Since 1792, over two thousand vessels and seven hundred lives have been lost in what has become known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. Here, on the Columbia River bar, the hurling force of the great river collides with the mighty Pacific and creates some of the worst shipping conditions in the world.
Throughout the region, evidence of many of the shipwrecks still remains today. Some wrecks are visible to the eye as skeletons mostly buried by sand. Other lost vessels have vanished completely, but are memorialized as geographic namesakes in the region.
Here are a few of their stories.
One of the few sand bars that did not erode after the jetties were built, the Desdemona Sands got its name from a ship that grounded there on New Year’s Day in 1857. Classified as a bark, which refers to the way the ship is rigged, the Desdemona was built in 1847 and called San Francisco, California, its home port. According to Pacific Graveyard by James A. Gibbs, the ship was one of the most dependable and familiar in coastal trading. Before leaving for Astoria, Oregon, the ship’s captain, Francis Williams, made a bet with the ship’s owner, Thomas Smith: If Williams could get the ship’s cargo to the Columbia River by New Year’s Day, Smith would buy him a new Sunday suit.
Williams arrived around midnight on New Year’s Eve but decided to wait until dawn to cross the bar. At daybreak, the crew signaled for a bar pilot to guide the ship across the bar, but none ever arrived. Williams, a skilled captain with decent knowledge of the bar, decided to make the crossing without a pilot. But the ship was heavy with cargo and Williams’s charts of the bar’s ever-shifting channels were incorrect. The ship hit a shoal.
Williams, the ship’s crew, and men from Astoria worked for three days to remove cargo from the stranded ship before a storm hit and the work had to stop. After the storm, the crew returned to the ship for the last bits of cargo. In the frenzy, the scow carrying cargo and the crew, and being pulled by a tugboat was overloaded. It capsized, taking the cargo and several crewmembers with it. All but one of the crewmembers was saved.
The wreck of the Desdemona was visible for many years until one especially hard winter when it sank out of sight into the sands that now bear its name. Gibbs mentions that it is unknown whether Williams ever received his new Sunday suit.
USS Shark 1846
The quaint Oregon coast town of Cannon Beach got its name from a cannon that drifted ashore from the 1846 wreck of US Naval Survey schooner, the Shark. The ship, under the command of Captain Schenck, arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River as part of a surveying fleet in August, 1846. According to James A. Gibbs, author of Pacific Graveyard, a cook claiming to be a bar pilot came out to meet the ship and offered to guide it across the bar. The cook was supposedly a survivor of the Peacock shipwreck five years prior.
But just twenty minutes after taking over as pilot, the cook stranded the ship on a sand bar. The weather was calm and as the tide came in, the ship drifted free and escaped a watery grave for a short time. The ship was then safely anchored near the Astor Colony, and the crew began surveying the land for safe passage across the bar. Because of tense relations and anxiety over borders between the United States and Great Britain, many crewmembers began deserting and replacements could not be found. The crew’s work was rushed in order to finish the job before more men deserted.
Without proper preparation, the ship began crossing the bar on September 10. It quickly hit Clatsop Spit, Oregon, and was hit hard by breaker waves in rough weather. In an attempt to free the ship from the spit, Captain Schenck ordered all three of the masts to be chopped down and the ship’s twelve cannons to be thrown overboard. But before this job was finished, the Shark began to break apart from the constant pounding of waves. By the next day, it was completely in pieces. A section of the wreck carrying one of the cannons came ashore south of Astoria. In 2010, two more cannons, possibly from the Shark, were found near Arch Cape, Oregon.
All of the ship’s crew managed to reach shore safely; however, before leaving for San Francisco, California, they inscribed the date and details of the wreck on what is now known as Shark Rock, currently on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.
For many years, the beach approach at Ocean Park, Washington, was marked with a war memorial created by two large metal masts from the wrecked ship Arrow that came ashore near the small coastal village in February 1947.
The ship was originally known as the Belfast and was built in 1909. It was used for many years as a pleasure steamer on the East Coast between Boston, Massachusetts and Rockland, Maine. The ship saw a variety of uses, during which its name changed to Arrow, until it was eventually bought by the army in 1942 and became a passenger liner in the Hawaiian Islands.
In 1946, the army decided it was time for the Arrow to retire, but the ship had different plans. In February of 1947, the ship was being hauled by a tug from Seattle, Washington, to join a fleet of mothballed ships near Astoria, Oregon. But during the voyage they hit rough waters and the towline to the ship broke. The tug crew attached a new towline, but that too quickly broke. Risking their lives, they attached a third towline but when that also broke, they decided it would be too dangerous and useless to try again.
