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Coos Bay's Mystery Shipwreck of 2008, Forgotten S. Oregon Coast History

Published 08/17//20 at 5:44 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Coos Bay's Mystery Shipwreck of 2008, Forgotten S. Oregon Coast History

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(Coos Bay, Oregon) – In the first two months of 2008, more storms rocked the entirety of the Oregon coast, even after the Great Gale a month before sent an atmospheric wrecking ball around the northern half of the region. Sand levels reached unprecedented lows, with one park ranger noting some 20 feet of sand had been scoured from Pacific City. (Photo above courtesy Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe).

Amazing things were getting uncovered by those lack of sands: a pair of seminal cannon near Cannon Beach, an old mail truck near Waldport, and around Coos Bay a mysterious shipwreck popped up. They all caused a major stir in one way or another, but down on the south coast this thing had become a real celebrity. Early in February, hordes came to check out this new yet ancient and unnamed vessel, with one local saying traffic was akin to L.A’s freeways. Thousands came over a period of weeks.

Steven Greif, now a volunteer and researcher for the Coos History Museum, was among the throngs.

“Hundreds of people (myself included) hiked or four-wheeled to the wreck and it was the talk of the town for several weeks,” Greif said.

Even Seaside Aquarium’s Tiffany Boothe was caught up in the buzz: she snagged these photos back then.

The mystery wreck caused a major stir with researchers as well. No one knew what ship this was, and locals had varying stories about it. One consistent tale was that it had been seen in the ‘40s, but this wreck – a ways north of the North Spit – seemed to have several names.

Photo courtesy Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe

In fact, researchers had several possibilities in mind, and for a week or two it was truly up in the air. Finally, around February 20 the answer came, thanks to Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Steve Samuels. He pored a myriad of photographs of the current chunk that was sticking out and photos of the bow of a ship called the Ryder Hanity from way back in 1917. Why that ship? Because that later became the George L. Olson, one of the prime candidates for the mystery wreck.

Samuels had the key to the jigsaw puzzle here. He declared it the George L. Olson, based on a fascinating blend of visual elements. The round portholes were the same – but they were also similar to another ship. What clinched it were minute details like the iron fasteners on the portholes and the holes where the anchor slid through.

The George L. Olson was a wooden schooner measuring 223 feet long and originally constructed in 1917 in California. Originally called the Ryder Hanity, it was used for lumber, then sold and renamed within a year. It crashed at Coos Bay in 1944.


Photo courtesy Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe

In a scene that seems common with many shipwrecks, at first it ran aground elsewhere, was refloated – and like the New Carissa in the ‘90s - it broke apart and then wrecked again. The Olson reportedly was making its way through the bar at Coos Bay when it was hit by the wave action of another passing ship, running aground on the rocks on June 24, 1944.

No one was injured in this wreck (see the tragedy of the Czarina Shipwreck at Coos Bay).

Three days later it was refloated after several tries, and then grounded again in the harbor – back when Coos Bay was still called Empire. Finally, a salvage company hauled it out to sea where it was set loose to be taken by the elements – but it didn’t. Instead it floated itself to a spot about a mile and a half north of the spit, wrecked and broke apart.

After that, there was much documentation of kids playing on it in the ‘40s, and even family photographs of it. Sands began covering it up, however, and one day it disappeared. It reappeared again in the ‘60s but by then memories of it had begun fading. Over the next 40 years, it had largely been wiped from people’s minds.

“I think what made the wreck so exciting was the fact that so much of it was exposed and, for a while at least, the identity of the vessel was a mystery,” Greif said. “The next winter storms reburied the Olson in sand and it has not reappeared since.” More local history is available at the Coos History Museum.

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Photo above courtesy Steve Greif, Coos History Museum

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