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Manzanita's Wreck of the Glenesslin: Historical Oregon Coast Controversy

Published 05/02/2020 at 3:54 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Manzanita's Wreck of the Glenesslin: Historical Oregon Coast Controversy

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(Manzanita, Oregon) – One of the Oregon coast’s more infamous shipwrecks still remains a controversy into this century – and it all happened in tiny Manzanita, even before the village had that name.

On a pleasant, even gorgeous day – October 1 of 1913 – the massive British square rigger Glenesslin plowed into a part of Neahkahnie Mountain you can’t really see these days. A mystery to everyone, conditions were crystal clear, waters were calm and it was only 2:30 in the afternoon. The ship was built in Glasgow in 1885: 1,818 tons of steel that were 260 feet long. In this case, it was coming up from Brazil, bound for Portland with only sand ballast and no cargo, as it was to pick up various goods in Stumptown.

When it hit the jagged shoreline of Neahkahnie Mountain, a large group of locals came to the rescue of the crew, and what followed was a dramatic trial over who was at fault for the wrecking of the Glenesslin. Testimony was heard that the captain was drunk as well as other crew members, and in the end Captain Owen Williams and second mate John Colefield were suspended for six months, while first mate F.W. Harwarth simply received a reprimand.

Afterwards, historians started speculating there was another possibility, that the Glenesslin was wrecked on purpose for the insurance money. Wind-driven ships were by this time not profitable with steam ships the standard, yet the C.E. DeWolf & Co. could not afford to replace it. The trial itself was a major brouhaha of “he said / he said.” Thus lingers this Oregon coast controversy.

The Glenesslin had a bit of fame to it: about 1900 it set a record for sailing speed, making the run from Portland to South Africa in 74 days. Numerous other local papers covered it after that, usually mundane business reports about what it arrived in Portland with, and even one report of pesticide used to kill all the rats aboard to prevent Bubonic plague.

Newspaper reports of the shipwreck are interesting in their detail. One article tells of a man “living on the beach” (presumably a cabin near the surf) who knew something was very wrong as he watched the ship make a kind of beeline for the cliffs. Also watching were the guests and staff at the fabled Neah-Kah-Nie tavern, a hotel / restaurant that was famous for many decades, and in the fact the Sand Dune Pub has a similar décor in homage. There, people watched through a glass window as the ship ducked into the side of the mountain.

Immediately, a small crowd of locals ran out to render aid, among them Samuel G. Reed, owner of the tavern and a local legend in Manzanita. He along with others helping crew out of the ship noted many of them reeked from alcohol, including the captain.

According to the East Oregonian newspaper on October 2: “All those aboard were saved, with their baggage, by shooting a line from the boat to shore, where the line was made fast to the big bowlders [sic] by S. G. Reed, owner of Necarney Tavern, his clerk, Thomas Williams, Walter Cain and two laborers.”


Reed testified at the hearing in Astoria on October 13 to the presence of alcohol. Back in 2011, local historian Paul Bartels told the Cannon Beach History Center the crew wanted to rid themselves of the whiskey before docking.

Subsequent articles by the Oregon Daily Journal (The Oregonian) and Oregon Capitol Journal (Statesman-Journal) in the days following talked about the ship listing and shifting, but not getting battered too badly by waves. However, with several holes and the fact it was in kind of a weird spot where wind was blocked – and thus couldn’t move on its own – it was a total loss.

Then came the hearing, which included a handful of British naval men and admirals. The stories varied and the courtroom scene felt a little like something out of Downtown Abbey.

One one side was second mate Colefield who was on watch on the deck, claiming he tried to awaken Captain Williams from his nap at 2 p.m. as the captain had ordered, but found him and first mate Harwarth essentially too liquored up to wake up, according to the Oregon Daily Journal. At one point Williams did make it on deck, but by then it was too late to steer the ship away.

On the other side was Williams, who claimed he had not been awakened as requested. Moreover, if the testimony is to be believed, the whole incident could’ve been averted by one man.

According to the Oregon Daily Journal: “A Chinese cook testified that he had gone upon the poop deck and asked Colefield to stand offshore and that the latter told him to clear out and mind his own business.”

An unusual scene took place in the courtroom, where the judge and an attorney began postulating what they might do if they were in the first mate’s place. This caused Colefield to become livid and burst out: “They’ve got me hung. I see that I shall have to appeal because I see that I am to be made the one to blame.”

The court’s final rulings made no specific mention of the alcohol. Officials apparently didn’t really believe either camp entirely, punishing both with what was the most severe penalties possible.

Within days of the wreck, a surveyor for auction house Lloyd’s took stock of the ship. It was later sold for a mere a 500-some dollars, sight unseen, though it would’ve been worth $30,000 or so intact. After that, the new owner sold it for $100.

Exactly how the Glenesslin was dismantled is not known.

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