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When a Mysterious Shipwreck Popped Up Out of Nowhere: Oregon Coast History

Published 03/23/2020 at 4:44 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

When a Mysterious Shipwreck Popped Up Out of Nowhere: Oregon Coast History

(Rockaway Beach, Oregon) – Ten years ago, a 100-year-old surprise popped up on the north Oregon coast, essentially forgotten by time. At that point, this mysterious shipwreck had not been seen in some 35 years, leaving most people in Tillamook County scratching their heads for awhile. (Historic photos courtesy Don Best)

2010 had been an especially rough winter, with heavy surf scouring out gobs of sand, dropping the beaches some 10 – 20 feet or more. Many places saw lots of bedrock, but in Rockaway Beach it was the wreck of the Emily G. Reed.

Winter wave action had cut a wedge out of the sandy slope towards the waves as much as four or five feet deep. It was treasure hunters dream of sorts, with around 100 feet of the ribcage-like structure now visible – the most in decades. Since then it’s popped up every few years during winter.

A baby Don Best is pictured here in the early '40s being held by his mother

The Reed hit the mouth of the Nehalem River in 1908, back when there was no jetty. Apparently, the Reed was looking for the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse to guide its way, and for some reason made a wrong turn and grounded itself.

“It snapped in half,” said Don Best, a longtime Rockaway Beach resident, historian and photographer. “Pieces were scattered all over. There’s still a piece in Nedonna Creek."

The wreck is just below a wave-cut terrace in the sandy slope

This portion is the largest chunk still around, though it had been thoroughly raided pretty quickly, like anything else left of it. Some of the raiders included Best’s family, back in the early pioneer days of the area.

The Emily Reed has been a secretive, shy shipwreck, hiding beneath the sand for most of its time on these shores. After this part came to rest here, it was visible most of the time until the ‘40s and ‘50s, when its visibility became less and less.

Then it just disappeared, until just before 2010.

“That was the first time it was visible in around 35 years,” Best said.

The Reed was built in New England by the Reed family, which created a small fleet of ships bearing the name. “There was a Mary Reed; there were a bunch of different ships with that name Reed,” Best said.

It was bound for Portland, carrying a load of coal from New Castle, South Wales in stormy and foggy weather. It had been at sea 102 days and ran aground on Valentine’s Day, February 14.

The wreck as it looked decades ago (photo Don Best)

From there, accounts vary. Seven or eight crewmembers apparently lost their lives after getting swept out to sea. The captain, his wife and some others clung to a chunk of the wreck and supposedly made it ashore.

Another account has a group of them in a lifeboat that was carried back out to sea, and never making it back until they got to the central Washington coast. One died along the way after drinking sea water.

The shipwreck was raided fairly quickly for materials by locals, including Best's grandfather around 1910.

After this portion of the ship landed, it was Best’s grandfather – a homesteader here since 1910 – that went out and grabbed chunks of copper siding from the ribs of the ship.

“He went and sold that for three cents a pound, or something like that,” Best said.

Other chunks of the ships and materials were also taken by Best’s grand dad.

One piece was especially interesting to Best as a child, back in the ‘40’s and ‘50s, which had some copper nails in it that created some wild special effects.

“Every Christmas he’d put a piece of it in the fire place and it would create these blue and green flames,” Best said. “We thought it was magic.”

Best was born in 1943, and many of his earliest memories were of the wreck, and there are numerous pictures of his family standing by it.

One year when it popped up, Best dug around and found an air pocket.

“I scooted under there on my belly and looked inside, and there was this part that nobody had seen since 1908,” Best said.

Another portion of the wreck, a set of timbers, was discovered to the south about three years ago, which impressed Best quite a bit.

“That was a part I have never seen,” he said.

Because it’s buried under sand most of the time, the wreck is protected from the elements and quick decay. Recent trends towards lower and lower sand levels may change that in the coming years, however.

State authorities are quick to point out any such shipwreck is protected by law. You can take plenty of pictures, but take no part of it with you.

The wreck is located around Second Street in Rockaway, a couple blocks down from the main beach access with the red caboose. It did not appear this year, however.

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