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Sudden windstorm caught ship
at worst possible moment

Not since before the Civil War had so many mariners drowned in a shipwreck on the Columbia River bar; as hurricane-driven breakers tore the big ship to pieces, all the would-be rescuers could do was watch in horror.

The Coast Guard cutter Onondaga, which steamed across the bar in a fruitless attempt to rescue the doomed mariners on the Iowa. (Image: US Coast Guard)

It was just past midnight on Jan. 12, 1936. Gale warning pennants were flying in Astoria, warning ships that they could expect winds of 39 to 54 miles per hour as they crossed the bar — rough weather, but not nearly rough enough to stop the big ships as they came and went, and they’d been doing so all day.

So there was no particular reason why Captain Edgar L. Yates, the seasoned and competent skipper of the 410-foot, 8,800-ton steamship Iowa, should hesitate. He held a bar pilot’s license, so there was no need to wait for a pilot to come aboard.

So across the bar the Iowa steamed ... and the shipwreck that ensued would be the worst loss of life on the Columbia River bar since before the Civil War — since before Oregon was a state.

 

From far away, the Iowa looked like a very unlikely candidate for destruction on the bar. It was a full-size modern freighter, and a fairly new one at that. The ship had been built in 1920 for the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation. It was one of 18 similar ships built by Western Pipe and Steel Co. of San Francisco.

But the ship had an Achilles heel, as it turned out: its drive system. For one thing, it was somewhat underpowered for its size; its triple-expansion steam engine delivered just 2,800 horsepower, giving it a top speed of just 10.5 knots. But more importantly, it was driven with just one screw (propeller). That meant if the Iowa were to lose her rudder for any reason — or even to lose headway through the water — there would be no way to steer.

This appears to be what happened on that fateful early morning. Because almost the instant the Iowa crossed the bar into the open ocean, the rough-but-manageable gale weather freshened until it was an actual hurricane: sustained 80-mph winds screaming out of the south-southwest, pushing the Iowa relentlessly back, back toward the long, hungry tongue of sand that jutted out just beneath the waves on the north side of the river — the dreaded shoals of Peacock Spit.

A map of the mouth of the Columbia River, showing the location on Peacock Spit where the Iowa came to grief. (Image: Portland Morning Oregonian)

The wind put Capt. Yates in an impossible position. He could try to turn the ship around and head back into port. But this would involve turning the ship momentarily broadside to the colossal seas that were now surging against it. A rollover would be the likely result of that. His best choice seemed to be to ring for as much power as the ship could handle and charge into the teeth of the gale, taking the brutal seas on the bows.

But by 3:45 a.m., it was clear that the hapless freighter would not make it. A distress call went out — the last the ship would ever make — that she was unmanageable and adrift and moving toward Peacock Spit, just three miles off the shore — far too close for a ship that drew 22 feet in saltwater.

At about 4:30 a.m., the assistant keeper of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse spotted the stricken vessel, which was still drifting helplessly at that point. The lighthouse crew watched in sober, horrified silence as the big freighter was driven into the sandy shoals, three miles from shore.

Assistant meteorologist Charles Hubbard was watching through a telescope as the waves now started pounding the big steel ship mercilessly, and with visible effect. Pieces soon started breaking off. As Hubbard watched, a crew member exited the pilothouse and ran for the foremast, obviously in a desperate attempt to get up into the rigging and out of reach of the seas; but before he could reach the mast, another massive comber overwhelmed him and swept him into the sea. A few minutes later, the pilothouse he’d just left was torn from the ship and hurled overboard, along with the funnel and bridge.

“Finally, after being a defenseless target to several more merciless combers, the Iowa gave a violent heave, bobbed a trifle out of the water like a bouncing cork, and then slipped silently and swiftly out of sight,” the Portland Morning Oregonian’s Don McLeod recounted in the next day’s edition. “Only the mast remained above the water.”

It appeared that the wave action had carved out a big hollow in the sand just inland from where the freighter had struck, and now the waves had pushed the ship into it. There could no longer be any doubt as to the fate of the 34 crew members. No one could swim three miles in seas like that, even if the water weren’t 48 degrees.

 

The Portland Morning Oregonian’s coverage of the sinking of the Iowa took up most of the next day’s front page, including a photo of Capt. Yates — who was a Portland resident. (Image: Morning Oregonian)

Throughout this time, the Coast Guard lifesavers had been trying desperately to get close enough to the wreck to help. They had sprung into action as soon as they got the SOS, a few hours before dawn, with the 165-foot cutter Onondaga. It took an hour or two for the Onondaga’s boilers to heat up, but she was soon steaming out across the bar as fast as she dared.

The trouble was, it was obvious from the start that she wasn’t going to be able to do much of anything. The storm was so violent it actually tore two of the lifeboats off the cutter. She finally arrived at the scene of the wreck around noon, a good eight hours after the hapless freighter had drifted onto the sands, but could do nothing but gather up sailors floating in the sea — all of whom turned out to be dead, drowned or killed by hypothermia in the chilly waters.

As word spread around the peninsula, local residents started pouring down to the beaches to watch the disaster unfolding as best they could through the driving rain and whipping wind. Many of them left with armloads of salvaged goods from the Iowa’s cargo; the seas had done such a thorough job of breaking the hull apart that cases of canned salmon, bags of flour and huge pieces of lumber had poured out and now littered the beaches, along with millions of soaking-wet boxes of matches. McLeod described one man, who for obvious reasons declined to give a name, beating a hasty and triumphant retreat from the scene of carnage with 25 cases of canned salmon.

The next day, the storm had blown itself out, leaving flooded roads and flattened telegraph lines all over northwest Oregon. Aircraft and boats flocked to the scene of the disaster, looking for bodies to recover and answers to the questions that could never really be found. They discovered the ship was in about 20 feet of water, and realized that had she drawn just two feet less she would have been carried over the spit and probably either managed to get control again, or fetched up on a beach within breeches-buoy range of shore.

To this day, the wreck of the Iowa remains the worst disaster in the history of the Columbia River Bar since 1852, when the sidewheel steamer General Warren foundered there (42 drowned in the General Warren incident). And to this day, when people talk about the bar’s capacity to destroy even major modern oceangoing freighters, it’s usually the Iowa they have in mind.

(Sources: McClary, Daryl. “SS Iowa wrecks on Peacock Spit … (Essay 11007),” Historylink.org, Feb. 2015; Portland Morning Oregonian archives, Jan. 13-14, 1936; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984)