U.S. Life Saving Service

This is an early view of the U.S. Life Saving Service Station at Cape Disappointment.

The official U.S. Life Saving Service report of 1883 tells a story about the wreck of the Fernglen which differs considerably from that of Captain Bubb.

“The British ship Fernglen, … laden with clay ballast, …went ashore about 4 [a.m.] on Clatsop Spit … [with] … a crew of twenty men. … At the time of stranding the weather was cloudy, with a good southeast breeze and an ordinary surf ….

“The vessel was discovered … by daybreak … and the [Life Saving Station] keeper (Alfred T. Harris) got together with considerable difficulty a crew of volunteers [there being yet no permanent crew assigned to the Station], some of them citizens and some soldiers from Fort Canby, and … launched the life-boat … After a very hard pull, through at least a mile of surf, the life-boat reached the vessel ….

“Keeper Harris boarded the ship. The captain appeared to be confident of the vessel coming off the spit, for he positively refused to leave her, and seem mainly desirous of having a good pilot on board in those unknown waters, strenuously urging the keeper to remain with him.

“This the keeper offered to do upon the condition of the life-boat being hoisted out of the surf, which the captain, however, did not want to have done, on the ground that the boat would hamper the movements of the vessel, and tried to induce Keeper Harris to remain on board and let his crew return without him.

“The keeper, being responsible for the safety of the crew, refused, and, after remaining on board a couple of hours, left the vessel, first giving the captain his course in case he got afloat again ….

“… By 9 [a.m.], the wind arose and blew a furious gale … accompanied with thick fog and very heavy rain and sleet.

“The entrance to the Columbia River [was] a mass of breakers, which were lashed by the wind into indescribable turbulence, the whole sea as far as the eye could reach being alive with tumbling foam. To launch a boat in this condition of the surf and sea was impossible. The tempest continued all that day and through the night without abatement.

“At [6:30 a.m. the next day] … Keeper Harris sighted the ship for a moment through the driving sleet. … The keeper had meanwhile procured two experienced boatmen from a watering-place named Illwaco [sic], some miles up the cape, which … gave him a crew of only six.”

They sailed over to Fort Stevens for two more surfmen; the wind lulled, the air cleared, and the Fernglen was seen heeled over with its crew clinging safely to the port rail. The life boat pulled for the wreck. Suddenly the wind began to blow as hard as ever, making their progress impossible. A waiting tugboat then towed the lifeboat upwind so she could try again to row to the wreck, beginning another desperate struggle.

“It was a chop sea, the waves leaping and spouting their foam high in the air, and their tops incessantly broken off and scattered by the furious wind, so much of them showering upon the devoted life-boat crew that the men, toiling at their oars, hip-deep in the water which half-filled the boat, were deluged with a raking fusillade of spray … straight in their faces and assailed both breath and sight, the keeper especially being so choked and blinded by the fierce rain that he began to be unable to manage the steering oar.

“Aware at the same time that his men were fast giving out … [the keeper bore] away again for the tug. … which gave the crew her line and towed them to Fort Stevens, where the keeper expected to be able to augment his crew.

“This tow, like the others of that day, was … frightful. The boat being a life-boat, and therefore unsinkable, bowsed along, diving as she went, into the successive seas … and all but drowning the men on board [who] were in their shirts and stockings, … thus … free [to act] in the event of a capsize, and as it took some time to reach the fort, they were all blue and stiff with cold by the time they arrived.

“At the fort the keeper engaged another man, the only one available, and got a bottle of brandy, part of which he served out to his frozen crew.

“At 1 [p.m.] the ebb had run the sea down considerably. And although the water was still enormous the life-boat started away again under her foresail … The whole tremendous scene was veiled in fog and driving sleet … at length the life-boat crew sighted the bottom of the hull turned up toward them, and drove the boat straight for it.

“As they drew near … [they saw] that the vessel was broken in two amidships. … [and] to their utter astonishment [they] found that the sailors were gone. … Presently [the sailors] were caught sight of, just in time to avert their destruction, as they were about entering the breakers [in the ship’s boat].

“The keeper instantly signaled the tugs [standing by],… whom one of … overhauled and took [the Fernglen crew] on board.

“[The crew’s] safety …was, after all, owing to the presence of the life-boat crew … This was the substantial end of a hard and dangerous adventure. … The ship was of course lost.”

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