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Caught rescuing shipwrecked sailors, rumrunners sent to prison anyway

With a hold full of whisky, Canadian crew of schooner Pescawah left safety of international waters to search for lifeboat from foundering freighter – and got caught.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised, updated and expanded version of this story was published in 2018 and is recommended in preference to this older one. To read it, click here.

Coast Guard cutter Algonquin in Unalaska.
The USS Algonquin under way off Unalaska, Alaska, on June 19, 1926.
The Algonquin was the Coast Guard cutter that chased down and
captured the Pescawah and her crew after they left international waters
to rescue a lifeboat full of shipwrecked American sailors. [Bigger image:
(Photo: US Coast Guard)

Captain Robert Pamphlet and his crew were sailing south in a heavy sea when they heard the distress calls. The 579-ton steam schooner Caoba, slugging it out with the gale off the mouth of the Columbia, had suffered a knockout blow: A wave had burst through and flooded the engine room, putting out the boiler fire. The ship was adrift and filling with seawater. The crew had taken to the lifeboats.

Pamphlet was in perfect position to help. But there was just one problem : The hold of Pamphlet’s 90-foot, 100-ton schooner, the Pescawah, was crammed with Scotch whisky. And it was Feb. 1, 1925 — Prohibition wouldn’t end for another eight years.

A hold full of 80-proof trouble

Pamphlet and his crew were Canadian rumrunners. At the time, this was a going business, with big rewards and bigger risks. Cargo ships would leave British Columbia with a hold full of cheap liquor and head south, being careful to stay in the international waters 12 miles off the U.S. shore. Then when they reached a prearranged rendezvous spot, they’d slip inside the 12-mile line under cover of darkness, unload the cargo into waiting trucks, and race back west to the safety of the open sea — and then north to start the process all over again.

The operation Pamphlet was most likely participating in was one of the more frustrating ones for Oregon law enforcement — an ongoing operation in which gallons and gallons of high-quality liquor were slipping up the Columbia River to supply the finer speakeasies of Portland and other large West Coast towns. The Canadian cargo ships would come down and rendezvous off the mouth of the Columbia with high-powered motor launches — taking care to remain at least 12 miles offshore, in international waters. The launches would be loaded with cases of liquor. Then they would, under cover of darkness, slip across the bar and race upriver to rendezvous points on Sauvie Island, then unload and do it again.

These launches were the cigarette boats of the day -- faster than anything the Coast Guard could send after them. So the operation was highly successful, and also somewhat flagrant.

The Caoba, the hard-pressed lumber schooner whose crew the Pescawah's men risked arrest to save.
This photograph from shortly after the ship was built shows the Caoba
— then named the Coastal — under way. When the Caoba came to grief,
the low area amidships was piled high with a deck load of lumber and
there were, fortunately, far fewer passengers on board. (Image:
Superior Publishing, "Pacific Lumber Ships") [Larger image: 1200 x
640 px]

When it worked out, the job of rumrunning was great. But if the Pescawah were caught within that 12-mile boundary, Pamphlet and his crew would likely be sent to an American prison. So he was listening carefully to the radio to see if the crew of the Caoba were getting rescued — hoping he wouldn’t have to get involved.

What he was hearing was at first reassuring. The tugboat John Cudahy had found and picked up a lifeboat with nine men in it. But Pamphlet knew a freighter the size of the Caoba would have more than nine men on her crew. There had to be another lifeboat out there.

Grabbing for the money, ignoring the shipwrecked victims

Nobody else seemed to think so, though. Responding to the distress call, two other freighters had come to the Caoba’s aid. One after the other, they tried diligently to get towing hawsers on the wallowing ship, ignoring the need to rescue its crew. Apparently by this time it had become obvious that because of the flotation of the lumber in its hold, the Caoba was not going to sink after all. Now, crewless and adrift, ship and cargo belonged to whoever could get a line on her, under the law of salvage rights. So first the Forest King and then the Thomas P. Beal came alongside and tried to take the stricken ship in tow. Then, having failed, they just went on their way.

From Pamphlet’s wheelhouse, it sounded like the scramble for those salvage rights was at the top of everyone’s list, and the sailors on the second lifeboat — somewhere out there being tossed around in a gale, if they hadn’t already overturned and drowned — could just look out for themselves.

