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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Crew of shipwrecked schooner rescued — by a railroad train

A small construction engine was being used to build the South Jetty, to protect the mouth of the Columbia River for ships, when one off-course sailing ship crashed into it — so construction crews chugged to the rescue.

A wave breaks over South Jetty in this colorized picture postcard image from the 1910s. This railroad line is the one used to rescue the crew of the shipwrecked schooner "Admiral" after a wave wedged it into the unfinished jetty.
This colorized picture postcard shows a wave breaking over the South
Jetty at the mouth of the Columbia River shortly after work on the jetty
was completed, around 1913. (Image: Tacoma Public Library) [Larger
image: 1789 x 1137 px]

On one stormy morning off the north Oregon coast, probably for the first and only time in history, the entire crew of a shipwrecked schooner was rescued with a railroad train.

Here's the full story:

"Breakers ahead!"

At a little after 8 a.m. on Jan. 13, 1912, the four-masted schooner Admiral was on a broad reach through heavy seas, the usual southwest wind at her back and gusting with gale force. The ship was heading for her home port of Grays Harbor. Captain Joseph Bender was having breakfast with his wife and their four-year-old son when he heard a terrified yell from the lookout:

"Breakers ahead!"

Bender, a seasoned mariner, was not one to linger over eggs and bacon when an alarm like that has been sounded. He leaped to his feet and sprinted for the forecastle.

The ship was supposed to be 60 miles off the coast. But, of course, she wasn't. The southwest wind quarters toward the shore, and as sailors know well, it's easy to "fall off the wind" when on a broad reach. The Admiral had apparently done so, and was now heading straight for a jagged line of rocks reaching out from the mouth of the Columbia River — the almost-completed South Jetty.

Into the jetty — literally

Four-masted schooner Admiral in its home port of North Bend, taking on a cargo of lumber.
This photograph shows the four-masted schooner Admiral, in happier
times, taking on a load of lumber in its home port of North Bend, where
the big windjammer was built in 1899. (Image: Coos Historical and
Maritime Museum) [Larger image: 1200 x 749 px]

The helm was already hard over, and ironically if the lookout had spotted the breakers 100 feet earlier the ship would probably have cleared the jetty by a whisker and been tacking for the open sea. But that's not what happened.

There was a railroad trestle running along the top of the jetty, for the railroad that was being used to build and maintain it, and this is what the Admiral fetched up on — striking, by an amazing piece of luck, the only spot in the line in which the rocky riprap had yet to be filled in around it. The 683-ton ship smashed into the standing bents (upright posts) of the trestle, snapping them off, and then impaled itself on their stumps. The railroad ties, along with spikes and other hardware, flew everywhere; luckily no one was hit. The steel rails, hanging out in space, tore rigging away. And the whole time the heavy seas and 70-mile-per-hour winds were thrashing the big ship around.

Then a massive wave picked the ship up off the posts and jammed it, stern first, into the gap in the jetty.

Meanwhile, in a nearby construction shack ...

This Google map shows Clatsop Spit and the South Jetty extending into
the sea; it was there that the Admiral came to grief. On the opposite side
of the river you can see the North Jetty extending from Peacock Spit,
which is mostly underwater, extending from Cape Disappointment out
to sea. [View Larger Map]

In a small construction shack not far away, the members of the jetty work crew were getting ready for another day. They had just decided the weather was too heavy to work on the jetty when the telephone rang. It was Oscar Wickland from the Point Adams Life Station, on the south side of the mouth of the Columbia. The "Cape D" (Cape Disappointment) Life Station on the Washington side had picked up a wireless signal from a steamship sailing for the bar, reporting that a four-master was in trouble on the jetty.

Well, as luck would have it, an hour or so earlier jetty foreman (and future mayor of Astoria) J.C. Tenbrook had asked an engineer named O'Neil to build up steam in Engine No. 4, a tiny 0-4-2 construction engine about the size of a small C-class motorhome, to do some work in the yard. ("0-4-2" refers to the wheel configuration: Zero small leading wheels, four large drive wheels and two small trailing wheels.)

By the time Wickland got there, it was ready to go, and minutes later the little engine was out of the yard and on its way out onto the jetty with the four of them in the cabin.

Casey Jones vs. Davy Jones

The seas were huge; as they pounded the jetty below they threw huge arcs of foamy spray over the little engine, whose hot boiler turned them into clouds of steam, making it even harder to see. The tracks trembled with each impact, and Wickland and the crew — Tenbrook, O'Neil and engineer Al Siefert — knew that a very large sailing ship had crashed into the line somewhere ahead. So they were moving slowly, hoping for the best, knowing it would be pretty easy to fall into the sea and die.

Then O'Neil gave a sudden shout, and Siefert cut the power. There on the tracks in front of them was a man, kneeling on the railroad ties, clutching something large under his coat.

It was First Mate Andy Anderson of the Admiral, shivering violently and hypothermic nearly to the point of no return, holding the captain's four-year-old son under his coat.

The rescue, phase 1

Anderson, unable to continue walking, may have been preparing to use the last of his fading body heat to keep the toddler alive in hopes that someone might find him.

Instead, he found himself with the boy in the warm, crowded cab of a tiny locomotive — which got more crowded when the crew pulled cautiously forward and rescued the other three shivering people huddled near the broken end of the tracks: Captain Bender, his wife and the ship's cook.

But the others had clambered off the doomed ship on the opposite side of the gap in the line. Now they were stuck there, 200 feet away, unreachable.

No problem. Wickland, the professional rescuer, had a plan — if the survivors on the other side of the broken jetty could keep from freezing to death long enough for him to put it into effect.

Phase 2: A zipline rescue

So Siefert put the little engine in reverse and puffed back along the tracks — more quickly now, since he knew the tracks behind him were good — to the construction shack.

Wickland's life station crew was waiting for them. Quickly they unloaded the shipwrecked five, bundling them into the warm construction shack. Then they worked with furious haste to hook up two flatcars in front of the engine. On the flatcars, the rescuers loaded a Lyle gun — a short-barreled cannon made to shoot lifelines instead of cannon balls — and a breeches buoy, which is essentially a sling that hangs from a zipline.

The Lyle gun easily reached the other side with its line. The breeches buoy was quickly prepared and in short order the remaining seven sailors got their turn to be crammed into the warm cab, on their way to safety.

Not one fatality — except for the Admiral

Not one crew member died. Yet not one had a ghost of a chance of surviving without the help of that most unlikely of rescuers, a railroad train.

Oddly enough, this entire time the railroad and rescue people had seen no trace of the Admiral. The seas had forced it through the gap in the jetty and, badly damaged, it wallowed around in the mouth of the Columbia, drifting toward Peacock Spit. An attempt to salvage it almost ended in tragedy when, just after a salvage crew boarded the hulk, it capsized, throwing all three into the sea.

Eventually it fetched up on Peacock Spit and the sea pummeled it into pieces, like so many other vessels before and since.

(Sources: Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford & Mort, 1984; Gibbs, James A. Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford & Mort, 1950; Wagner, Dick & al. Images of America: North Bend. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2010)

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