New York-born Joel W. Munson came west in 1853, first to Portland where he got work as a carpenter helping to build a lumber mill down the Columbia River. He next moved to Astoria for several years, where he built houses, and then fetched up in Oysterville, going into the oyster business.
Just as his first crop was ready for harvest, his daughter later recalled to historian Fred Lockley, “(T)here was an extremely low tide and … a most unusual cold snap. The cold snap caught the oysters exposed to the air while the tide was out and froze every oyster, so my father lost the work of several years in a few hours. He went into Oysterville with four thousand dollars cash, put in six years of hard work, and came out with a wife and two babies and no money.”
Next, in 1865 Munson was appointed keeper of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, a remote station, cold and damp, where the noise of the surf was so loud at times that eventually the foghorn was disconnected because ships could not hear it over the thundering of the water.
Munson was there on duty at the lighthouse, 220 feet above the scene when the “clipper bark” Industry from San Francisco met its fate in March 1865.
In February 1865, after having battled its way north through two weeks’ worth of harsh weather, the elegant Industry found itself hoping for a pilot at the Columbia River bar while it ran out of supplies. The gales had destroyed Industry’s water barrels and washed away part of the food stores. (Water was particularly critical — laboring sailors need fluids, even more than they need food.)
The wretched storms carried on without break until in mid-March the captain saw a vessel cross the Bar outbound and it looked as if the pilot boat might be wanting him to follow it back across the entrance. “The wind was unfair,” a survivor was later quoted in a California newspaper.
“The Captain undertook to follow verbal instructions from the pilot, and tacked ship three times. The wind then lulled and the bark cast anchor; after a while the breeze raised again, when the anchors were hove … the order was given to tack ship, and the vessel missed stays.
[To “miss stays” on a sailing ship is an unsuccessful attempt to tack — to point its bow in a different direction. That sailing error can be fatal.]
Another try at tacking also failed and the anchors were dropped, but the vessel dragged them, winding up stern first on the Middle Sands about 2 p.m. That was about ‘all she wrote.’
Industry lost her rudder and next her false keel, receiving a hole in her bows: “All efforts to save her [were] abandoned.”
Those aboard “now waited for the moon to rise, thinking the sea would go down; but it grew worse.” At 9 p.m. crew and passengers took to the rigging and throughout a “clear and pleasant” night watched as the heavy seas dismantled the Industry bit by bit.
Morning’s light revealed a horrid tangle of ropes, spars, and broken bits of wood. The survivors set to work cobbling together two rafts by which they would abandon ship: one raft carried five persons to safety; the other saved only two of its burden of eight.
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During those days of the Civil War, the U. S. Army had begun to fortify strategic West Coast sites against possible attack by either Confederate or foreign forces. San Francisco came first, of course; the Columbia River next. The Army established seacoast forts on both sides of the mouth of the Columbia River — Point Adams on the south and Cape Disappointment (sometimes called ‘Cape Hancock’ or ‘Fort Canby’) on the north.
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Industry’s first raft drifted over to the south channel where soldiers from Cape Disappointment rescued the handful of souls aboard. “The other raft had a rough time,” the Oregonian of March 31, 1865, reported. “Four men were washed off and lost, a girl aged 12 years, whose father and mother were still on the wreck, and a man were dead when the life boat [from the Cape] reached them, two men only being rescued. … If there were only three persons [left] on the wreck [of the Industry] Friday morning, there must have been 14 drowned up to that time.”
The Sacramento Daily Union added, “a bottle was picked up in the bay near Oysterville on the 24th [of March] containing a letter dated on board bark Industry, 18th. ‘Should this be found, inform the following named persons and places of this wreck: For Harry Beane, Samuel Beane, West Alexandria, Ohio; C. B. Heald, Sumner, Maine; L. Marks, wife, child[, Walla Walla]; B. K. (no address); for A. H. Meade, O. B. Meade, Detroit, Michigan; C. W. Shively, Astoria, Ohio [sic]; Silas Wightman, Plainfield, Illinois.’ Wightman, Shively, and Heald were subsequently saved. About twenty thousand dollars’ worth of goods have come ashore in and near Shoalwater Bay.”
“The citizens of Astoria with one accord did everything in their power to lend assistance to those who are still on the wreck, but as yet without avail, there having blown a severe gale ever since so that no boat could be managed or even live near the wreck,” according to the Marysville (California) Daily Appeal.
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It was that awful episode which stirred lighthouse keeper J. W. Munson to seek to be able to help. The life-saving station had no viable boat in which to attempt the rescue of souls in trouble.
