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Shipwreck ended Astoria's 1840s bid to become the Nantucket of the West Coast

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The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

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On a beautiful clear October day, astonished beach-goers watched a big windjammer simply turn and sail straight into the side of a mountain. Why would her crew do such a thing? Here's the story.

U.S. Coast Guard cutter Algonquin.

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Rascally sea-captain was like a 19th-century Han Solo

A true old Oregon character, Captain Jemmy Jones seemed to bear a charmed life. He survived five shipwrecks and was jailed several times. In 1865 he built the world's first steam schooner, then used it to run from the law.

Steam schooner Cleone, built in 1887, an example of an early steam schooner, designed to be comfortable under either sail or power.
This vintage photo shows the Cleone, a classic early steam schooner
built in 1887 in Bay City, Calif. In appearance, she’s probably not
much different from the Jenny Jones; note the sail furled around the
aft boom. (Image: Superior, Pacific Lumber Ships) [Larger image:
1800 x 851 px]


There was no reason why the U.S. Marshal should spend the night on board the Jenny Jones, the cramped, smelly little freight schooner he was in charge of. After all, the ship was anchored in a semi-civilized town — Steilacoom, in the Washington territory — and there were several decent hotels there. The next day he’d have a few hours’ cruise to Seattle, where the ship would be sold to pay the debts of its owner, Captain James “Jemmy” Jones.

(Got that? “Jenny Jones” was the ship; “Jemmy Jones” was its skipper. Confusing, yes? But, back to our story:)

It seemed that the previous year, when his ship was aground on the deadly Columbia River bar, Captain Jones had thrown a bunch of freight overboard to lighten the ship and float it free of the sand. The freight’s owners in Portland had been able to convince a judge that it was through Jones's recklessness in choosing to cross the bar without a pilot that this had to be done. This was probably a miscarriage of justice — the reason there was no pilot available was because conditions in the open sea beyond the bar were too dangerous to send one out. In any case, Jones had shown no sign of complying with the judge’s order to pay up, and now the government had seized his ship.

Vintage-1855 map of the Columbia River bar, before it had been tamed by jetties and dredging.
This map of the Columbia River bar was made in 1855. The tiny island
between Cape Disappointment and Point Adams is the notorious
Middle Sands, which was where sailing ships often fetched up when
the wind died down unexpectedly. [Larger image: 800 x 512 px]

It had been easy to seize, too. Jones had gotten himself into some trouble in Canada just before the marshal moved in. At that very moment, he was languishing in a jail cell up in the town of Victoria, far off to the north. By the time he made bail, his ship would be history and his debts would be paid.

At least, that’s what the marshal thought as he checked into his hotel room for the night. What he didn’t know was that Captain Jemmy Jones, one of the rascalliest skippers in West Coast maritime history and one of the most resourceful as well, had escaped. With the help of some friends, he’d tarted himself up in a dress and bonnet, strutted unnoticed past the guards, and then actually paddled across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in a canoe — across 11 miles of open sea, in February! — to get back home to the U.S.

That’s when he’d learned that his ship had been seized by the U.S. Marshal’s office.

Time to give up? Not for Jemmy Jones. The intrepid (or maybe just desperate) captain had headed down to Olympia, found his repossessed ship — and booked passage on it as a passenger. So, unbeknownst to the marshal, Jemmy had been on board the whole time.

It's tempting to picture Jemmy with a hat pulled low over his forehead to hide his face, furtively watching and smiling as the marshal stepped ashore and walked out of sight.

The marshal left the ship in the charge of his assistant. And when, early the next morning, the assistant went ashore to talk to his boss about something, leaving the ship wholly unsupervised, Jemmy saw his chance. After getting reacquainted with the schooner’s crew, the wily skipper got right to work implementing Phase 2 of one of his most audacious plans ever: The theft of his own ship, from right under the nose of the law.

Four shipwrecks, one skipper

This interactive Google Earth map shows Jemmy Jones Island in the
center. The island acquired its name after Captain Jemmy Jones,
against all odds, managed to crash his schooner into the tiny rocky
island while attempting to leave theharbor. [View Larger Map]

But first, a little background. Welshman James “Jemmy” Jones had come to the West Coast in 1849 for the California Gold Rush. He’d been lucky in the fields, and soon had a grubstake together big enough to outfit himself with a freight ship and go into business as a skipper.

As a sea-captain, Jemmy turned out to be a marvel — in a “19th-century Han Solo” kind of way. Historian James McCurdy calls him “a veritable stormy petrel, always in some trouble or another on the high seas.” Five of his ships sank or broke up under him. His third shipwreck earned him a place in the geography books when he crashed his schooner into a small island right in the harbor at Victoria — the island that today is known as Jemmy Jones Island. The incident on the Columbia bar, had it gone the way such groundings usually did, would have been a shipwreck as well — and, given the survival rates for ships broken up on the bar, probably his last.

Jemmy’s invention: The steam schooner

Aerial photo of Columbia River bar as it appears today.
This aerial photo from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows the
Columbia River bar as it appears today, with the most dangerous
shallows tamed by the two jetties. [Larger image: 1200 x 788]

That incident on the bar may have been Jemmy’s inspiration for the innovation that would put him in the history books as well as the geography ones. Crossing the bar in a sailing ship was, and still is, a very dangerous endeavor; the area is peppered with wind shadows in which a sailing ship can suddenly find itself drifting becalmed at the mercy of the currents, which run right across sandbars too shallow for a ship. Steamers had a much easier time staying in the channel, but their big paddlewheels got in the way and made all but the simplest sailing moves impossible. But a new kind of propulsion system had just recently been invented — the screw propeller — that solved that problem. So, why not put a steam engine in his sailing ship?

