In early January 1881, the Bristish ship Lupatia wrecked on Tillamook Rock, a wreck that killed 16 sailors and had only one survivor – a shepherd dog that accompanied the crew. The Lupatia was known as a “bark” ship, or a ship with three masts, and wrecked a mere three weeks before Tillamook Rock Lighthouse went into full operation. Captain Wheeler, who oversaw construction of the lighthouse, roused his crew when startled by the sound of voices outside.
“The weather was thick, with a strong southwest gale,” says Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. “They at once sighted the red light of a ship inshore, and heard a terror-stricken voice give the order, ‘Hard aport.’” Wheeler ordered his crew to place lanterns in the uncompleted tower and began building a bonfire to warn the vessel of the rock only 600 feet away. Unfortunately for the Lupatia it was too late.
“Her yards were aback, and she seemed to be working out of the dangerous place, but soon afterward the red light disappeared, and no further cries were heard from those on board,” says Lewis and Dryden. The lighthouse workers were optimistic that perhaps some crew had survived the incident, but the following day, 12 dead bodies were discovered on the nearby beach. Whining amongst them was the dog, more fortunate than his human companions.
Not every shipwreck on the Oregon Coast claimed the lives of sailors. In fact, the wreck of the Peter Iredale in 1906 left all 27 people on board unharmed, including two stowaways. By the time the Peter Iredale reached Tillamook Head in October of 1906, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse had been in operation for nearly 25 years. The ship’s lookout sighted the lighthouse at 3:20 a.m., so the course was altered, but the wind shifted, a heavy northwest squall struck the vessel, and the ship ran aground.
“We consider that everything was done by the master to get his ship out of danger,” said P.L. Cherry of the British Vice-Consul in November 1906. “The set of the current and the sudden shift of the wind drove him so close in that in the act of wearing around to get his ship’s head off shore, she stranded.” Most coastal residents have seen the wreckage of the Peter Iredale at Fort Stevens State Park, formerly a military outpost, where the rescued sailors from the wreck were fed, clothed, and housed after the incident.
Not all shipwrecks occurred in poor weather, however. On October 1, 1913, a beautiful day with calm seas and nearly no clouds, the Glenesslin, bound for Portland, was sighted sailing unusually close to Nehalem shores. Historic Cannon Beach citizen Paul Bartels recounted his impressions of the wreck in a 1978 oral history. “The Glenesslin came in at Neahkahnie Mountain,” Bartels told the Cannon Beach History Center. “I took the picture with one of those old-timey cameras, you know the kind that you have to throw the black rag over your head.”
“The day was nice and the old sea captain, he had been hittin’ it pretty heavy, because they were coming ashore. You see, they wanted to get rid of the whiskey,” Bartels said. “They were all pretty well loaded up, and he said he was going to lay down a while. At 2 o’clock he was woken up and they had changed course. They were coming up on the rock and there was no wind so they just plowed right into the rock. The Court of Inquiry held to determine the cause of the wreck confirmed the suspicions of helpful beach-goers who helped tie lines to the rocks on shore and pull the 21 drunken crewmen to safety. There was no mistaking the odor of liquor on many of the survivors, reports said.
For his negligence, Captain Owen Williams, master of the ship, as well as his second mate John Colefield, were suspended for six months. The first mate F.W. Harwarth got off with a reprimand.
No matter the cause of the tragic ends of the thousands of vessels that have met their deaths on the Oregon Coast, one thing is for sure, the Graveyard of the Pacific holds the ships’ ghost stories somewhere in her stormy depths.