Shipwreck at Coos Bay Spit
Tragic shipwreck was like a concerto of incompetence
By Finn J.D. John
The night of January 12, 1910, was a long one for a group of women clustered on the storm-swept beach of Coos Bay Spit. They were there watching as their husbands, clinging to the rigging of their foundered ship just a few hundred yards away, fell one by one into the churning sea and drowned.
It was the final act in what had to be the bleakest shipwreck drama in state history. Twenty-three of the 24 men aboard the 216-foot iron steamer Czarina died that day. And they died not from heavy weather, but from a veritable concerto of timidity and incompetence. There were no villains in the tragedy — just a number of people who, when weighed in the balances, were found wanting.
Here’s the story:
Into the storm
On the last day of its life, the Czarina was loaded with a heavy cargo of cement and coal belowdecks, with some 40,000 board feet of lumber lashed to the decks, and scheduled for a coastwise run to San Francisco to deliver it. The ship may have been overloaded; such steamers often were.
A fierce gale was blowing out of the southwest, making conditions on the bar decidedly hostile. Prudent skippers were waiting for conditions to settle down before putting out to sea. But for reasons that will never be known, Captain Dugan decided to take the little steamer out to sea anyway.
The seas were breaking all the way across the bar of the Coos River as Dugan and his crew chugged out to meet their doom. Almost immediately, the little ship was enveloped by a massive comber that swept the deck, severely damaging the pilothouse.
Now, too late, one has to imagine Dugan realized what a bad decision he’d made. But under the circumstances there was only one thing to do, and that was go forward. Trying to turn the heavily loaded freighter around and retreat back into the bay would have presented the oncoming breakers with a broadside to hit, possibly capsizing the Czarina. So forward she chugged, as breaker after breaker pounded onto her decks, tearing loose pieces of the deckload and sweeping away the lifeboats.
But then a particularly baleful breaker pounded down onto the ship and put out the boiler fire, and she was truly helpless. Drifting in the breakers, she was pounded by a total of 61 deck-sweeping breakers — worried onlookers were actually counting them — before finally fetching up against the rocks of the south spit; at this point, belatedly, she blew a distress call, and members of the crew started climbing into the rigging to get away from the relentless seas.
From an observation tower near the harbor mouth, Captain W.A. Magee of the harbor tug Astoria was watching the whole thing, astonished that Dugan would even attempt the bar on such an awful day. When the distress call was sounded, he hustled to his ship, brought the steam up and went out to help. But by this time, the river current had carried the wallowing ship past the breakers and out to sea, and the bar was really rough, and he very much did not want to try to cross it.
“After seeing the position of the Czarina I knew that nothing could be done from the outside,” he later explained. “A steam schooner was off about three-fourths of a mile from the wreck, standing by.”
By this he seems to have meant that he hoped the steam schooner would be able to help, so that he would not have to. Unfortunately, that schooner was heavily loaded, including a giant deck load of lumber, and although it tried to get close enough to help, it simply wasn’t able to.
Another steamer tried to help out, too, but the Czarina was too close to shore and the seas were too big for deep-draft, fully-loaded vessels to get near enough to help. The only survivor from the Czarina later opined that the Astoria was the Czarina’s only real hope of rescue. When Captain Magee opted to stay safely in the bay and hope somebody else would do the job, he more or less doomed the Czarina to fetch up on the beach.
But the Czarina didn’t fetch up on the beach. If she had, it’s highly unlikely that any of her crew would have died. To make the wreck of the Czarina into a true humanitarian disaster, a couple more bad decisions would have to be made.
Anchored in the breakers
The first of these was another bonehead move by Captain Dugan. After the steamer was out of the bar and floating in calmer seas, the skipper ordered her anchor dropped. The relentless and powerful wind, coming out of the southwest, was pushing the Czarina relentlessly toward the shore of the north spit. Dugan hoped that by dropping anchor outside the breakers, he could prevent the ship from being blown onto the beach, so that someone could come and rescue them and the ship could be salvaged.
In the golden light of hindsight, it’s easy to see that this was the absolute worst possible thing he could have done. Because as the merciless wind pushed the Czarina closer and closer to shore, it soon became obvious that Dugan had miscalculated. He’d anchored his ship not off the breakers, but in them — in the big outer breakers, too far from the beach to reach with a rescue line. And with no steam to run the winches, bringing the anchor in was not possible.
Dugan sent a crewman with a hacksaw to try to cut the anchor chain. But this was a 20-minute job even on a calm day, and the gale-force winds and growing breakers didn’t give the crewman a chance. He soon was driven up into the rigging with the rest of the crew to await their fate.
Stuck in the deadliest part of the surfline, the Czarina soon filled with water and settled to the bottom with just her masts sticking up, covered with terrified sailors. The deckload had been torn loose, and the surf between the Czarina and the shore was clotted with big wood timbers, making rescue efforts much more complicated and dangerous.
A desultory rescue
It was now lifestation keeper Clarence Boice’s time to shine — or, rather, fail to do so. First, he stayed in the observation tower watching the ship wash shoreward for 20 minutes before springing into action, so by the time his crew got to the scene the Czarina was already settling to the seafloor and the surf was already thick with dangerous lumber.
He then set up a Lyle gun, hoping to get a line across the ship so that a crew member could get and secure it. He tried two shots, but for reasons that were never explained, neither shot was made using a maximum charge of powder, and neither one would carry 900 yards against the fierce wind. By that time, it was probably too late anyway, as the wreck was just a pair of masts protruding from the breakers and the sailors wouldn’t have been able to secure a line — or, at any rate, so he told himself.
A couple attempts to launch a surfboat to go to the rescue didn’t work so well either. Perhaps that was because Boice had discontinued the surf-launching drills for his men. It’s possible that even a well-trained crew wouldn’t have been able to launch that day — but we’ll never know, because there were no well-trained crews on the scene.
So Boice gave up and watched, hoping some of the exhausted and bone-chilled crew members would make it to the beach, and building a warming fire to greet them if they did.
We can only imagine how the women on the beach that night reacted to this passiveness. And indeed, the rest of the community was very critical; they requested, and got, a Lifesaving Service investigation afterward. The investigators concluded that they were right — that Boice had not risen to the occasion, although they were very sympathetic with the difficulty of the situation he’d found himself in.
Boice appeared to agree. He submitted his resignation as keeper immediately after the disaster.
None of that was of any help to the men on the Czarina’s masts, though. Throughout the night, they dropped one by one and two by two into the sea to drown. By late the following morning, they were all gone. And of the numerous bodies that washed up on the beach, only one survived.
(Sources: Annual Report of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Washington: Gov’t Printing Office, 1910; Ocean City (Maryland) Life-Saving Station Museum, www.ocmuseum.org; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.