The rumrunners spring into action

Coast Guard History Program rochure on the Algonquin.
For more information about the Algonquin, you can
download the Coast Guard's 14-page historical briefing
(PDF) by clicking here

Pamphlet got out his map and plotted wind direction and currents. Based on where the Caoba was abandoned, as best he could know in those pre-Loran days, he figured out the patch of ocean in which the boat was most likely to be found. Then he gave the order to fall off the wind and sail due east. Eyes wide open, the Pescawah plunged into the 12-mile danger zone.

After a search, the Canadians found the lifeboat right where Pamphlet had figured it would be, and rescued its occupants (sources differ on how many — seven or nine). The storm had apparently subsided by this time.

Leaving the empty lifeboat, the Pescawah turned west and, under full canvas hauled close to the southwest wind, started for the open sea as fast as she could go.

It wasn’t fast enough. The 1,181-ton, 16-knot Coast Guard cutter Algonquin, which had also plotted the winds and currents to search for survivors, got to the scene a short time later and saw a sinister-looking black schooner, canvas virtually bursting as she raced westward … and it was all over for the Pescawah.

Back to port, in federal custody

Back to Astoria the schooner went at the heels of the Algonquin, with a prize crew aboard and Pamphlet and his men under arrest.

What the rumrunners on the Pescawah probably saw from the deck of their schooner as the Algonquin chased them down to arrest them.
The USS Algonquin under full steam after the America's Cup Race on Oct.
4, 1901. This is likely very similar to the view from the poop deck of the
Pescawah just before she was captured. [Bigger image: 1800px] (Photo:
Detroit Photographic Co.)

When they arrived at Astoria, they were greeted by a cheering crowd — including the Caoba’s entire crew. After all, it was only with a good bit of luck that the Pescawah found the tiny lifeboat bobbing in the sea; if Pamphlet and his men had stayed in safe waters, the Coast Guard cutter’s chances of catching a similar lucky break and spotting them were not high, and half of them might very well be dead.

The popular show of support might have been gratifying, but it did not help the Canadians’ cause. The cheering infuriated the district immigration officer, who responded by jailing the Pescawah’s crew and throwing everything he had at the men — including a charge of entering port without inspection and failure to carry the proper entry visa. This, of course, was ironic, since the men had entered port under arrest.

Pleas for clemency fall on deaf ears

In response, calls for clemency came from all over the U.S. and Canada. The Canadians had put themselves in jeopardy to save these sailors after two big freighters turned their backs on them in an unlovely scramble for booty; it didn’t seem right to most folks that the only people on the water that day who did the right thing should pay for their heroism with prison sentences.

Furthermore, there was good reason to suspect the Pescawah had made it into international waters, and that the Coast Guard cutter had made the arrest outside its jurisdiction.

It wasn’t enough. To prison they went. The rumrunners’ only statement after they were sentenced, as reported by Marshall in his book, was, “Don’t feel bad, mates. We did it, and we’d do it again to save a seaman’s life.”

As for the Caoba — the lumber schooner for whose crew members the Pescawah's crew risked and gave all — all the salvage attempts failed. The strong southwest wind blew her up onto the coast of Washington, and she fetched up near Ocean Park. Today, you can still find the ship's rusty boiler if you know where along the shore to look for it.

Captain and ship come to a sad end

Pamphlet died at age 59 in 1932, a few years after his release from prison; though a solid healthy specimen at the time of his capture, he caught tuberculosis in the hoosegow, and it killed him.

The Pescawah came to a bad end as well. After about a decade of weathering at a dock in Portland, she was sold to an Oregon City man named Victor Riley. Riley planned to use the Pescawah to sail to the Arctic and hunt whales. He recruited a crew of college students to help him, and replaced the Pescawah's sturdy 100-horsepower Union marine power plant with a four-cylinder automobile engine scavenged from an old Maxwell. I haven't been able to learn exactly why they did this, but it most likely was because the marine engine had been sitting so long; chances are it needed to be rebuilt before it would run. Then as now, a good rebuild job cost a lot more than a used auto engine lugged home from the local wrecking yard.

Maxwell made its last car in 1925, so the engine was at least 8 years old when Riley & Co. fired it up and pointed the Pescawah at the open sea, in late February 1933.

This junkyard engine was simply not up to the job of muscling a 90-foot schooner around. On its way across the bar, at the moment it was most needed, the old flivver motor quit and the storied old sailing ship was washed into the North Jetty. Captain Riley was killed in the crash, crushed against the rocks while trying to launch the lifeboat; the other crew members managed to swim to shore.

(Sources: Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; The American Mercury, July 1932; www.maritimequest.com)