The ship came ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington and locals quickly got to work picking items from rope to toilets and sinks off the ship. After a day, the army arrived with a group of soldiers to guard the ship until it could be properly salvaged, but the ship settled rapidly in the sands before any work could be done.
A number of years later, the city of Ocean Park, Washington, bought the masts of the ship and placed them as a memorial at the entrance to the beach. After many salty storms, the rusty masts were removed.
Vazlov Verovsky 1941
During the Graveyard of the Pacific’s heyday of shipwrecks throughout the mid-1800s to early 1900s, locals became expert salvagers. When a shipwreck occurred, it was a huge event with people coming far and wide to help, watch, and reap the free floating cargo from the ships. Many times, people were hired to guard wrecked ships from locals until their owners or professional salvagers could arrive to collect anything valuable. One particular wreck, that of the Vazlov Verovsky on April 3, 1941, was especially bountiful for those who flocked to the beach to collect its cargo. An estimated forty thousand cases of lard washed ashore from the stranded ship.
The Vazlov was a 374-foot steamship and was the only Russian ship ever wrecked at the bar. After the steering mechanism jammed, the ship lost control and became stranded on Peacock Spit, Washington. The entire crew of thirty-seven was saved, but Captain J. Tokareff refused to leave his ship until twenty-four hours later when it started to break apart. The cargo of lard, heavy machinery, and tools began to drift ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula, Washington.
One local, Harry Smith, remembers working around the clock with a group of friends to transport and store around two thousand cases of lard, which they later sold to an Astoria bakery for four dollars a case. To this day, a number of Long Beach Peninsula locals have memories of eating pies and pastries made with shortening from the doomed Vazlov Verovsky.
1853 was a bad year for ships traveling near the mouth of the Columbia River. In that year, four ships were lost, including the Oriole, Mindora, and J. Merithew. But perhaps the worst and most mysterious wreck to occur that year was that of the Vandalia.
On January 9, 1853, the Vandalia was sighted by another ship’s captain who reported that it was laboring, but didn’t seem in need of assistance. A week later, the ship washed ashore, bottom up, near McKenzie Head, south of the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington. Among four bodies that came ashore near the wreck, one was that of Captain E. N. Beard. The rocky cove where his remains were found is now named Beard’s Hollow. A small neighborhood near Ilwaco, Washington bears the name of the lost ship, Vandalia.
The reasons for the wreck were never fully determined and the bodies of the eight other crewmembers were never found.
Unlike many of the shipwrecks in the Graveyard of the Pacific, the wreck of the Glenmorag added more than just the skeleton of a vessel to the area; it added a member to the community.
On March 18, 1896 the Glenmorag, en route to Astoria, Oregon, from Chile, got caught in heavy fog and lost its course. The ship ran aground on the Long Beach Peninsula north of Ocean Park, Washington. Captain Archibald Currie, who was unaware of the ship’s position, was afraid that they were in danger of running into a rocky coast and thus demanded all hands abandon ship. As the lifeboats were being lowered, one was lifted by a large wave and smashed against the ship, crushing to death two of the crewmen and badly injuring another, William Begg. Once safely ashore, the captain sadly realized that abandoning ship was unnecessary and that they could have simply waited and walked ashore once the tide went out.
Injured crewman Begg was taken to the Taylor Hotel in Ocean Park and was cared for by the daughter of the hotel owner, Maude Taylor. After a number of months, Begg recovered. He then decided to remain in the community and eventually married Maude. According to local historian Barbara Minard, Begg, who was British, introduced soccer to his new community and started the first soccer league in Pacific County, Washington.
After numerous unsuccessful attempts to refloat the ship, it was sold to a wrecking company who blew it into pieces and sold the pieces of scrap iron as junk.
One of the most treacherous sand spits at the mouth of the Columbia River, Peacock Spit was named after the gun laden US Naval brig Peacock that was one of many ships to run aground there.
The ship was part of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes’s expedition that was working to conduct the first official American survey of the river. The channels at the mouth of the river were constantly shifting and new sand spits appeared and disappeared quickly, making passage across the bar treacherous. It was thought that accurate charts made by the expedition would help ensure safe passage.
