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Massive steamer wrecked by future Costa Rica navy admiral

Ashamed to show his face in Astoria after causing the loss of the biggest passenger liner on the West Coast, Thomas Doig slunk away to South America and remade himself as a military man.

This page from “American Steam Vessels,” published in the 1890s, tells
the story of the sinking of the Great Republic. (Image: Great Lakes
Maritime Society)

If you had been an expatriated American in the South American nation of Costa Rica in the early 1880s, you might have run across a fellow American named Thomas Doig. Perhaps you might have met him at a saloon, or maybe at a dinner party someplace.

You’d soon learn your new friend was a bit of a V.I.P. In fact, he was the top admiral of the Costa Rican navy ... but he’d probably hasten to add that that was not as big a deal as it sounded. In fact, the Costa Rican navy had just one ship, a converted commercial vessel formerly known as the Pelican.

If you subsequently got to know Admiral Doig well enough, you might one day get him to tell you the story of how he ended up here, far away from home, in a place that didn’t speak his native language. But you’d have to know him pretty well. It was a somewhat embarrassing story.

You see, Admiral Doig had once been a bar pilot on the Columbia River, up in Oregon. And on one clear, starlit night, on calm seas, he had driven the biggest passenger liner on the West Coast onto Sand Island for a total loss — a loss that pretty much everyone agreed was due to his incompetence.

This line drawing of the Great Republic appeared in “American Steam
Vessels,” published in the 1890s. (Image: Great Lakes Maritime Society)

The ship was the Great Republic, a massive 378-foot sidewheel monster with four boilers and a reputation for astonishing speed. It had been built in New York in 1866 to work the China trade, but it quickly became obvious that the ship was a bad fit for long blue-water journeys — as were most paddlewheel steamers. It just cost too much to keep the boilers fed, and the steamer’s complement of sails — three gaff-rigged mains and some square tops — were just too small to be of much use.

After a few money-losing runs, the big ship was laid up in San Francisco while its owner wondered what to do.

Enter Mr. P.B. Cornwall, a promoter and adventurer and something of a sharp-eyed rascal. Cornwall figured out that he could get his hands on this odd duck of a steamship for pennies on the dollar, and if he could figure out a way to put it to making money, he could make a killing with it. Soon he had a plan hatched — rather a scurrilous one, it must be said.

Cornwall’s plan was to take the ship, outfit it as cheaply as possible, and start publicizing plans to go into the coastwise passenger business, hauling people and freight back and forth from Portland to San Francisco. He didn’t want to actually go into the business, naturally, especially not with a big coal-hungry monster like the Great Republic. Rather, his goal was to get the other shipping companies worried enough that when he approached them to suggest that they buy him out for a healthy profit, they’d do it to get rid of him as competition.

It was essentially the same scam the promoters of Lotus Isle in Portland would run in attempting to shake down the owners of Jantzen Beach, 50 years later. And it worked out in almost exactly the same way. The other ship owners called Cornwall’s bluff, he was forced to go through with his plan to launch passenger service — and he found to his utter astonishment that his new enterprise was a big success.

A photograph of the construction of the S.S. Great Republic in 1866; the
pennants and flags were hand-painted onto the photo after it was printed.
(Image: Dover Publications Inc.)

It turned out that even though the Great Republic’s ticket prices were higher than the competition’s — they had to be, because of how expensive the thing was to run — passengers were willing to pay the premium to take passage on a bigger (and, theoretically, therefore safer) ship.

Cornwall found that he had swindled his way into an honest line of work, and a profitable one at that. But it wouldn’t stay that way for long — and that brings us back to the story of Admiral Thomas Doig.

The night that ended both Cornwall’s career as a shipping magnate and Doig’s career as a bar pilot was a clear and beautiful one. The Great Republic was stuffed to the gills with people and cargo, including 896 passengers. A true worst-case scenario with the Great Republic that night — down with all hands — would have entailed the loss of more than 1,000 people, a little less than one percent of the entire population of Oregon at that time. Luckily, the worst-case scenario is not what happened.

What happened is this: After Captain James Carroll handed the helm off to pilot Doig, the great ship set off into the channel under a slow bell, headed for Portland. Now, getting into the Columbia River has always been a tough project, and before the advent of jetties and dredges it was even tougher. The channel curved sharply between Clatsop Spit and a big barren island of silty sand called Sand Island, which had formed right at the mouth of the river. The channel turned sharply southward around Sand Island, but the current didn’t, and if you weren’t paying attention, it would carry your boat into the shallow water around the island or onto the island itself.

Doig, that day, made one critical error: He failed to account for how much faster the water would be moving when the tide was ebbing. So, thinking he was well clear of danger, he put the helm over a little too soon, when the big ship was too close to Sand Island. The ebb current caught the big vessel and gently deposited it on the sandy floor just off the upstream end of Sand Island.

Initially, Doig and Carroll figured the returning tide would refloat the ship. But the problem was, the tide had only just started ebbing when they hit. High tide, when it returned, would not be high enough to refloat the ship, and in the meantime, the hull, left high and dry across a sort of whaleback of sand, had started to flex and crack. Holes opened to admit the water, and the bilge pumps, all fouled with silt, were out of operation.

It soon became clear that the case was hopeless, and Captain Carroll’s inevitable decision — hastened by word that the barometer was falling rapidly, meaning a storm was coming in — was to evacuate. Soon a number of tugboats and other small steamships were coming nearby, taking the hundreds of worried passengers off to safety, leaving just the crew behind.

The crew then followed, taking the ship’s lifeboats and heading for Sand Island, where they could wait safely (if rather uncomfortably) for rescue. All went well, except for the last boat, which broke an oar at the wrong moment and was swamped by a broadside wave. Only three of the 14 sailors in the boat made it to the beach alive.

After the boats were away, the stranded ship started breaking up in earnest.

A map of the layout of the mouth of the Columbia River as it appeared
around the time the Great Republic was wrecked. The big ship tried to turn
left around Sand Island to come into the channel, cut too close to the island,
and was carried onto its south shore by the current. (Image: NASA)

“A heavy sea boarded the ship and carried away the staterooms on the starboard side, gutted the dining room, broke up the floor of the social hall and carried away the piano,” recounted Captain Carroll. “Several seas afterward boarded her forward and carried away the starboard guard, officer’s room and steerage deck ... I remained aboard until 5 p.m., when the pilot and I lowered a lifeboat and came ashore.”

In the ensuing investigation, Carroll was roundly praised for his competent handling of the emergency, and Doig’s name was worse than mud. Doig, ashamed to show his face around Astoria, took passage to Costa Rica immediately thereafter, and soon was launched upon a new military career.

As for the wreckage of the Great Republic, as much as could be salvaged was salvaged, and the sea soon broke the wooden hull to pieces, leaving the four massive boilers and walking arm sticking up out of the sand. For years afterward, soldiers at Fort Canby used the wreckage for target practice.

(Sources: Gibbs, James A. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984)