Cursed or not, S.S. Rosecrans
was one unlucky ship
The big oil tanker had weathered two major catastrophes in the previous year — a stranding and a colossal fire. But for 33 doomed crew members, the third time would be the charm — or, rather, the hex.
By Finn J.D. John — June 21, 2015
The steamship Rosecrans didn’t have a colorful witch’s curse laid upon her at launching, nor a colorful nickname like “The Ship of Romance and Death.” But she more than made up for that deficiency with body count. By all accounts, the Rosecrans was a remarkably unlucky vessel.
The Rosecrans was a big ship for her time, having been built in 1884 in Glasglow, Scotland. She was 335 feet long, 38.2 feet wide, and 2,700 tons in gross displacement. She was built for the Union Castle passenger line, christened the S.S. Methven Castle and put on the mail-packet run to South Africa.
The Rosecrans had a fairly unremarkable career until she came to the Pacific Coast after being bought up by the Associated Oil Co. of San Francisco, and converted to a tanker.
The first misfortune that befell her was when, in March of 1912 while battling through a heavy gale 22 miles north of Santa Barbara, she was tossed broadside onto the rocks; two mariners died in the wreck and subsequent evacuation of the ship.
Heroic salvage efforts ensued, and it almost seemed a miracle when the Whitelaw Salvage Company managed to get the Rosecrans off the rocks and up to San Francisco, where a 25-foot gash in her hull was repaired. But it’s hard to see this success as anything other than a misfortune. It sealed the fate of 33 men, including the Rosecrans’s captain, Lucien F. Johnson.
All of them had less than a year to live.
As if to drive home the point that the Rosecrans’s time was come, disaster struck again just six months later, when a fire broke out while oil was being loaded aboard at Gaviota. The ship was nothing more than a gutted-out hulk after the fire had run its course. Again, the unlucky old vessel was salvaged and rebuilt.
But the third time is the charm — or, as the case may be, the hex. The Rosecrans’s third catastrophic wreck in a single year was to be its last. It happened in January of 1913, when the ship was en route to Portland with 19,000 barrels of crude oil aboard.
Everything went smoothly on this, the Rosecrans’s final voyage, although when the big ship arrived off the north coast of Oregon a 60-knot gale was blowing out of the southwest.
By itself, the storm wasn’t a real threat to a big steamship like the Rosecrans, as it might have been to an old-fashioned sailing barque or steam schooner. But it made the situation that followed a great deal more complicated — lethally so — as the wee small hours of Jan. 7 ticked by and the Rosecrans steamed slowly northward at what her skipper thought was a safe distance from land.
According to the recollections of one of the survivors, quartermaster John Slinning, the steamer passed what Capt. Johnson thought was Tillamook Rock Light a few hours before dawn. By this time the storm was pounding the seas with thick, heavy rains, and the lights weren’t always visible, but presently the captain saw what he took to be the Cape Disappointment Light off the starboard bow and another one south of it, which he believed was the North Head Light. He couldn’t make out the Columbia River Lightship, but he apparently attributed that to the thick weather.
He was wrong. The lightship wasn’t out of position, nor was it invisible in the rain. It was the Rosecrans that was out of position. Its crew thought it was well offshore — five or 10 miles, beyond the reach of trouble — but in fact, it was just a mile or two from the beach. They hadn’t seen the lightship, because the Rosecrans had sailed between it and the shore. Nobody had been looking off the port side of the ship. Why should they? There was nothing out there but the ocean, right?
The captain’s plan was to position the big tanker to cross the bar after dawn, at slack tide. Having deduced from the position of those two visible lights that the ship was well out to sea, and discarded or rationalized away his inability to spot the lightship, the captain held the ship’s course until, around 5:15 a.m., moving into the screaming wind under a slow bell, the vessel suddenly shuddered to a stop.
And that is how Captain Johnson learned that he had misjudged the Rosecrans’s position.
The exact circumstances of what followed will never be known, because none of the officers survived. But it appears that the lights they’d been looking at were the Desdemona Sands light, and some other non-navigational light being showed on the shore nearby.
The distress call came in to Cape Disappointment at 5:15 a.m.: “Steamer Rosecrans on bar. Send assistance. Ship breaking up fast. Can stay at my station no longer.”
The life station replied: “OK. Will send help. About where are you?”
The reply was chilling — and, from the standpoint of the rescuers, utterly useless: “Water washing into the cabins — can’t stay much longer — hel—“
Back on the Rosecrans, the situation was deteriorating rapidly. When the ship first struck, the skipper had ordered the engines fully reversed, and called for the pumps to start spewing crude oil into the sea — the idea being to lighten the load in an attempt to get the ship free.
Under ordinary circumstances, this would have worked fine. But these were not ordinary circumstances. A 60-knot gale was hammering the ship, the tide was in full flood and the seas were piling up to Olympic proportions. Soon those seas were sweeping the decks, coming from the direction the ship was least equipped to handle: astern. One of the first of these fast-moving walls of green water burst the hatches, flooding the engine room and putting out the boiler fires, plunging the entire ship into helpless immobility and darkness.
The crew gathered together below decks, amidships, and listened to the relentless breakers sweeping over the ship, waiting for the help they hoped was coming. By about 9 a.m. the water rose so high in the hull that they were driven out of their shelter and into the open. They struggled to make it up across the deck to the bridge, atop the wheelhouse, as colossal walls of green water pounded down on them, sweeping many away to their deaths. But a number of them made it to the bridge and huddled there, waiting and hoping and praying for help.
What they got was something else. The massive breakers had already torn the deckhouses and lifeboats off the stricken ship. Now a huge wall of water bore down on the boat — and tore the pilothouse and bridge off the ship, carrying it and all who’d sheltered there away into the sea.
One of the men on the bridge was John Slinning, one of the three survivors. Here’s his account of what happened next:
“As the big seas (waves) lifted the bridge and pilot house off, I first grabbed the exhaust pipe, held on to that for a while, then got around the after part of the smokestack,” he said. “A sea struck me from there, and sent me over the rail. I held onto the rail until the sea had passed. Then another sea took me to the after rail, and I got up into the main rigging.”
Only two other mariners had made it to the rigging with Slinning: carpenter Erick Lundmark and engine-room crewman S. Cagna. Every other member of the crew — with the exception of the ship’s other quartermaster, Fred Peters, who made it to shore on a floating plank — was drowning around them in the icy, foaming breakers off of Peacock Spit.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Lifesaving Service crews at Point Adams and Cape Disappointment were frantically trying to figure out where the wreck was. When they found it, around 8:30 a.m., they immediately launched a rescue effort that would go down in Coast Guard history as one of the most daring and hazardous in its history. Two of the then-new gasoline-powered lifeboats set out on the mission; both of them went to the bottom of the sea — yet every man who went out on those boats survived.
We’ll talk about that rescue in next week’s column.
(Sources: U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s office; Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950)