one more attempt, and while they were vainly endeavoring for the third time to force their way to the ill-fated craft the boat in passing over the crest of a. huge sea was suddenly whirled bottom up and the men thrown out. They were fortunate enough to escape with their lives, but reached the shore in a very exhausted state, three men, including the keeper, being badly bruised or otherwise painfully injured. In this crippled condition, and with two gaping holes stove in their boat, which was thus rendered unfit for service, the station crew could make no further attempt to go off.
It was while these gallant but unsuccessful efforts were being made by the surfmen that the remainder of the ship’s company, seeing that the gun had been discarded and that the boat could not possibly reach them, especially as the water under the ship’s lee was a surging mass of entangled spars and rigging, began casting about for the best means of escape to the shore.
Their ship had broken in two and was fast going to pieces, and as there was no time to be lost if they would save themselves, they began to jump from the stern, where they had huddled for safety from the swaying spars and rigging, which had not yet become sufficiently detached to fall into the sea. With life-preservers on they sprang off one by one until none but the captain was left, and he, brave man, then took what unfortunately proved to be his final plunge in the struggle for life in the turmoil of waters between the ship and the shore.
Of the twenty-two men left on board after the landing of the ship’s boat early in the morning sixteen were pulled out of the surf by the life-saving crew and those aiding them, and six men, viz, the captain, one passenger, the cook, the carpenter, and two seamen, were killed or drowned.
So far as is known, but four of the bodies were recovered, and one of these bore unmistakable evidence that the man had been stunned or killed by contact with the wreckage. One or two were found at a distance of a mile or more to the northward of the ship.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon the ship was a complete wreck, nothing being then seen of her but the iron hull, which had settled deeply in the sand and was almost covered by the waves, while the decks, deck houses, spars, and all other woodwork lay scattered along the shore and broken into mere kindling wood.
When everything possible had been done by the station crew and the rescued people had received proper attention, the keeper, at 4 o’clock, detailed two of his men to remain upon the scene to patrol the shore in search of the two bodies yet missing, and then with the rest of his men proceeded back with the beach apparatus by rail to Ilwaco, and thence by boat to the station.
The testimony of outsiders shows clearly that Keeper Harris and his crew did all that was possible for men to do under the circumstances. On this subject Dr. Carter informs me by letter that when they reached the ground “the keeper’s preparations were quickly and carefully made, his orders were clear and coolly given, and his personal efforts indefatigable,” and, further, that “the crew worked cheerfully and faithfully.”
It is evident that our men showed indomitable courage and almost superhuman powers of endurance in the hope of saving all the unfortunate people, and it is my judgment that too much praise cannot be awarded to them, was well as to the good people of Ilwaco and vicinity, while the bravery and untiring efforts of Surgeon Carter and Lieutenant Jordan are worthy of special mention. All that was within human power was done to save life on this sad occasion. The rescued men were promptly and properly cared for by the people generally, and the dead were decently interred. One of the rescued men subsequently died from his injuries.
But for the great number of people present in addition to the station crew several more lives would in all probability have been lost, as most of the sailors were weak and exhausted from exposure and were only saved by their rescuers rushing out into the surf and dragging them ashore.
One survivor of the Strathblane’s horrific wreck was Charles A. “Jack” Payne, who went on to become an original staff member of the Chinook Observer when it printed its first issue in December 1900.