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S. Oregon Coast Cottoneva Shipwreck a Tense Drama for Port Orford

Published 07/23/21 at 4:45 AM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

S. Oregon Coast Cottoneva Shipwreck a Tense Drama for Port Orford

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(Port Orford, Oregon) – One of the few shipwreck chunks you can see on the Oregon coast sits at Port Orford: the propeller from the Cottoneva. Its rusted, curmudgeonly shape survives almost 100 years on now, there as a fascinating little tourist attraction near Battle Rock, slightly haunting but always firing up the imagination. (Photo courtesy blog.portorfordhistoricalphotos.org)

It was February of 1937 that the Cottoneva wrecked on the shores of the southern Oregon coast town, a 190-foot schooner that was loaded up with lumber and got hit by a massive storm that the crew had just barely missed being informed about. It's one of those lucky shipwrecks of the Oregon coast: no lives were lost, and the men aboard even got their belongings back. Yet it created some interesting legal wrangling afterwards and somewhat echoed down the decades in that manner, getting brought up again as a legal precedent in 1979.

The Cottoneva had been docked at Port Orford, loading up on lumber, getting ready to make its way to Grays Harbor on the Washington coast. On February 10 of ‘37, it was ready to depart. Just as it did so, officials got word of a heavy storm that was bearing down on the south coast, but that did not get to captain and crew in time. Reportedly, the Cottoneva was not loaded properly causing the bow to be rather high. This, combined with gale force winds that hit 75 mph, caused the ship to be unmanageable at sea. Captain Eberhard Stahlbaum barked orders to keep trying. The ship tossed about in the fury, veering one direction to the next.

Yet the Cottoneva was still close to the beaches and cliffs of Port Orford – too close in such a tempest. Stahlbaum made one last ditch effort to shove her out to sea, but to no avail. Between the proximity of land and the lack of protection from the wind, he gave up. In a split-second decision, the captain sent the ship up the beach, knowing that was the only way to save the men onboard.

Somewhere in the midst of that, the wooden schooner hit a rock or maybe another shipwreck chunk and one side split open. There she was stuck, next to Battle Rock, languishing in pounding surf and heavy winds, getting gutted.

The U.S. Coast Guard was dispatched quickly, and through their heroic efforts all 26 men were rescued. But this wasn't without its drama. First they fastened lines to the ship. Then a giant winch was placed on the beach, still in the raging surf. A breeches buoy was sent up the lines to get the men out – a kind of giant ring with pants in the middle. Dozens of men worked on shore, pulling lines and saving lives.

The Coast Guard was in the following days able to board the vessel – now a total loss – and snag the men's belongings. All crewmen were eventually all shipped back to San Francisco where the lumber company was based.

Soon began the tourist attraction aspect. Like the New Carissa decades later in Coos Bay and Waldport, it drew hundreds, and at a time when Highway 101 was still quite new to the Oregon coast. Low tide offered people a chance to go see it in person, but largely it simply got smacked by the waves and began falling apart.

Considered scrap, it was quickly sold to someone else in San Francisco, but legal wrangling ensued when insurance underwriters took over, and by March the Knapp family – which owned a hotel in front of the wreck – vied for it. Later in the month, it was turned over to them, and the initial plan was to haul it further up the beach to turn it into a tourist attraction.

That never happened, but chunks of it were either removed or fell away, and eventually nothing was left except the propeller and an engine. The latter disappeared and the propeller made its way into someone's yard for a decade or so, then moved to the viewpoint above Battle Rock for all to gawk at.

A curiosity among shipwrecks, the coast guard crew that rescued the men later that year reenacted the rescue in Portland. A replica of the ship was built, with fireworks and explosives reportedly used to duplicate the drama.

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Courtesy Oregon State Parks

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Courtesy Oregon State Archives

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