As this maritime study winds on and the list of wrecks near the mouth of the Columbia River gets ever longer, it’s becoming harder to keep everything straight. Here’s why:

First, there’s the dizzying daily lists of shipping by wonderfully named vessels to and from Lower Columbia. This list for Sept. 22, 1882 is relatively modest:

“Vessels in the River. Dauntless, American ship; Fritz, German ship; H.W. Dudley, British bark; Lizzie Bell, British bark; Alden Besse, American bark; Wakefield, American bark; Coloma, American bark; Mandalay, British bark; Leucadia, British ship; J.W. Marr, American ship; ….” Given that it was September (after harvest), these vessels are likely in for wheat. Three years later, in the same month, the Daily Astorian reported that “nine seagoing vessels are … in the Columbia, with 44 on the way having Portland or Astoria for their destination.”

Next, there are the intriguing snippets of waterfront news:

From Oct. 7, 1883, “The sun shone brilliantly yesterday, and the stream was the scene of the greatest activity. The Grisedale came down and went on berth at Flavel’s dock; she has 900 tons wheat and will take on 1000 tons of salmon, of which 2,500 cases went aboard yesterday afternoon; the Scottish Tar finished loading wheat and will clear tomorrow; the Scottish Prince and Banffshire went up stream, the Shenir came down to load wheat; the River Nith went down to Baker’s bay; the Chasca has 10,229 cases salmon aboard, and will take on 12,000 more; the State went to sea at four o’clock. The Aberlemno and Wigtonshire went to sea at four-thirty.”

From Apr. 6, 1887, “‘Steamer Day,’ is always a busy one around the spacious dock of the O.R. & N. Co. [Oregon Railroad & Navigation], … Yesterday the dock from one end to the other, over 1,000 feet, was strewn with freight: cases of kerosene, pigs of lead, sacks of bone dust, sacks of oak bark, piles of Port Orford cedar, rolls of wire, bundles of hemp and oakum, barrels of varnish and lacquer, sacks of rice and salt, butter, flowers, labels, anchors, beer, pianos, shingles, cables, groceries, rope, salmon, organs, carpets, lath, boilers, shooks [wood pieces from which to make boxes or barrels], machinery, stoves etc., piled up everywhere in profusion. … Large piles of freight were left by the Oregon yesterday, which took on a lot of oysters, but was too full to take some shooks, laths, etc., which are shipped from here to California.”

From Dec. 30, 1884, “The British bark Embleton, of Liverpool, bound from Acapulco, Mexico, to Astoria, Oregon, in ballast, and having a crew of eighteen men, arrived in the Columbia River at about 9 o’clock in the morning, with all but one of her crew down sick. She was also in a generally dilapidated condition from the loss of sails during the passage, which had been an unusually stormy one, and the provisions were nearly exhausted. She came in in charge of one of the river tugs … and … therefore ran into Baker’s Bay, and obtained the assistance of the crew of the Cape D Station … [A]n effort was made to put a part of the relief crew on board, but … the gale was blowing directly out of the river from the northeast, and there was a seven-knot current running, with the river full of drift ice [it was a c-o-l-d winter and the Columbia had frozen in places], logs, &c., … the ugly chop sea gave all hands a thorough drenching, and, the surf-boat being covered with ice, it was extremely difficult and dangerous work.”

Roster of wrecks

Returning to the subject of wrecks, by my tally, between 1882 and mid-year 1886, over three dozen vessels were damaged, grounded, wrecked, or had lost sailors overboard, including:

Harvest Home — January 1882, lost on Long Beach Peninsula [the Weather Beach] as the result of a navigation error based on a fault in Tennet’s Nautical Almanac;

Corsica — February 1882, British ship, cargo of wheat;

Manzanillo (sailor fell from, drowned off Westport, Oregon);

Primrose (Said to have wrecked on Clatsop Spit in 1882);

Annie Larsen (December 1882, American 3-masted schooner, at Shoalwater Bay);

Alpha (December 1883, American schooner, went missing offshore);

Minerva (Jan., 1883, American sloop, Peacock Spit);

C.D. Bryant (September 1883, American bark, bumped on the Columbia bar, sprang bad leak. “The C.D. Bryant is to be hove down and repaired at Portland. Some of the men working on her have been ordered to quit by the ‘Longshoremen’s Union, on the ground that they were working for $3 per day, instead of $4 — regulation wages.” The Morning Astorian);

