Shipwrecks fascinate some of us; the Columbia River bar is famous for them. Decades ago I couldn’t quite believe it when I first saw the classic photograph of the Colonel de Villebois Mareuil crossing the bar under tow, mostly obscured by a wave: the ship was apparently safe — the tow rope — yet the power and size of the water sure didn’t make it look safe.
In 1984 I drew a shipwreck map of our coast’s wrecks and lighthouses, based on Jim Gibbs’ many books. When I realized it would cost me too much to sell it the length of the Southwest Washington and Oregon coast, I took the map to Michael Naab, then director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum. He and Bookstore Manager Pat Longnecker bought it, asking me to make just one correction: change the wreck I had labeled as the Wavertree to the Henriette.
In 2010, after 30 years of doing artwork and writing local history, I decided to write a current regional shipwreck book. Gibbs’ classic “Pacific Graveyard” was 50 years old, and Don Marshall’s more recent work hadn’t included our “local” Washington wrecks. Blue Anderson, Jeff Smith and others at the Maritime Museum were encouraging, and I commenced gathering information.
In the fall of 2013 I realized I didn’t know enough about this most complex subject, about maritime museums, and about the publications their shops sold. For three months and 16,000 miles I drove around many of the Great Lakes, out to Nova Scotia and New England, down to Virginia and North Carolina, back across the country, and up the California and Oregon coast. At the Los Angeles Maritime Museum gift shop I found a book from 1969, “The Wavertree: An Ocean Wanderer.” The ship sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. As I read, a wonderful story unfolded.
This is the first in a series of articles for the Chinook Observer, bringing a fresh perspective and much newly uncovered information to the many dramatic maritime-disaster stories that have unfolded here over the centuries. The overarching name for the series, “This Nest of Dangers,” is a quote from British sea Capt. Edward Belcher, who led an arduous surveying expedition on the Lower Columbia River in 1839.
The Wavertree, a three-masted square-rigger meant to carry bulk cargo long distances, was built of iron in 1885 at Liverpool, England. Wavertree was handsome, similar to the Peter Iredale, whose wreck lies rusting in the sands of Clatsop Beach. Wavertree was 279 feet long, just over 40 feet abeam, and all cargo space.
Even though wood- and coal-fired steam engines were the newest thing in shipping and promised to power more easily controlled vessels, they were not perfect — it was hard to refuel them in mid-ocean. Low-cost cargos could be shipped more cheaply in a vessel powered only by the wind and manned by the abundance of experienced, low-paid deep-sea sailors left over from the fading age of sail.
Wavertree set to work, carrying freight such as wheat, guano, nitrate, kerosene, lumber, and coal from one end of the earth to the other. In 1906-07 she was in Chile when an able-bodied seaman named George Spiers signed aboard. He would keep a diary.
The vessel soon sailed for Astoria, arriving at the mouth of the Columbia in November. Spiers describes tense days jockeying with two other ships while waiting for a bar pilot. Food was running low and Spiers — in charge of the rations — hoarded a tin of sardines to feed whichever pilot eventually braved the freshening winds to come aboard. Eventually, one did.
Biding his time, “The pilot calmly surveyed the sea and the sky, then as if everything was all right walked up and down the poop, no mention of any reduction of sail; now and then as an extra pressure of wind struck her, the main t’gallant sheet would crack aloft as the chain in the sheave of the yard took a fresh nip. …
“Finally we sailed over the bar and into the widening of the river opposite Astoria. … We were the only ship at Astoria for a few days, and it looked to be a comparatively small town, backed up by a range of hills, and as it was winter everything appeared gloomy and overcast.”
Bad weather stormed in and Wavertree dragged her anchor in the night as the skipper resisted several calls to come on deck from his bed; after several lengthenings of chain and the deployment of a second anchor, she blew onto one of the sand banks in the estuary.
Needing a tug but without first consulting the signal code book, the captain told the mate to raise “The Red Ensign, upside down.”
“Before breakfast we had a lifeboat alongside, manned by a sturdy crew of men with cork life jackets and blue tam-o-shanter headgear. The captain went to the rail to meet them. ‘I don’t want you,’ he said, ‘I want a tug.’” The lifesavers had to be paid $500 for their trouble, a sum the captain later made up by under-provisioning the ship for the next leg of its voyage.
The crew was able to work the ship off the sand bank, and she joined the four-masted bark Duchalburn in tow up to Portland, one vessel on each hip of a steam sternwheel tug. Wavertree was to load grain for the United Kingdom.
The “wheat fleet” was one of Portland’s most visible economic indicators — the drainage of the Columbia River has long been noted for production and shipment of wheat. “We heard that there were nearly forty sailing ships in port,” Spiers wrote.
