CORVALLIS - Oregonians need look no farther than the rusting hulk of the shipwrecked New Carissa to witness the untamed power of the Pacific Ocean. Though its grounding was well-chronicled in the media, the story of the New Carissa pales in comparison to past Pacific Northwest disasters.
Nine of those events are described in a new book published by the Oregon State University Press called "The Unforgiving Coast: Maritime Disasters of the Pacific Northwest," written by David Grover, a former commander in the Naval Reserve and chief mate in the merchant marine.
Grover's research and variety of sources set the stage for how and why these nine deadly events occurred - just a handful of the hundreds of maritime disasters that the Pacific Northwest has seen.
Not all of the disasters are shipwrecks. Grover tells the story of a fire aboard the Seattle-bound steamship Queen that took the lives of 13 people in 1904 - a total that could have been much higher were it not for the heroic efforts of the captain and crew.
One of the most disturbing chapters in Northwest maritime lore was the sinking of the Valencia, a small, aging and underpowered ocean passenger steamer that left San Francisco in 1906, bound for Seattle and Victoria, B.C. A thick fog and rough seas caused the ship to run aground along the British Columbia coast. The death toll was uncertain and estimates ranged from 154 people to as many as 181. The steamship company was criticized for hiring an inexperienced captain; the captains of nearby ships - including the Queen - were taken to task for not aiding the Valencia; and a surviving lifeboat of men were accused of saving themselves and turning their backs on women and children passengers.
Other stories detail the loss of the tanker Rosencrans, which was grounded then battered apart on the "Graveyard of the Pacific," as the Columbia River bar was called; the steamer South Coast, which vanished at sea with no trace of the crew; and the mysterious wreck of the Francis H. Leggett, a lumber-carrying steamship that sank in 1913.
The Leggett carried a crew of 30 and as many as 39 passengers and went down south of the Columbia River mouth en route to California. Only two persons survived, one clinging to a floating railroad tie for seven hours in the frigid Pacific before being rescued by another ship. Equally chilling was that the bodies of passengers and crew were found from the central Oregon coast all the way to Neah Bay, Wash. Two of the victims were found lashed to a raft and had lived for a week, before dying. Mechanical problems were blamed for the ship's demise.
Grover is a historian who has published five books and dozens of articles on maritime history.
"The Unforgiving Coast" is available at Northwest bookstores and libraries, or can be ordered directly by calling 1-800-426-3797.
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Tom Booth, 503-796-0547