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Rosecrans rescue was one of Coast Guard's finest hours

Two motor lifeboat crews went out on the bar to save three surviving sailors. Both boats went to the bottom of the sea — but not a man was lost on either crew, and all the survivors were rescued.

The lifeboat and rescue crew at the U.S. Lifesaving Station at Macatawa Park, Mich. The boat this crew is posing with is the same type used to rescue the crew of the Rosecrans, modified with the addition of a 25-horsepower gasoline engine. (Image: Library of Congress)

In any great disaster, it’s always possible to find one or two pivot points at which a key decision made disaster all but inevitable.

In the wreck of the tanker steamship S.S. Rosecrans, there were several of these; most great disasters come at the end of a chain of unlucky breaks, and this was no exception. And there’s a great deal that can’t ever be known, since none of the ship’s officers survived.

But a strong case can be made that the Rosecrans’ doom was ensured by the catastrophic fire that had gutted the ship six months previously, in California.

That experience seems to have made the Rosecrans’ captain, Lucien Johnson, extremely worried about the risk of fire — unreasonably so. So much so that when the radio operator started transmitting SOS calls, Johnson ordered him to stop, for fear that the bright blue spark from the transmitter would catch some stray fumes from the hold and set the cargo ablaze. (Remember, this was in the midst of a 60-knot gale.) And the ship never launched a single distress flare — most likely because Captain Johnson wouldn’t allow any pyrotechnic risks.

As a result, when the Rosecrans struck the sand and the breakers doused her engines, she was left helpless and invisible and silent in the blackness, without even enough steam to blow her whistle.

And no one knew where she was.

Peacock Spit as seen from the Washington side. (Image: Salem Public Library)

Legendary Point Adams Lifestation Keeper Oscar Wicklund later testified that, had the lifesavers known where the Rosecrans was stranded, the entire crew would likely have been saved with relative ease within a few hours.

What happened instead was one of the worst maritime disasters of Oregon history, and one of the most spectacular rescue performances in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard (or U.S. Lifesaving Service, as it was at the time).

The wireless operator in Astoria had told Wicklund the wreck had likely happened on Clatsop Spit on the Oregon side of the river; so he sent a patrol out on the beach to look, launched his new gasoline-powered motor lifeboat, and hurried out to look for the ship while the tide was still slack. On the way he met up with a tugboat, the Tatoosh, and the two vessels hunted all across the storm-swept bar with no luck.

As the tide started coming in, Wicklund and his boat returned to the station. It was then, around 8:40 a.m., that he learned that the Rosecrans was a mile and a half out to sea, at the end of Peacock Spit. He’d spent the hours before dawn thoroughly searching the wrong side of the river. The lookout in the tower at Cape Disappointment had spotted the wreck shortly after dawn.

Wickland rushed across the river to help. Once there, he joined the crew of Cape Disappointment Lifestation Keeper Alfred Rimer, who commanded another of the new gasoline-powered motor lifeboats, and they set out together for the scene of the wreck.

Both crews were equipped with the doughty 34-foot “Merryman” type motor lifeboats, which had been developed just a few years before by installing gasoline engines in the standard self-bailing, self-righting rescue lifeboats of the day. They were the state of the art in 1912; but their primitive engines — massive 414-cubic-inch four-cylinder jobs built by Holmes Motor Co., rated at 25 horsepower — weren’t powerful enough to muscle the 11,000-pound rescue boats across the bar against the combined fury of the gale and a strong flood tide.

By now the sun was up, though, and the rescuers could see the Rosecrans — or what remained of her.

“All that could be seen of the wreck was the mast sticking up with three men clinging to the rigging,” Wickland wrote in his report afterward. “I did not have much hope of reaching the vessel, but I thought it would encourage the men in the rigging if they saw the lifeboat constantly trying to reach them. I made two attempts, but the boat was entirely submerged, and we were forced to return.”

An aerial photograph of the mouth of the Columbia in 1929, including Clatsop Spit (left side); Sand Island (middle of channel); and Peacock Spit (extending far out to sea on the north side of the channel). (Image: Washington State Archives)

Back at the station, the two lifestation keepers conferred. They would make another attempt as soon as the tide slackened, they decided.

