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The ones that got away: Almost-shipwrecks on the Columbia Bar

When a sailing ship found itself in trouble in the legendary “graveyard of ships,” there was nothing left to do but count the bodies. But every now and then, a vessel would slip out of the icy grip of the bar to sail on. Here are a few such stories.

Portland Harbor as it appeared on a busy day around the turn of the 20th century. The big four-masted grain-fleet barque in the foreground, flying a Union Jack from her mast, is of similar size and type to the Poltalloch. (Image: OSU Libraries)

The merciless waters of the Columbia River Bar are not known for easily giving up their prey once they’ve trapped a ship on their sandy shoals. But over the years, it has happened now and again – and the stories of these survivors are always interesting.

The Queen of the Pacific

There was no hint of irony in mind when the passenger liner Queen of the Pacific was christened and launched in Philadelphia in 1882. The Pacific Coast Steamship Company of San Francisco had spared no expense. Competition on the San Francisco-Portland line was at its peak, and the Queen’s owners intended to have the very finest steamer on the route: a true queen of the Pacific.

And so they did. The 2,727-ton floating palace arrived at the Golden Gate late that year and was greeted with cheering crowds. Under the command of Captain Ezekiel Alexander, she immediately started making money easily and rapidly.

That’s probably why, when word arrived in the San Francisco offices that the Queen had run aground on Clatsop Spit just a year after she went into service, the word that went back was something along the lines of a blank check.

The stranding had been a straightforward one, and no one had been hurt. The weather had been mild, but very foggy, and the vessel had drifted out of the channel and stuck fast in the sandy bottom on the Oregon side. Of course, the instant the hull touched, the engineer put her into full reverse, but it was too late.

The situation was made more embarrassing by the fact that the passenger list included some very prominent Californians, coming to Portland to witness the driving of the last golden spike to mark the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

So the Pacific Coast Steamship Company sent the word along: Save our ship, no matter what the cost.

Accordingly, the next day when the tide was looking good, the biggest collection of salvage tugs ever seen on the bar appeared to lend a hand – knowing doing so would give them a great chance to collect. Soon five powerful salvage tugs – the C.J. Brenham, Astoria, Columbia, Pioneer and General Miles – had massive hawsers on the stranded liner and were joining their forces with that of the Queen of the Pacific’s engines. The huge hawsers stretched tight, strained, occasionally snapped; but the big tugboats were patient, and no sooner was one broken than another was being slipped on the Queen.

Finally, at the apex of high tide, the stranded liner started to creep slowly backward into deeper water. By the time the tide was starting to ebb again, the liner was free, and all six ships celebrated the victory with blast after blast on their whistles.

Had the Queen of the Pacific known what was coming, her captain might not have been so happy. After all the negotiation and litigation that followed, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company’s blank check ended up being worth $65,000 – which comes to roughly $1.5 million in modern money.

Not bad for one afternoon’s work.

The Queen was worth the ransom, though. She went on to have a long and lucrative career before finally being bought for scrap metal by Imperial Japan in 1938.

The Sidi

The list of people who know what it’s like to total one’s car while the new-car smell is still lingering in the air is a short one, and none of us would ever want to be on it.

But if you, by some mischance, are on that list, you will be able to relate to the predicament of Captain J. Hill of the French brig Sidi.

The Sidi was eight months out of her natal shipyard and crossing the bar on Valentine’s Day of 1874 when she suffered the fate that so many other sailing ships have, before and since: the wind died at just the wrong moment.

The skipper, of course, dropped both anchors. As usual, this only slowed the ship down. The four-knot current was more than enough to pull the Sidi along, dragging both anchors through the clean sand beneath. Onto the sandy shore of Sand Island she stuck. And it was high tide: a few hours later, the stout little brig was perched there on a shelf of damp sand. The crew, of course, took the opportunity to clamber down and walk ashore, without even getting their feet wet.

The next day, salvors were on the scene. They immediately saw that it would be a tough job, and a lot of work, but it could be done. And the brand-new ship was insured for $50,000.

A few weeks later, at a spring tide’s flood, they triumphantly floated their prize free of the clinging sand. Rechristened the Sea Waif, the little brig went on to serve in the West Coast lumber fleet for decades.

The Professor and the Poltalloch

The massive British barque Poltalloch was part of the British grain fleet, and a regular visitor to the ports of Oregon and Washington. One foggy November day in 1900, she was making her way toward Puget Sound past the mouth of the Columbia when she wandered off course. The good news was that she missed Peacock Spit; the bad news was that she went hard aground, at high tide, just north of the Columbia by the entrance to Shoalwater Bay.

The receding tide left the Poltalloch towering high out of the surf. As with the Sidi, the crew was able to pitch a Jacob’s Ladder over the side and walk ashore. And as with the Sidi, salvage operators got busy right away trying to figure out how to get the ship off the beach and back into service.

They eventually were successful in this. But during the month or two during which the Poltalloch was stuck there, she nearly lured at least one other ship onto the reef beside her, like a decoy duck.

It happened the following February, when a German bark, the Professor Koch, was making her way toward the bar for a crossing. The ship, as the story goes, was making for the bar when the skipper spotted a square-rigger ahead, far inland, looking as if her helmsman knew where he was going. They must be crossing the bar, the helmsman thought. So he steered straight in after her.

Luckily, the steamer Fulton was on hand, and got to the German vessel in time to warn her skipper that he was following a stranded ship and headed straight for the beach. The Professor Koch turned and sailed back southward, her skipper no doubt a little redder of face than before.

(Sources: Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; Portland Morning Oregonian, 9/05/1883, 9/06/1883 and 9/08/1883)