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The wreck of the U.S.S. Shark: Navy’s loss was beach’s gain

The captain's desperate haste to get out to sea, combined with a terrible decision to cross the bar on the ebb, resulted in disaster — and the ship's stranded armaments resulted in a name for the town of Cannon Beach.

A model of the U.S.S. Shark on display in the U.S. Navy Museum. (Image: Wikimedia/ Sturmvogel66)

On August 23, 1846, the doomed American warship USS Shark pulled away from Fort Vancouver for its fateful voyage down the Columbia and thence — so her captain thought — out to sea and back toward home.

The Shark’s captain, Lt. Neil M. Howison, was already behind schedule, and with each passing day he got more anxious to get out to sea before the rest of his crew melted away into the surrounding communities. He’d already lost at least six, possibly more. And the Shark was a Baltimore Clipper rigged as a topsail schooner — a seagoing hot rod of the first order; she required a lot of men to handle her. It wouldn’t take many more defections before they were all stuck here, half a world away from home.

But fate seemed just as determined to delay the ship as her captain was to speed her along. First, when Howison was getting ready to depart, he learned that a commercial barque, the Toulon, had hired the only river guide available. To have the services of a local in getting their ship safely out to sea, they’d have to wait, possibly weeks, for the Toulon.

Howison determined that he was not going to wait for the Toulon. When he embarked, it was without the benefit of a river pilot. But a few miles downstream, he found himself waiting for the Toulon after all. Her newly hired river pilot had guided her straight onto a gravel bar.

Naturally, Howison couldn’t just sail blithely past — although he surely must have wished he could. And so the Shark’s departure was delayed yet again, by three days, while her crew toiled with the Toulon’s to get her into deep water again.

Then, at last, the little warship was on her way.

One of the two carronades found on the beach in 2008, before it was removed from the beach and sent to Texas A&M University for restoration. (Image: Oregon Parks & Recreation)

But now it was the weather’s turn to be the agent of delay. A stiff headwind forced the little ship to tack relentlessly back and forth for days, gradually working her way down to the mouth of the river.

When she finally arrived at the mouth of the river, Howison spent a day reconnoitering before choosing to cross the bar at the start of the ebb the following afternoon. But, not having a pilot on board (or even a decent map of the channel), Howison didn’t realize what a serious mistake that was.

So out onto the bar the little ship ventured, just as fast as she could sail.

Actually, she was moving quite a bit faster than she could sail. The current during the ebb tide can be an amazing force on the Columbia bar, with all the tidewater of the lower Columbia flowing out to sea. When conditions are right, it can top 9 miles per hour. And it doesn’t always follow the deepest part of the channel.

And so, on the afternoon of Sept. 10, Howison and his crew found themselves racing past the northern shores of Oregon — riding a current carrying them straight toward Clatsop Spit.

Belatedly realizing his predicament, Howison hastily tacked across the headwind and tried to make for the northwest. It was no use. The pressure on the ship’s keel from the current was too great for the sails to overcome. The ship continued slipping out toward the breakers that lined the south side of the channel.

In desperation Howison ordered the anchor dropped. Again, though, the force of an eight-knot current pushing a 200-ton ship with its keel spread out like an underwater sail was simply too much. The anchor line snapped “like a packthread” (Howison’s words), and then there was little to do but brace for impact.

Lt. Neil Howison, commanding officer of the USS Shark, as he appeared in the late 1840s. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

When that impact came, it was definitive. The vessel stuck fast, and immediately the mammoth boarding seas “began to break over her broadside,” Howison recounted (after he was safely back on shore, of course), “and told us too plainly that she should float over its surface no more.”

Giving up the ship for doomed, the crew then turned its efforts to getting on shore before the relentless seas could reduce the little warship to its constituent timbers. The first thing they did was launch the ship’s gig, with several crew members along with $4,000 in gold. But as they lowered it, the rocking ship and pounding seas carried the ship’s remaining anchor around from where it hung beneath the bows and smashed the little gig just as it hit the water.

With the help of some heroic work by other crew members, all the occupants of the gig were hauled back aboard the ship. The box full of gold, however, was gone, along with all the ship’s papers.

Captain and crew alike took the hint. They weren’t getting off the ship yet. But the ebbing tide suggested another possibility: Could they but hold out for a few hours, the tide would finish going out, and they might be able to make for shore.

So the crew of the Shark settled in as best they could, hanging on tightly as walls of green-and-white water roared down on them again and again.

And a few hours later, sure enough, things settled down. Not much — but enough.

Hastily the three surviving boats were launched with a little over half the crew on board, to row for shore. They would come back 12 hours later for the rest of them … if they could survive.

They did. When the boats returned to the Shark, they found it battered and waterlogged, but with the several dozen shipmates (and their captain) still clinging to the wreckage, all of them tied to the rigging with lifelines to keep from being swept away.

Not a single sailor was lost, or even badly hurt. Not one — out of a crew of more than 70 men.

When the last members of the crew reached the beach, soaked through and exhausted from their ordeal, they found a great bonfire blazing on the sand, and their comrades all gathered around it. They’d found a great deal of driftwood clustered along the beach, which had burned very nicely. It was, they later learned, the wreckage of the sloop of war Peacock, which had come to grief on the opposite shore of the river just five years before.

The castaways ended up stuck on that beach for months, although their British rivals from the Hudson’s Bay Company hastened to bring them food and supplies. They built a log house at Point George, which they dubbed Sharksville, and waited in it for a vessel that they could charter to take them home.

But while they were waiting, the barque Toulon — remember the Toulon? The ship that hired the only river pilot, and then promptly stranded on a sandbar below Fort Astoria? It now returned from a journey with the news that international negotiations between Britain and the U.S. had resulted in a decision to set the boundary between them permanently at 49 degrees — the modern border with Canada.

So in the end, the castaways of Sharksville ended up being the first to hear the news. And upon hearing it, Howison ran the Shark’s flag up a makeshift flagpole, and for the first time ever, Old Glory was flying above the undisputed American territory of Oregon.

Meanwhile, the ship had broken up, and sections of the deck with the ship’s carronades attached had washed up on a nearby beach — just north of Arch Cape. Three pieces of artillery were found, and then another; one of them was dragged out of the sand and brought up on shore, where it stood outdoors exposed to the elements for more than 100 years in a little town that was named after it: Cannon Beach. Recently, it was sent off to the Nautical Archaeology program at Texas A&M University for expert restoration work, and the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum is currently in the midst of a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $30,000 it needs to provide a proper climate-controlled exhibit space for this 190-year-old piece of Oregon history.

In 2008, two more cannons from the Shark were found by a beach walker, farther to the north; these, also refurbished by Texas A&M, were placed on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria last year.

(Sources: Shine, Greg P. “A Gallant Little Schooner,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Dec. 2008; Tobias, Lori. “Cannons from USS Shark Come Back Home to Oregon’s Coast,” Portland Oregonian, 16 May 2014; http://www.gofundme.com/ourcannon )