Years later, Munson’s widow recalled, “There was an old lifeboat at the lighthouse which was badly in need of repairs. My husband wanted the government to fix it up but they said that his duty was to keep the light going, that he was not employed in the life saving service.”
The sides of that derelict rowing boat were stove in but it had air-tight compartments at bow and stern; they would keep the boat afloat in tumultuous waters. Munson saw that the boat could be repaired to serve as a lifeboat.
“My husband was a violinist,” Mrs. Munson went on to say, and the family’s good friend Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair elaborated, “He was a natural musician, and loved the violin, on which he could play by the hour, day or night, and never tire. I have seen him play and laugh and talk at the same time, never missing a note or losing time or expression. Dancing was the popular amusement in those early times … For this good music was essential, and if Mr. Munson could be secured for any party its success was assured.”
Munson gave a concert or two in Astoria and raised $200 with which to buy materials to put the lifeboat in shape.
While the federal government had been paying attention to life-saving needs on the East Coast since about the 1850s, it wasn’t until the 1870s that they expanded the government’s role in this increasingly critical task to the Great Lakes, the Gulf Coast and the West Coast.
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”During the 30 years I lived in a lighthouse, I saw many wrecks,” Munson’s widow told Oregon Journal historian Fred Lockley in 1913. “About three months after he had put the lifeboat in seaworthy condition I happened to be on top of the hill one day and I saw a boat drifting out of the regular course. I sent my little boy down to give my husband the alarm. The boat struck. My husband put out with the lifeboat and took off the crew.”
That was the wreck of the W.B. Scranton … “My husband saved 13 persons, who were aboard the Scranton which was wrecked near the lighthouse [in 1867], and 10 who were on board the Architect [in 1875].
But it was the wreck of the Industry and the death of 17 people that numbed the coastal community for some time to come, and it was Capt. J.W. Munson’s reaction to that wreck that endeared him to the folks both north and south of the river’s mouth. In 1900 the Oregon Historical Society recorded the 189th item accessioned to its museum, a violin, made by J.W. Munson, “a pioneer of 1853, who for 30 years was in the employ of the U. S. Lighthouse Department in Oregon.”
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And, just to assure ourselves that the seas on the Bar and the surrounding region remained their unpredictable and oft-times nasty old selves, the list of damaged, salvaged, or wrecked rigs between the Industry in 1865 and the federal government’s commencement of the Fort Canby Lifesaving Station at Cape Disappointment late in 1877 is eye-opening. By no means all of these vessels sank, or were destroyed, or failed to sail another day; but their injuries did make the newspapers. The list includes: Decatur (1865); Ariel (1866); Mauna Kea (1866); Anna C. Anderson (1869); Abe Lincoln (1870); Champion (1870); Ellen (1870); U.S. Grant (1871); Windward (1871); Jane A. Falkenburg (1872); Rose Perry (1872); Kate Hayes (1873); Rescue (1874); Sidi (1874); Architect (1875); Orient (1875); Sunshine (1875); Rebecca (1875); W.S. Phelps (1875); Tillamook (1876); Dreadnaught (1876); Nabob (1876); Buckinghamshire (1876); Arago (1876); Ajax (1877); Alden Besse (1877); Nimbus (1877); and North Bend (1877).
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From the Tri-Weekly Astorian of Aug. 19, 1873: “REWARD OFFERED. Hung Lee of Astoria Will Pay a reward of Thirty Dollars To any person who will Recover the Body of Charley, the Chinese Cook, Who was drowned from the steamboat Mary Hall, near Tongue Point, above Astoria, on Saturday, August 16th, 1873, while in the act of dipping a bucket of water. The probability is that the body will drift out to sea and be thrown upon the beach either at Clatsop, or to the north of the Cape. Deliver to Hung Lee’s Wash house Astoria.”
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From The Daily Astorian, May 1, 1876: “Mr. John B. Morris picked up recently on the beach, at the entrance to Tanzy creek, parts of two life preservers, one of which has the name “Pacific” upon it, and evidently came from the wreck of that steamer. This shows the drift of things lost at sea. The collision with the Orpheus, which caused the loss of the Pacific, occurred 40 miles south of Cape Flattery, or about 95 miles north of the Columbia River, on the 4th of November, hence these waifs have drifted and tossed about nearly six months, to come in here, a contrary way from the usual course from the scene of that disaster … These relics must have gone a long way out to sea, then drifted south and returned with the northerly current, showing the impossibility of any hope for the struggling victims who may have been clinging to them.”