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Coos Bay's Santa Clara Shipwreck Among Deadliest on Oregon Coast

Published 06/14/21 at 2:40 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Coos Bay's Santa Clara Shipwreck Among Deadliest on Oregon Coast

(Coos Bay, Oregon) – In the years between 1880 and 1930, shipwrecks – especially deadly ones – seemed a dime a dozen on the Oregon coast. Many of the worst and most prominent happened in the 1910s, and that includes one of the highest in fatalities of them all: the wreck of the Santa Clara at Coos Bay. (Photos courtesy Coos History Museum)

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She started out around 1900 as the John S. Kimball, and was at the time the largest steam schooner on the Oregon and Washington coast. One more name change and after that she became the SS Santa Clara. Then, on November 2, 1915 she was on her way into Coos Bay (still called Marshfield then) from Portland.

That day proved exceptionally stormy, which may not have been a big deal except apparently the storm churned up a new shoal, or at least it was uncharted one. The Santa Clara struck it about 4:28 p.m. or so, and Captain August Lofstedt soon discovered the propeller wasn't taking him and the 60 souls aboard anywhere. Most of them were passengers.

The engineer informed him the ship was taking on water, and all deckhands had already gathered up top awaiting orders. The radio had stopped working, which kept authorities in the dark on what was going on. Lofstedt hesitated for a long time, and for good reason. It was truly dangerous out there. Finally, he gave the orders to get into lifeboats, but the first one capsized in the raging waters en route to shore, killing women and children.

Other boats dropped into the sea had to contend with impossible conditions, tossed about madly and sometimes losing people overboard. Those manning the oars were inexperienced, and boats actually bumped into each other trying to save those flung into the water. Some had to turn back and get back into the SS Santa Clara to await rescue. Most wrestled with the white monsters for hours before finally getting to the beach.

16 people had lost their lives on the southern Oregon coast that day.

Bodies washed up periodically over the next few days, sometimes with friends or relatives who were keeping watch witnessing their own loved ones come up onto the beach.

Meanwhile, fog and ferocious waters kept rescue crews away. By land, there were no real roads so physicians and other personnel took hours to get to the burned and injured on the beach.

The saga wasn't quite over. For the next few days looters attacked the ship, making off with the many goods onboard as well as parts of the vessel. Liquor was a favorite, with looters getting nicknamed “pirates” for that. Newspaper reports of the period talk about items from the ship being sold on the streets of Marshfield left and right, creating a momentary, small booming industry.

Meanwhile, the ship's owners had vacillated for a long time on hiring men to grab the valuables and merchandise, allowing raiders to drain it further. One group tried to dynamite part of the ship to get quicker access. Arsonists also set the wreckage ablaze at one point.

The SS Santa Clara was also carrying a lot of mail, which eventually allowed authorities to go after many of the thieves with the full might of the feds behind them.

Captain Lofstedt was found guilty of negligence for his part in the wreck.

In the end, the sea claimed the rest of the vessel and nothing is left along the shoreline of the Coos Bay area. Also see Coos Bay's Czarina Shipwreck a Heart-wrenching Oregon Coast Tale 

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Wild conditions at Shore Acres State Park, courtesy Brent Lerwill

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