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Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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There was probably a moment at which the captain and crew could have discouraged them with a couple of careful rifle shots, but the attack seems to have caught them entirely flat-footed.
Soon the ship was full of men, all strangers to the ship’s officers, grabbing boxes and hustling them to the rails and flinging them into the sea. Other men and boys were fishing the boxes out and hustling them up on the beach, making little piles of booty watched over by women and children.
And then … someone found the whiskey.
Lots of whiskey. Cases and cases of bonded liquor.
Now, in November of 1915, Prohibition in the state of Oregon had just gone into effect — Oregon was a few years ahead of the federal government in that regard. Regular citizens had been forbidden to buy alcoholic beverages since January of that year. If one had a prescription from a doctor, of course, one could buy booze from the local drugstore; and there was already a lively black market peddling the stuff bootlegger-style — but for most Oregonians, it had been a long, thirsty eleven months, with no end in sight.
And now, like the sad thirsty residents of Todday Island in the 1949 movie “Whiskey Galore,” they found themselves at the scene of an all-you-can-drink-and-carry-away whiskey buffet.
After that, there was absolutely no shutting the party down.
“The merchants saved little of their goods and were soon forced out of the running by the pirates,” the Coos Bay Times reported in the next day’s edition. “All last night the looting went on in one mad orgy. Case after case of whiskey was broached and the beach was covered with swaying men.”
“At one o’clock it is reported there was a regular riot on the sands,” the article continues (under an eye-catching sub-headline reading “HAVE DRUNKEN RIOT”); “and a hurry call was sent for the Coast Guard in the hope that they might be able to still things.”
One might think this was a situation that would call for a response from law enforcement. The problem was, there was no law enforcement agency willing to get involved. The hoped-for Coast Guard intervention didn’t happen. The sheriff claimed his jurisdiction ended at the high-tide line. Someone sent a plea for help to the U.S. Marshals Service in Portland, and the marshals claimed they didn’t have jurisdiction either, and referred the increasingly frantic merchants to the state government. The Oregon State Police did not yet exist, so there was no help coming from that quarter either.
So, unmolested by any legitimate authority, the pirates kept up their frenzy of plunder and pillage all the next day, and the next.
As word got around, more locals came to the scene to join in the fun.
“At low tide, over on the rocks could be seen any amount of little piles of stuff with a woman or child standing guard,” local resident C.F. McGeorge told reporters. “The husband or relatives would come running up with something more to add to the heap and then dash back to the wreck for more.”
By the third day of the spree, the looters had their pillaging methods down to an applied science: “In getting the stuff off yesterday, the pirates were using ropes,” the Times reporter wrote. “One would stand on the beach with one end of the rope and the partner aboard would tie it to a package and heave it overboard. The one on the beach would pull it in. About 200 such teams and lines were working.”
Things in the hold were jumbled and everything was covered with seawater and fuel oil, and by the fourth day of the looting spree the pickings were getting slim. So one of the looters set a charge of dynamite, hoping to blow a hole in the hull through which more goodies might be extracted.
This did not work — the dynamite didn’t go off — so instead, the next day, someone just lit the ship on fire, and it spent the next couple days belching flames and smoke at the sky while the pirates lurked in the woods nearby, waiting for it to cool down enough to resume operations. It burned all the way down to the high-tide waterline.
Meanwhile, legitimate salvage operators sent by the ship’s owners to consider buying parts of it shook their heads in disbelief and left to tell the ship’s owners “no, thank you.”
WHEN THE FIRE had finally burned itself out, the pirates found to their dismay and consternation that, rather than burning off the top of the ship to reveal the loot beneath, they’d simply caused all the heavy spars and timbers to collapse down on top of the hull, covering the cargo holds with an impenetrable jumble of charred wood.
Almost none of the cargo was accessible now — certainly nothing of any value. Plus, by now all the whiskey had been carried off or guzzled on scene.
And so, the biggest and most outrageous larceny-fueled drunken beach party in the history of Oregon, if not of the entire West Coast, faded quietly out as the erstwhile pirates drifted home to nurse hangovers and arrange their water-damaged booty around their hearths to dry.
FOR A FEW DAYS AFTERWARD, looters could be seen openly swapping their booty from the backs of wagons and automobiles. One who’d come away with a case of Shinola shoe polish might trade a couple cans with another who had a case of ammonia cleaner or ketchup.
As for the business owners, they were simply out of luck. The riot effectively absolved the shipping line of any responsibility for the cargo — or so their attorneys argued; and the merchants decided it wasn’t worth wasting their time litigating, so they gave it up and took the loss.
It wasn’t just the money, though, for them. Remember, these were the leading citizens of Marshfield and North Bend, and their community image was taking a beating in the regional and national press. The story of the army of hundreds of local looters descending on the wreck of the Santa Clara like vultures on a carcass had been interesting enough to catch every newspaper editor’s eye, and the story had gotten national press. The businessmen were not taking any chances on their town acquiring a reputation for the kind of drunken, larcenous lawlessness that they’d seen on the beach a few weeks earlier.
So they absorbed their losses stoically, and when offered the opportunity to prosecute a particularly egregious looter (he had stolen several wagon loads of their goods out of a neighbor’s barn, where they had staged it for transport back to town) they said no.
The great Coos Bay looting party, they said, had been in the newspapers enough. Now it was time to get busy pretending it had never happened.
As for Captain Lofstedt, he had plenty of reason to wish it had never happened as well. In the subsequent hearing, his master’s license was revoked. The board ruled that he had put the ship to sea despite knowing the steering engines were too small to force the rudder to turn if something went wrong in the gears. As a justification, this makes little sense; then, as now, it seemed more likely the penalty was really for ordering lifeboats launched and rowed through the heavy breakers when the ship was already safely beached.