Ship owner’s offer of bonus led directly to shipwreck

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By Finn J.D. John
October 19, 2014

IT WAS LATE December, 1856, and Thomas Smith, proud owner of the intrepid little 104-foot barque Desdemona, was in a hurry.

Smith stood to make a particularly nice profit if the shipment of general merchandise the Desdemona was carrying out of San Francisco reached Astoria on or before New Year’s Day. So he proposed a deal to the captain of his ship, Francis Williams: Get the cargo into port by New Year’s Day, and he would be rewarded with the price of a new Sunday suit.

A bathymetric map (like an underwater topographic map) of the Columbia River Bar as it appears today; each “topo” line represents five feet of depth. The light colored patches are sandbars, and the big long one just across the channel from Astoria is Desdemona Sands. (Image: K.D. Schroeder/

It wouldn’t be long before Smith bitterly regretted making this bet — and Captain Williams too, for the matter of that.

However, looking on the bright side, the two of them would go down in history as a result — in history and, as it turns out, in geography as well.

Racing northward

AFTER CLEARING THE Golden Gate, Captain Williams and his crew spread every inch of canvas and raced northward along the coast, eking every bit of speed out of their vessel. The Desdemona was certainly up to the task. Built just ten years before in Maine, the ship had been brought around the horn in 1851 and since that time had been making frequent and uneventful trips back and forth from San Francisco to Astoria and Portland. The Desdemona and its captain had a strong reputation for reliability, and both were a familiar sight in the West Coast port towns of the late Gold Rush era.

So Williams knew his ship could do it in a walk. What he didn’t know was whether he’d be able to get across the bar when he got there.

The Desdemona arrived off the mouth of the Columbia late in the evening on New Year’s Eve and hove to, waiting for dawn to break on New Year’s Day. When it did, Captain Williams signaled for a pilot.

And then he waited and waited for a sign from shore. Still no pilot came.

Decision time

CONSULTING HIS TIDE tables, Williams realized that he had a choice to make. He could wait for the next morning’s flood tide and hope a pilot might come to help; or he could fall off the wind and go for it, right now.

If he waited, he’d have a pilot with current knowledge of the channel. But then again, Williams had been working this route for five long years. He knew the channel pretty well himself. And then there was that new suit of clothes …

Williams decided to go for it. Into the channel he went, the Desdemona riding low in the water and laboring through the heavy swells, making for the docks in Astoria.

He made it nearly all the way — past Sand Island and the Middle Sands, along Clatsop Spit hauled close to the southwest wind, falling off to reach for Astoria and finally bringing the big vessel around for the final close reach, standing in toward the port city.

And that’s when Captain Williams learned, in the worst possible way, that he was off course.

Shipwrecked in port

THE DESDEMONA SHUDDERED to a halt in the middle of the river, grinding into the long sandbar just across the channel from downtown Astoria, roughly a mile away. The sandbar was a known navigational hazard; it had been called Chinook Sands. After that day, though, it would appear on all future navigation charts as “Desdemona Sands.”

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A very old hand-tinted picture of Desdemona Sands Light, from a 1910s picture postcard. (Image: Postcard)

Captain Williams immediately took to a small boat and pulled for Astoria to seek help. He hoped a good steam tugboat might be able to pull the vessel free. And the U.S. revenue cutter Joe Lane gave it a try, for hours; but it gave up after breaking the hawser for the third time — by which time the tide had started to ebb, stranding the Desdemona firmly on the sands.

Williams brought a crew of carpenters aboard, but when they arrived they discovered to their dismay that the ship had “bilged” — that is, the hull of the ship had broken open at the bottom from the strain of resting on the sandbar after the tide receded. The Desdemona was doomed.

Saving the cargo

WILLIAMS QUICKLY ARRANGED for scows to come alongside and take the cargo off. They worked at this all that day and the next, waited a couple more days when a storm came up, and then returned to finish the job. In their eagerness to get done they overloaded the scow, which capsized, throwing the men into the river. One of them drowned before he could be retrieved from the drink; this was the only casualty of the wreck.

An early picture postcard of the Desdemona Sands Lighthouse. The lighthouse was dismantled after World War II and replaced with a less romantic-looking automated light on a tripod-shaped structure. (Image: Postcard)

The next day, what was left of the Desdemona was offered at public auction for salvage — an easy job, since it was right in the river within sight of Astoria. The winning bid came in at $215, and the new owner promptly stripped it of all its remaining equipment and chandlery with commendable thoroughness, leaving just a hulk standing in the shoals to help future skippers avoid the deadly Desdemona Sands.

The lighthouse

AS AN AID to navigation, the wreck must have been quite useful. It stood there for many years after the wreck, until a heavy winter storm carried it away for good; later, in 1902, the U.S. Lighthouse Service replaced it with a small lighthouse, the Desdemona Sands Light, built atop a platform supported with heavy wooden pilings driven into the sandy bottom. The lighthouse stayed in service, its foghorn trumpet blasts bellowing out every 23 seconds on foggy nights and adding considerably to Astoria’s charm, until just after World War II, when it was demolished and replaced with a far more prosaic-looking stationary automated light.

As for Captain Williams, he testified in the inquiry into the shipwreck that it had been caused by the lower bar buoy having broken loose, causing him to miss his navigational signals and mistake his position in the river. And there being no reason to disbelieve him, the case was closed.

Ironically, by landing cargo with the scows from the wreckage of his ship, he had fulfilled the terms of his deal with ship owner Smith, and was therefore entitled to the new Sunday suit. But it’s probably a pretty good bet that he didn’t have the nerve to try to claim it.

(Sources: Gibbs Jr., James. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binfords, 1950; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binfords, 1984; Dickerson, Madeline. “Braving the Bar,” Flux Magazine, June 2011)

TAGS: #Astoria #ColumbiaRiverBarPilot #Shipwrecks #FrancisWilliams#DesdemonaSands #Sailors #ThomasSmith #ChinookSands #Lighthouse #JamesGibbsJr #DonMarshall #MadelineDickerson

Background photo is a postcard image showing vacationers playing at Diamond Lake, on a picture postcard published around 1950.
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