And so it was that, in 1864, the Jenny Jones became the first ship of the type that would become known as a “steam schooner,” a trim wooden sailing schooner with a modest steam engine below decks. Jemmy had invented probably the most important type of ship in the history of the West Coast. You’ll sometimes hear the invention of the steam schooner credited to a less disreputable innovator who did the same thing to a lumber schooner in San Francisco 15 years later, but that’s simply incorrect. Jemmy did it first.

(Actually, Jemmy himself may not have been the first to do this. Historian Gene Barron, an expert on the West Coast steam schooner fleet, says there were a number of steam-powered fishing schooners in British Columbian waters around the same time. This could explain where Jemmy got the idea for his ship, but it also casts some doubt on the claim that Jemmy's was first. As with so many things from the 1860s, we'll probably never know.)

With his innovative new power setup, Jemmy started making profitable runs from Portland to Victoria late in 1864.

But apparently he wasn’t making the money fast enough to pay his Portland creditors. They'd called upon the law to help them collect, and as a result, if Jemmy Jones wanted his schooner back, he was going to have to steal it.

In Steillacoom that day, Jemmy got busy doing exactly that.

Escape from federal custody

Having a steam engine on board made Jones’ escape from the marshal at Steillacoom that much easier. They must have been building steam already for the day’s journey to Seattle — or perhaps the crew had been secretly getting ready all along. In any event, as soon as the long arm of the law headed off to breakfast, the Jenny Jones headed off to the open sea.

The steamboat Enterprise, steams along the quiet waters of Steilacoom, sharing space with various sailboats, canoes and two and three-mast schooners.
Unknown artist's rendering of Steilacoom's waterfront in 1858.
Picture is from the collection of Mrs. Clyde V. Davidson, Steilacoom
resident. The steamboat is the Enterprise, which traded between
Olympia and Steilacoom. (Image: Tacoma Public Library)
[Larger image: 900 x 651 px]

The reaction of the lawmen when they saw the empty slip where they’d left their 95-foot, several-hundred-ton charge is lost to history. Perhaps it’s just as well.

Meanwhile, Jones and his crew were out at sea with very little fuel in the bunkers and not much food in the cupboards, and they were now wanted men in both the U.S. and Canada. Jones managed to get the ship to Port Ludlow, where they loaded a couple cords of firewood on board and cast off again quick. This load was enough to get the ship to Nanaimo, which Jimmy apparently hoped would be remote enough to not yet know him as an outlaw.

No such luck. Although they didn’t try to arrest him at Nanaimo, neither would they sell him coal. So instead, he hired some Native Americans to help him load about 12 tons of coal dust from a nearby abandoned coal dump. Another stop in a third port brought a big load of cordwood to mix with the coal dust, and the Jenny Jones was ready for the open sea — and Mexico, the only country in North America that didn’t have a warrant out for his arrest.

The scam: Run to Mexico, sell the ship and come home empty-handed

Along the way, the outlaw mariners encountered a waterlogged sloop, the Deerfoot, whose exhausted crew of three had been laboring mightily trying to keep her afloat and were steadily losing the battle. The crew begged to be taken off, and Jones was happy to oblige; they also took off the sloop’s cargo of food provisions. With that, the crew of the little steam schooner had everything they needed for their journey.

Under sail and steam both, the Jenny Jones headed south, arriving in Mexico 25 days later. There, Jones started running freight again, but after some labor-related drama involving the rescued crew of the Deerfoot -- the sloopin which someone stole the rudder off his ship, Jones gave it up in disgust, sold the Jenny Jones for $10,000 and headed for home.

Court: Not guilty

When the ship Jemmy was on got to San Francisco, he stepped boldly and casually onto the shore, as if he had nothing to hide and nothing to worry about. Of course, he was arrested almost immediately when the authorities realized he was in town. The records are silent on this, but one imagines him as unworried, confident, a little cocky —like James Garner's character in “The Rockford Files.”

In court, Jemmy's defense was that he had not actually escaped from the marshal — rather, the marshal had abandoned his charge and he, finding it unattended there in the harbor, had simply recovered his property. The judge agreed, the case was dismissed, and Jones’ creditors had to sue the marshal for their $4,600. (I haven't been able to learn if they got it or not.)

Jones was also arrested and tried on criminal charges in Steilacoom, but acquitted.

The Jenny Jones disappeared into obscurity in Mexico. Perhaps she was simply too ahead of her time; another steam schooner would not be built until roughly 1880, at which time the type would revolutionize West Coast transportation.

Jemmy moves to Canada

As for Captain Jemmy, he moved back to British Columbia and, for years, skippered a small schooner — not a steamer this time — called Industry, aboard which he almost died in a fifth and final shipwreck in 1878.

He died a few years later, in his early 50s, after having become mentally unhinged. It must be said that in Jemmy's day, most often when men in late middle age went crazy and died, syphilus was the cause — Christopher Columbus being the most well-known example. I have not been able to determine if that was the case with Jemmy Jones, or if something else — head trauma, for example, or perhaps alcoholism — caused his demise.

But most people will agree that the world was a less colorful place after he left it.

(Sources: Walbran, John T. British Columbia Coast Names. Ottawa: Government, 1909; Wright, E.W. Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. Portland: Lewis & Dryden, 1895; Newell, Gordon & al. Pacific Lumber Ships. Seattle: Superior, 1960; McCurdy, James G. By Juan de Fuca’s Strait. Portland: Binford, 1937)

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