All those tall ships lined up at what would become the sea-walls on the city’s waterfront must have made quite a sight. Historian Barbara Bartlett Hartwell remembered from childhood, “The river’s maritime glory, its romance, its poetry, were the sailing ships from all over the then-mysterious, immense world. The Willamette of my girlhood was a forest of masts — … from Hong Kong, Yokohama, the Sandwich Islands, Calcutta, Singapore, Liverpool, Sydney, Constantinople, Genoa.”
The Wavertree was berthed by a bridge over the Willamette in downtown Portland. By the time she was loaded and ready to sail the ship was bound home to Great Britain. As Spiers described the time-honored ceremony of departure and giving fare-well by those Limey crews, the departing ship would ring a long, loud “fandango” on the bell. “Then someone with a topsail yard voice,” would hail a ship, calling for three cheers. The outbound vessel’s crew would respond, often with a sea shanty, “sung by a stentorian voice,” with all crews joining in on the chorus. Each anchored ship would repeat the tribute.
“In Tocopilla [Chile] one beautiful calm starlit night,” Spiers recalled, “I heard for the first time that great dirge of a shanty, ‘Santa Anna’ … nowhere can the effect of this shanty be so great as when a deep bass voice rolls it across the waters …”
(To listen to one version of “Santa Anna”: tinyurl.com/Santa-Anna-shanty)
There was the elegant and tall square-rigged Wavertree in full view of folks going to work over that Portland bridge. As the anchor was being raised, the crew sang out with “ ‘Hooray Boys, We’re Homeward Bound.’”
“What a farewell reception we received from the crowds on the bridge,” Spiers said. “Men cheered and waved their hats, and women their handkerchiefs, and going down river the ships alongside the wharves each gave a fandango on their bells and a cheer.”
So the Wavertree, full of good cheer and sacks of wheat, proceeded downriver and on out to sea. But without shipwreck.
When I returned home to Chinook late in 2013 I searched the Internet, checked every reference to the vessel, paying particular attention to the newspapers of the day. (Shipping in those days was as prominently and thoroughly reported as are arrest records and court reports these days.) There was no mention anywhere of the Wavertree wrecking in the Columbia, not in 1901, not in 1907.
When I asked the curator of the Columbia River Maritime Museum about a recently published photo of a wreck labeled as the Wavertree, he cited as authentication Grace Kern’s handwriting on the back of the original. Grace Kern was the daughter of maritime man Daniel Kern, a prominent wreck salvor of the region.
I did more research.
Looking through the Oregon papers of the day for mention of the Henriette, the vessel Michael Naab had cited all those years ago, I found that it had crunched onto a ledge of rocks off Astoria in 1901 and sunk in 24 feet of water, leaving her deck, masts, bowsprit, and rigging uniquely and unmistakably visible above the surface of the river. The Morning Oregonian printed her picture on Jan. 3, 1902.
So here was the ship misidentified in Gibbs’ “Pacific Graveyard.” The Feb. 6, 1902, Astoria Daily Budget tells us that Daniel Kern of the Portland salvage firm Hale and Kern won the bid to salvage the wrecked Henrietta. The information must have gotten garbled when Grace Kern listened to her Dad’s stories.
So, what happened to the Wavertree and why did I find a book about her written in 1969?
After 1907 Wavertree continued hauling cargo, appearing in Oregon shipping news column in 1908 and 1909, until a fearsome 1910 storm off Cape Horn (the tip of South America notorious for foul weather) tore off her mainmast and sent her struggling back to the Falkland Islands. The owner, not wishing to spend the money to re-rig her, sold Wavertree’s hull for use as a floating warehouse. Later, she served as a sand barge in Buenos Aires.
In the 1960s Karl Kortum, founder of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, was excited to discover her and broadcast that news to the South Street Seaport of New York City. As the old ship used to sail into New York, South Street was pleased to buy her and get her listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When Hurricane Sandy blasted into New York in 2012 the museum staff had moored her and her antique fleet mates so well that they suffered very little damage. The museum itself, however, was seriously flooded by storm surge.
In 2015 the Seaport sent Wavertree off to Caddell’s Dry Dock and Repair on Staten Island for 16 months’ worth of restoration. Today, $13 million later, this largest of old iron ships still afloat is in A-1 condition and berthed not far from the Brooklyn Bridge. There she floats, near the tip of Manhattan, large as life, greeting visitors and suggesting stories from the days of old, under sail.
Independent scholar Nancy Lloyd lives at Point Ellice near Chinook. A version of this essay was published by the Columbia River Maritime Museum of Astoria, Oregon, in Winter 2015. Her books include “Boats of the Northwest Coast,” 1983, 1992; “Willapa Bay & the Oysters,” 1996, 1999; and Observing Our Peninsula’s Past, Volumes 1 & 2,” 2003, 2006.
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