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Coos Bay's Czarina Shipwreck a Heart-wrenching Oregon Coast Tale

Published 08/07/20 at 6:24 AM PDT - Updated 08/07/20 at 7:24 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Coos Bay's Czarina Shipwreck a Heartwrenching Oregon Coast Tale

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(Coos Bay, Oregon) - On January 12 of 1910, it didn’t appear to be a bad day on the southern Oregon coast, in the little town of Marshfield (later to become Coos Bay). It was windy along the beaches but still somewhat sunny between a few clouds. The waves were crazier than they looked from shore, but to the average beach-goer it probably would’ve been a typical semi-stormy day on this coast. (Above: the Czarina on the day after it wrecked)

However, if you were heading out to sea, as the locally-owned steamship Czarina was doing, this was a recipe for disaster. Add to that a series of bad decisions and ineptitude and you have an irretrievably catastrophic situation that wound up one of the saddest shipwreck tales of the Oregon coast.

History and the East Oregonian reporting the scene the next day (the January 13 edition) tell of this 216-foot vessel leaving the bay and heading out through the bar under what were apparently tumultuous seas and perilous conditions. Exactly why the tugboat Astoria that was watching them or other mariners didn’t stop the Czarina isn’t clear, but later investigations determined Captain Duggan simply made a series of bad decisions right off the bat.

The Czarina made it through the bar and almost past the jetties when it began to falter, getting hit with the first massive wave (there were some reports seas were at 60-some feet out there). It slowly sputtered its way just beyond the jetties only to start moving in mysterious, random directions, including backwards at one point. Now getting knocked around by waves enough to not be in charge of its own steering, it slid aground onto a sand spit near the jetty.

She sounded off her distress signal at this moment.

During all this, Capt. Magee of the Lifesavers Station was watching some four miles away in a tower at Empire City (now part of Coos Bay). He decided not to even attempt the stormy bar. He was to later play a particularly distressing part in the disaster.

Apparently, the Czarina was shaken loose from the southern spit and began drifting towards the northern side. At one point, seas were so overwhelming the crewman had climbed up the riggings to keep out of the water (see the photo below). According to the Eastern Oregonian, seas finally cleared a little, and with the vessel heading towards rocks Capt. Duggan called for an anchor to be dropped. It didn’t hold.

Look closely at the lines (riggings) coming off the masts: those are people clinging for life there

The second anchor that dropped worked, however it was in a bad spot by this time, some 1,800 feet from the beach. The Czarina was now stuck in breakers that were even worse. Darker still: that distance from shore made it just a bit too far for rescuers to reach from the sands.

Meanwhile, people had started to gather to watch the disturbing drama, including many of the wives of the men onboard. It must’ve been heart-wrenching to see only six men make it to those riggings, knowing that all the others had already or were about to perish. Some reports show the wives and others watching as various crewmembers fell to their demise before those six made it up there.

The Eastern Oregonian recounts one firsthand tragic witness, a local businessman.

“A pitiful incident in connection with the loss of the Czarina was the presence of C.J. Mills, father of Harold Mills, on the beach. Early apprised of the accident the father ran to the beach, only to see the vessel drift onto the rocks with his son aboard. The stricken father paced anxiously up and down the beach scanning the water and trying to devise some way of reaching his son…..”

Magee had pinned his hopes on a ship nearby called the Nan Smith to rescue the Czarina crew, as likely the only way to reach that vessel was via a ship already out there. The bar was simply too treacherous. The Nan made one attempt, but with so much lumber tied to its exterior deck it had to turn back.

Magee did try to fire a line from a high-powered gun from shore, but gave up after two tries. Later, public outrage over the whole tragedy caused a sizable investigation, and it was determined Magee gave up too soon. He eventually resigned his position in disgrace.

As darkness fell, only four men now remained visible. Periodically they were seen flashing their lights overnight, which the East Oregonian documented. It notes that eventually those four – which included Duggan – slowly dropped off into the ocean.

The article notes that overnight came the only survivor, first engineer Harry Kentzel, who clung tightly to a chunk of lumber which delivered him onto the beach in a semi-conscious state. Kentzel later maintained that if the tugboat Astoria had only tried to make it over the bar it could’ve rescued the ship from ever having to beach even the first time.

24 died in this wreck, making it among the deadliest on the coastline.

The East Oregonian had filed its report later on the 13th, showing how conditions had worsened substantially. Still, history records some lifesaving station crew were sent out to the ship that day to keep away looters. However, two of that crew were later charged with the very crime they were sent to prevent.

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