Aberlemno (September 1883, British ship struck by steamship Columbia near Martin’s Island);

Queen of the Pacific (American passenger steamship, grounded on Clatsop Spit);

Cairnsmore (October 1883, English iron bark, ashore south of Point Adams/Clatsop Spit);

Whistler (American bark, Long Beach peninsula, total wreck);

Annie (October 1883, American scow, few details known);

“In moving several vessels yesterday at Astoria, a general collision occurred. The steam collier Willamette collided with the steamer Dixie Thompson; the British barks Gleniffer and Bolivia ran into each other, and the ship Imperial came in collision with a large barge. No one was injured and the damage to all vessels was slight.” (Dec. 1883, San Francisco Bulletin);

Charles Cotesworth (December 1883, British ship, Clatsop spit, L. S. S. records);

Devonshire (December 1884, British ship, Clatsop spit);

Abbey Cowper (January 1885, British bark, ashore on Shoalwater Bay bar);

Queen of the Pacific (January 1885, American passenger steam ship, collided with transfer steamer Tacoma, slight damage);

Dewa Gungadhar (January 1885, British iron ship, ashore during dense fog, Shoalwater Bay);

Chesebrough (January 1885, British, touched on Clatsop Spit, returned to Portland and repaired);

Melancton (March 1885, barkentine, struck on Shoalwater Bay bar, bad leak, compelled to discharge cargo);

Emma (November 1885, American plunger — sailing sloop — ashore on the Oregon beach north of Tillamook);

Willapa Green (December 1885, American sloop, at Shoalwater Bay);

Carrie B. Lake (January 1886, American fishing schooner, American, Klipsan Beach);

Abercorn (January 1886, British bark, ashore north of Grays Harbor);

Braemar (January 1886, British bark, ashore near Astoria, successfully towed off after discharging 500 tons of grain);

Clan Ferguson (March 1886, British bark, dragged anchor at Astoria, collided with British bark Cambria);

[Author’s note: My goodness, this research is numbing, checking all those old newspapers from Oregon, Washington, and California, plus whatever Google turns up, which can be considerable.]

Tanner (April 1886, brig, went ashore while entering Gray’s Harbor, gotten off leaking);

Trustee (April 1886, schooner from Hoquiam for San Francisco, lost on South Spit of Gray’s Harbor);

Kate and Anna (April 1886, American steamer, Shoalwater Bay);

State of California (April 1886, steamer, broke shaft near mouth of Columbia River, towed to Astoria by steamer Oregon);

Empire (May 1886, steamer, Nanaimo B.C. for San Francisco, broke shaft, picked up by steamer Queen of the Pacific, towed to Astoria);

Wm. H. Besse, (July 1886, bark, drifted ashore near Columbia River bar while awaiting pilot); …

W. H. Besse? Is this another name for the Alden Besse, noted above?


Alden Besse: A survivor

The Alden Besse proves to have been a fleet-mate to the Wm. H. Besse. She was her own vessel, lived a long and useful life, did not wreck on the Columbia River bar, and she was sturdy and beautiful.

We first read of her adventures in Astoria in May 1881, when she arrived from Hong Kong with small-pox aboard. “The state health officer took steps at once to relieve the sick and distressed, and has established a quarantine station on the hill just outside the city ….” The illness was cleared up, the vessel released, and in March 1885 we read of her coming from Hong Kong to Portland with a cargo of “rice and Chinese merchandise.” Likely, Chinese nationals, too.

She was clipper-built [slender, narrow-hulled, having an elegant profile] at Bath, Maine in 1871, sailed around Cape Horn to California where she ran the sugar route to and from Hawai’i.

By 1900, by then older than many West Coast rigs, she had a stormy voyage commencing at the San Francisco Bar where her decks were smacked by three “tremendous seas that … washed every movable article overboard … [and] for the next forty-eight hours the vessel battled with a terrible storm … The cargo shifted and caused the vessel to list to port so badly that she was on her beam ends [tipped over to the left at an extreme angle] for nearly all the rest of the trip … When within two day’s sail of Honolulu a strong [wind from the other direction] struck the vessel … so … the cargo was shifted a second time, but the weight was relieved from the port side and the boat righted herself and came in with only a six-degree list.” (San Francisco Call.)

In March 1902, “The bark Alden Besse is the latest arrival to report damage sustained on the bosom of an unpacific Pacific. She arrived yesterday [in San Francisco] … with her decks wrecked by heavy seas and leaking at the rate of two and a half inches per hour.”

