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South Oregon Coast Shipwrecks At A Glance: There Are Hundreds

Published 05/16/21 at 5:25 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

South Oregon Coast Shipwrecks At A Glance: There Are Hundreds

(Coos Bay, Oregon) – If you dig further into Oregon coast shipwreck history you start to notice something unnerving: there’s an overwhelming number of them. There are far more than you’re ready to think about, and not just in terms of the human losses but especially the sheer magnitude of the work involved. (Above: wreck of the Olson, Coos Bay, courtesy Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe)

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Case in point: James Gibbs’ book Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast is widely regarded as the go-to book on shipwrecks around here. But it barely touches the surface when it comes to the south coast. It features some 15 shipwrecks in that region, but one major count back in 1974 by the Coos Bay World newspaper had upwards of 115. That’s only the ships completely lost to sea and not counting the wrecks that were reclaimed in some way. You’re looking at nearly 300 ships in that category – for the southern coast alone.

North Bend historian Victor C. West and an earlier historian, Robert Rittenhouse, had documented all this by that time, looking at the California border up through to Florence.

The first documented shipwreck along the entire Oregon coast was the Sea Otter in 1808, crashing at what later became Reedsport. The first in the Coos Bay area was the Captain Lincoln in 1852, which was hit by a storm and carried past its destination of Port Orford until it reached the north spit around Horsfall Beach. It actually crossed two years in doing so: it set out from San Francisco in late 1851 and wrecked on January 2. Oregon Coast's First Documented Shipwreck? Sea Otter in 1808 at Reedsport

Both these wrecks had the men camping out near where they made landfall, actually becoming the first settlements of Americans / Europeans in those spots, even if they were shortlived.

The Chansey followed in 1854 around Coos Bay, the Quadratus in 1856 and the Jackson, New World and the Cyclops over the next two years.

In 1883, the Tacoma made an especially big impression when it wrecked near Winchester Bay. The steamer hit the rocks hard – all due to a faulty compass. With one lifeboat taken by the angry surf, a second was eventually launched into the heavy breakers with the captain and a few men in an effort to get help. A small band of ships tried but failed to get hold of the Tacoma, and officials gave up. The public outcry was enormous back on land at Gardiner, and the captain wound up going back himself for another try to rescue more men from the slowly-disintegrating metal vessel.

Captain Kortz only managed to rescue two more. However, one group of locals not part of any lifesaving crew went rogue and attempted rescue themselves, and to the cheers of many watching they succeeded in snagging just about all crew members. They made trip after trip aboard an oar-driven boat, and as the last group made it in, a set of enormous waves knocked the boat skyward, launching all into the water. A few of them did not make it.

Off Port Orford, the brig T.W. Lucas lost control and started leaking in October of 1894. Launching distress flares, another ship managed to rescue the crew, and the ship went down slowly somewhere off the coastline.

Near Gold Beach in 1920, the Joan de Arc smashed into pieces. Parts of it reportedly made it into some building constructs. The Mary Hume from the '70s is still visible in town.

Czarina: courtesy Coos History Museum

One of the worst of the bunch was the Czarina in the early 20th century, off Coos Bay, where men clung desperately to a mast in miserable conditions, one by one dropping off into the sea. A local man watched his son die from shore. Coos Bay's Czarina Shipwreck a Heart-wrenching Oregon Coast Tale

The J.A. Chanslor in 1919 saw some of the worst loss of life. Wrecking off Cape Blanco, some 38 people died.

One of the luckiest shipwrecks was the passenger liner Congress, which caught fire near Coos Bay in 1916. A bar dredge enabled all of the 264 people to walk off the ship safely.

In 1944, the George L. Olson went down around Coos Bay, and the wreck on the beach disappeared beneath the sands and from the public imagination. In the early 2000s, it re-emerged suddenly, and it took historians awhile to figure out what it was. Coos Bay's Mystery Shipwreck of 2008, Forgotten S. Oregon Coast History 

The ‘90s, of course, saw the extremely high-profile wreck of the New Carissa at Coos Bay. It was the first major shipwreck in Oregon covered by news helicopters and live feeds from vans near the beach, enabling the public to see the wild action of officials trying to blow the ship in two and failing for a time. Then, the public got to watch half of it drift away and the attention turned to Waldport where that chunk crash-landed.

All this is simply a sampling: look for more on these in the future at Oregon Coast Beach Connection. MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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George Olson in the early 2000s, courtesy Steven Grieff / Coos History Museum


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