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“Ship of Romance and Death” met dramatic end off Oregon Coast

The Melanope's maritime career started with a witch's curse. But her most dramatic story was the torrid, doomed love affair its skipper carried on with the heiress who bought the ship so she could be with him as he sailed it.

An old clipping from an article about the Melanope, illustrating the legend of the ghost of Emma Taylor. The newspaper in which this feature ran is unknown. (Image: Shady Isle Pirate Society)

Sailing ships and curses go together like Oreos and milk. Curses and graveyards are almost as good a match. And the Columbia River Bar is known as the “graveyard of ships.” So it’s likely not a big surprise that plenty of “cursed” ships have seen their possibly imaginary doom carried through to a not-at-all-imaginary conclusion off the wild and tempestuous northwest coast of Oregon.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the stories of a few of the sailing ships and steamers with legendary curses attached to them — curses that came to their final fruition in the merciless waters of the Columbia River Bar.

Unlucky ship, lucky dog

On a clear December day of 1906, a lookout in the steamer Northland was scanning the ocean when he spotted what looked like a large derelict hull far in the distance. Upon investigating, the steamer crew members found themselves staring at a big, waterlogged, dismasted thing that had apparently once been a barque. Its masts were all broken off at the hounds and the remaining rigging hung in long-neglected disarray. Its steel hull was stained with rust. It listed heavily to starboard. The lifeboat on the starboard side was gone, indicating that the crew had at least attempted to abandon ship. The barely legible paint on the transom proclaimed it to be — or to have once been — the full-rigged barque Melanope, out of Liverpool.

As the sailors tentatively explored the long-abandoned hulk, a strange wavering cry reached their ears. Investigating, they found, in the forecastle, a small dog, starved nearly to death. The dog — which was quickly taken aboard the Northland to be nursed back to health — was the only sign of life on the ship.

What had happened? It was a great question, but one that the skipper of the Northland was only secondarily interested in. The wallowing hulk was a valuable find, and he immediately got about putting a line on it and towing it to Astoria.

The battered, listing hulk of the Melanope being towed to Astoria for salvage in 1906. (Image: Shady Isle Pirate Society)

Several weeks passed before the salvors learned the story of the Melanope. She had been dismasted in a gale and thrown onto her beam ends, swatted flat against the sea like a mosquito. This sudden motion had caused the cargo in her holds to shift en masse, piling up on the starboard side and giving the ship a dangerous list. Convinced she was going down but fast, the crew had hastily abandoned ship, taking its chances with the howling gale in a lifeboat. Miraculously, they’d survived — but Queenie, the ship’s dog, had been forgotten in the rush.

Some of the Melanope’s former crew members considered this an unusually lucky end for a singularly unlucky ship. The Melanope had been known as a cursed vessel since its first launch in 1876, when — according to the notoriously unreliable accounts of the sailors — an old woman was found peddling apples to its passengers as it left Liverpool on its maiden voyage to Australia. She looked like a witch, she had no ticket and nobody knew how she’d gotten aboard. The captain put her off the ship with some firmness, an action which infuriated her. According to the story, it took three seamen to take her off the ship and onto the tugboat, fighting and scratching and screaming blasphemies and calling down curses upon ship, captain, passengers and crew as the passengers looked on with wide eyes and open mouths.

Then, from the tug (the story goes) she pronounced a heavy and ominous curse upon the Melanope, a curse the ship would labor under for the next 30 years.

Of course, curses are not a real thing. But it was odd that the Melanope was actually dismasted on that same maiden voyage, after running into a horrible gale.

The Melanope as it appeared in happier times, in 1888, under sail. (Image: Shady Isle Pirate Society)

Really, there can’t have been too much in the curse of the Melanope, because the ship survived three decades of hard service — from 1876 to 1906 — before coming to grief off the Columbia River. That’s a long and respectable run, considerably longer than average. But there is no denying that it was more than usually colorful. The ship was involved in at least three serious collisions, as well as several strandings and dismastings over the years. It also was involved in at least two odd romantic dramas, which earned it a reputation as the “Ship of Romance and Death.” An Australian debutante tried to commit suicide from its decks after her fiancée ditched her to go roistering onshore with his friends and the deckhands started teasing and jeering at her attempts to find and corral him. (She was fished out of the drink, barely alive, and prosecuted for attempted suicide.)

Later, the Melanope’s rakish captain, already married, got into an ill-starred romance with another woman — a wealthy young English woman who had inherited her family’s estate. The captain’s mistress, Emma Taylor, actually went so far as to buy the Melanope and sail the seas with him in it, on a sort of extended working honeymoon while the two of them carried on a long and torrid affair. But when she died of yellow fever, he lost his will to live and threw himself into the sea. After that, sailors whispered that the ship was haunted by the ghost of Emma Taylor.

When the ship arrived in port under the command of the first mate, it had to be sold to pay off the crew, as not a shekel could be found anywhere aboard. Rumors that the first mate had absconded with a chest full of the mistress’s gold, of course, soon were everywhere, and were most likely true.

Those wild days were long gone now, of course. The Melanope had, it seemed, been dismasted for the last time. Abandoned at sea, she now belonged to whoever could get a line on her and tow her to a port — that is, to the skipper of the Northland.

After being towed to Astoria, the salvaged hulk of the battered old vessel was pumped free of seawater and sold to a San Francisco outfit, which cut it down for a barge. How long it continued to serve in that capacity is unknown.

Eventually, though, the rusty old hulk was towed to Comox Harbor in British Columbia, along with just over a dozen other old worn-out iron hulls, and sunk in a line to form a breakwater for the protection of the log booming area there. Worn and rusting away, the ships can still be seen there, rising skeletally out of the harbor at low tide, a reminder not only of the golden age of sailing ships but that of Vancouver Island logging as well.

(Sources: Shady Isle Pirate Society, http://bbprivateer.ca; Gibbs, James A. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950)