By January 1907, the news was, “The British bark Alden Besse, which was to have sailed this morning [from Tacoma] for San Francisco with 600,000 feet of lumber, sprang a leak during the night. There was eight inches of water in the hold when the leak was discovered. … caulkers stopped the leak, and the vessel will get away tonight.”

In December of that year, the Los Angeles Times said that “the old bark Alden Besse, which has been lying idle at this port for several months, will leave here next week for Seattle, where she will take supplies, camp and building materials, and 100 Dunkards, and proceed to Guaymas, Mex. It is proposed to establish a Dunkard colony in Mexican territory …” [Dunkards were a sect of German Christian believers, not unlike the Amish or the Aurora, Oregon, colonies.]

Two years later, in 1909, the Besse was headed for Honolulu with a cargo “of 100,000 brick[s] and ten tons of merchandise samples.”

Feb. 24, 1910: “The bark Alden Besse, now on her way to Redondo [from Honolulu] with a cargo of scrap iron, is an outlaw on the high seas, according to the way the Territorial authorities look at the matter … The Besse sailed away last Thursday with a writ of attachment nailed to her foremast and an indignant High Sheriff gazing ruefully after her from the wharf. … a local junk dealer … claimed that a part of the Besse’s cargo … had not [been] paid for. …”

The situation must have been resolved because two months later we read, “The bark Alden Besse, Captain Miller, will sail tomorrow for Honolulu with a mixed cargo of 1200 tons, including merchandise, brick, beer, hay, tile and cement pipe.” (Los Angeles Herald.)

By now, the ship had been working perhaps twice as long as other ocean-going cargo vessels, and she drew notice when she came into port. Newer steamships never looked like this old work-horse of a sailing clipper.

Next, we read of two Japanese stowaways aboard the “provinderless bark,” for whom the captain did not have money to buy food as he was holding them prisoner, and who escaped, thereby upsetting immigration officials. The Besse was also attached and forbidden to sail because one of the owners failed to pay for a cargo. (“Soon after she tied up one of her owners was arrested on charges of having embezzled the proceeds from a cargo which he took to Honolulu. A few days later the ship was attached by creditors who wanted their money…”)

In 1912, under new ownership, the Besse became a movie star: “tonight and tomorrow night at the Jewel motion-picture theater [in Santa Cruz, you can see] ‘The Mate of the Alden Besse.’ ” “The famous old American bark Alden Besse … is spending her declining years as a subject for the motion camera and recently has been the scene of some thrilling melodramatic performances in which pirates are the central characters.”

Half a dozen years later, in 1917, the Examiner reported the trip up to San Francisco from Los Angeles, in tow of the tug Mukilteo: “When we first started with the Alden Besse we got as far as Santa Barbara and decided that we would sink if we kept on, as the stem piece [the ‘nose’ of the vessel] was parting from the planking.”

After reinforcing the bow and waterproofing it, “[w]e started out in fair weather and everything was lovely until we passed Concepcion. Then it began to blow, and the sea was heavy. For about half an hour I would not have given 5 cents for the old bark. Then I saw that she was holding well. It took us four hours to make the eleven miles from Concepcion to Arguello. Captain Olesen [of the Mukilteo] was a wonder. He just held enough speed to keep the Besse from drifting too far to leeward, and with a great length of towing cable out we got through well enough.

“The bark is absolutely sound except for the strain forward. There were times, especially off Sur, when she sat on her tail and dived on her head and rolled every way, but through it all she never made a fuss. There was no creaking of timbers … the Alden Besse will be an ideal coal or lumber barge for outside towing with a little fixing up.”

In 1919, “… one of six destroyers berthing at the slip between piers 13 and 15 yesterday afternoon rammed and nearly cut in half the Rolph Navigation & Coal Company’s barge Alden Besse. … [She] was towed to the Alameda mudflats … and beached.”

And finally, in July 1929, the Tribune, in an article headlined, “Historic Ships in Oakland Harbor Menaced by Flames,” reported, “The Alden Besse, bark, launched at Bath, Maine, in 1871, and for nearly thirty years one of the best-known units of the sailing fleet … was another of those licked by the flames. … [m]onetary damage done by the fire was negligible. But while the flames roared this morning there was aching in the hearts of those grizzled veterans of the sea, who battled storms before steam drove out the sail.”

With that, this tough old survivor disappears from the record.

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