While bar conditions were favorable for the Peacock on July 18, 1841, its Captain, William L. Hudson, unknowingly had inaccurate charts that he had picked up in the Hawaiian Islands. He followed the charts closely while crossing the bar, but hit a sand spit. The crew was ordered to throw all excess cargo and cannons overboard in an effort to free the ship. And while it broke free for a moment, it was quickly pushed back into the sands by heavy breaker waves. After hours of trying to free the ship, the crew and captain decided to abandon the Peacock. Their lifeboat capsized during one trip ashore, forcing ten crewmen to swim for their lives, but the entire crew and captain eventually made it ashore safely.
Peacock Spit is still present today, even after the construction of jetties meant to eliminate the dangerous sand bars from the mouth of the river.
North Bend 1928
A few ships that were stranded on the sands throughout the history of the Graveyard of the Pacific have been refloated or pulled from the sands and back into the open water. But only one ship, the North Bend, managed to save itself.
On January 5, 1928, after attempting to cross the bar without the help of a bar pilot, Captain Theodore Hansen stranded his ship on Peacock Spit near Washington. A tug was used to try to pull the ship free. While it seemed to help at first, the ship was quickly thrown back onto the sands. The entire crew was removed from the ship and taken to safety as rescuers attempted to salvage the ship. The ship was pushed far enough on land that it was untouched by the breaker waves that were the cause of many ships’ demises. After many days trying to free the vessel, the project was abandoned and the ship was left on the spit.
For a year, the ship withstood the weather and ocean waves and remained mostly undamaged. Over time, the waves around the ship began cutting a half-mile channel leading into Baker Bay. On February 11, 1929, with little human help, the ship floated down the channel and into the bay. The ship was sold and turned into a barge. Today, many know the North Bend as the ship that walked on land.
One of the few shipwrecks that are still visible, even if only at very low tides, is that of the French ship, Alice. Part of the reason the Alice has remained so fast in the sand is because of its heavy load of three thousand tons of cement.
The ship hit the sands near Ocean Park, Washington, on the Long Beach Peninsula on January 15, 1909, after a long journey from London. The ship had been fighting bad weather and was pushed into the breaks, hitting land. The entire crew left the boat and made it safely ashore.
The weather eventually cleared and the captain was able to re-board his ship. There, he came to the disappointing realization that it had been sucked deep into the sand by the weight of its cement cargo. As writer of Pacific Graveyard, James A. Gibbs said, the Alice is “sealed in a coffin of cement.”
Admiral Benson 1930
Tucked away in Cape Disappointment State Park, Benson Beach, Washington, is hidden by a towering cliff capped with a lighthouse. It’s a popular spot on the Long Beach Peninsula. The lighthouse has saved many ships over the years from getting too close to land, but there was no helping the Admiral Benson, the beach’s namesake, when it became stranded in heavy fog near Peacock Spit on February 15, 1930.
The ship was headed into the channel toward Portland, Oregon, when it got stuck on the sands. It was initially believed to be a very minor stranding. The steamship carried a cargo of citrus fruits, general freight, thirty-nine passengers, and sixty-five crewmembers.
Like many shipwreck rescue efforts at the time, a device called a breeches buoy was used to get a few passengers ashore, although the conditions were favorable enough that many were also taken in lifeboats. The breeches buoy device consisted of a line from the beach to the stranded ship with a pair of short canvas breeches suspended from a life buoy attached to the line. The survivor would climb into the pants and ride ashore along the line. Although a rather primitive device these days, the breeches buoy saved many from stranded ships.
It was originally thought that the Benson would be able to be refloated off the sands. The captain of the ship, C. C. Graham, remained aboard for over a week until the ship’s rivets began to pull loose and it was considered a loss. The cargo was salvaged, but the sands sucked the ship back in.
Peter Iredale 1906
The evidence of most shipwrecks disappears quickly. Whether covered by shifting sands, broken apart by relentless waves, or manually salvaged, stranded ships rarely stand the test of time. But the remains of one ship, the Peter Iredale, have survived over one hundred years and are still visible at low tide. The wreckage has attracted many visitors over the years and is touted as the subject of more photographers and painters than any other wreck along the United States coastline.
The Peter Iredale was a British bark built in Maryport, England, in 1890 and was one of the largest ships of its time. In the early morning of October 25, 1906, the ship ran aground on Clatsop Spit, Washington, after being caught by a quick current and strong winds. The ship’s masts snapped from the force of hitting the sands and Captain H. Lawrence ordered his crew to abandon ship. All crewmembers were taken safely ashore with help from the Point Adams Lifesaving Crew.
Information from Pacific Graveyard by James A. Gibbs
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco, Washington.