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S. Oregon Coast's Tacoma Wreck A Tale of Cowardice, Confusion

Published 11/01/21 at 6:26 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

S. Oregon Coast's Tacoma Wreck A Tale of Cowardice, Confusion

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(Winchester Bay, Oregon) – From brand new and cutting-edge to a ghost of a wreck off the Oregon coast in less than a month: that was the fate of the steamer Tacoma back in 1883. At once a story of heroes and of chickens, the final day of the steel vessel is marred with the death of ten men, highlighted by a screwy compass, and filled with massive, deadly waves and plot twists.

The SS Tacoma was a gleaming bit of technology at the time, considered the best. But somewhere on the evening of January 29, 1883 – about a month after launch in San Francisco – the steamer abruptly hit a shoal a few miles from Winchester Bay on the south Oregon coast. The impact was powerful, sending sleeping men flying off their bunks and the heaviest of objects sailing. The helm wheel nearly tore the pilot's arm off it spun so madly. She was, after all, sailing at a brisk 14 knots and carried by the force of more than 40,000 tons of coal and vessel.

Events soon began playing out in two separate areas like a split TV screen: one on the ship itself and the other onshore. First, however, the men sat huddled beneath the deck as the vessel cracked ever more so in the midst of a powerful storm. When morning broke, all but one of the lifeboats had disappeared and no ship had come to the rescue. Captain George Kortz set out with four men, braving heavy seas, eventually making it all the way down to Cape Arago over thirty miles away.

First, a trio of rescue tugs were sent to attempt rescue: the Sol Thomas, the Escort and the Fearless. Those efforts failed because of high seas and protruding rocks, and the ships turned back. In one case, the cords used to tie down the Lyle gun snapped in the heavy surf – the device which was to be used to fire a rescue line to the Tacoma.

As that small boat made it back onshore and the device was about repaired, it was here that the lighthouse keeper named Desmond from Cape Gregory (before it was called Arago) ran back to shore, muttering that he forgot something. He had chickened out. He refused to send any more crew out there and he wouldn't come out of the lighthouse. Newspapers at the time called him “inhuman.”

In the midst of all this, the captain of the Escort also “chickened out” apparently, or he thought somehow he was no longer needed. To the horror of onlookers – many of whom had already heard of Desmond's cowardice – they watched the tug head back to port in Empire City (later part of Coos Bay).

After a few tries to navigate the bar in these wild Oregon coast conditions, it was Captain Kortz and his men who made it back out to sea for the rescue. However, they only managed to snag two men off the Tacoma before also being overwhelmed by the sea.

Finally, a group of local volunteers headed out themselves and managed to rescue the remaining men off the ship. However, a series of swells shot the boat skyward and every man onboard was plunged into the ocean. Some managed to hang onto the mast of the ship, but each slowly fell away and were drowned. Those that made to bits of debris were rescued.

First assistant engineer Grant was the ironic hero on board the Tacoma. He had threatened his panicking men with a gun: that they should straighten up and disembark in an orderly fashion, thus ensuring their initial rescue. He was the tenth man to die in the surf.


Cape Arago Lighthouse in the 1880s

Afterwards, media had a major fuss over Desmond's cowardice, but little was said for some years of the other ships and their gutlessness. History and many of those who were there were quite venomous at times on the matter. Immediately after, Desmond claimed he didn't want to send his inexperienced crew out in those conditions. He was publicly skewered for this, but decades later one man from the scene suggested Desmond should've been imprisoned.

The Oregonian newspaper at the time claimed a number of factors as the cause, including their breakneck speed while being so close to shore. At the heart of the matter was a defective compass – one of two that could've been used. This threw them off course. Those in charge should've checked the other compass, as the paper noted one in 20 compasses had issues with steel ships at the time.

Nothing is left of her now. In fact, within a few days the entire Tacoma disappeared beneath the surf.

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