“We made up our minds that we would not quit trying as long as there was anyone left in the rigging,” Wickland wrote.

By 12:30, the tide was slack once again, and the motor lifeboats set out. This time, they made it — although their crews were drenched continually by the heavy boarding seas.

“I ran in as close as I dared … and signaled to the men in the rigging to jump,” Wickland wrote. “I circled five times, and got as near the vessel as I dared each time … but they would not do it. As we got near the wreck a fifth time, a terrific sea struck our boat, turning it almost end over end and washing five members of the crew overboard, including myself.”

For the rescuers, this was just part of the job, albeit an unpleasant part. They waited for the boat to flip back upright, clambered back aboard, and went to pick up one of their number who’d drifted 300 yards away. Then they saw a signal from Rimer’s boat, which was wallowing low and lifeless in the water.

As it turned out, Rimer’s boat had sprung a bad leak while racing through the pounding surf on the way to the rescue, and then the engine throttle broke; it would run at full throttle only. Then, while they were trying to persuade the men in the rigging to jump, the boat got into a run of heavy breakers which somersaulted the boat, pitching the crew into the drink, stopping the engine and tearing up the steering gear.

“After a few moments we all managed by the greatest effort to get on board again,” Rimer said, “but found the boat and engine room full of water. … As we were in a seething cauldron and unable to handle our boat with oars, I wigwagged to the Point Adams boat to tow us into quieter water.”

Wickland responded quickly and towed the other lifeboat out of the breakers, where the tugboat Fearless just happened — by a life-saving bit of luck — to be standing by. Then he returned to the men on the mast for one more try at getting them to jump.

Perhaps encouraged by the relative ease with which the lifeboat crew had gathered up its own castaways, or maybe fearful that their lack of nerve could cost these rescuers their lives, the men on the mast hesitated no more. Two of them leaped into the drink and were hauled triumphantly aboard; the third, who was badly injured, dropped lifelessly into the water, and when they pulled him aboard the boat they found him dead.

The ebb tide had started again, and now Wickland’s lifeboat was having trouble too; they were pretty sure it would not survive an attempt to cross the bar. So instead, Wickland headed out to sea, to the Columbia River Lightship. There they all climbed aboard — safe at last.

It wasn’t until two days later that the seas moderated enough for rescuers and rescued to be brought back across the bar to shore. In the meantime, the gale had increased to hurricane force and torn the damaged motor lifeboat loose from its tether. Neither it, nor the body of the dead sailor they’d picked up in it, was ever seen again.

As for Rimer’s motor lifeboat, the tugboat Fearless was heading toward the bar with it at the end of a four-inch tow line when the tug’s skipper, Captain E.D. Parsons, suddenly started worrying about its crew. Stopping short of the bar, he ordered every man off the lifeboat and onto his tug. There was some reluctance to comply — at least one life station crewman asked to be allowed to stay on the lifeboat; but Parsons was the captain, and Parsons’ answer was a very firm “no.”

Then they set out to cross the bar.

A few minutes later, as the two boats were carefully threading their way between the breakers on each side of the channel, the four-inch towing hawser to the now-empty motor lifeboat snapped. The lifeboat, wallowing free, promptly drifted into the breakers and was picked up and tumbled — over and over and over, like a piece of driftwood.

Had anyone remained aboard the lifeboat, he would have been a sure-fire goner. But the Fearless would have had to turn around and try to rescue him anyway — which would have involved letting the tugboat take the mountainous incoming seas full on the beam, at extreme danger of a rollover.

Thanks to Parsons’ good decision, he never had to make that call. All that lay behind him was a heavily-damaged empty boat. So on chugged the tugboat, crossing the bar without further incident. The lifeboat was never seen again; but every member of its crew made it home.

Unfair though it is to make a comparison like this, it’s hard not to speculate on how things might have turned out had Captain Parsons been the skipper of the Rosecrans.

(Sources: U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s office; Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; Fore ‘n’ Aft magazine, June 1906)