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Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

The wreck of the Glenesslin: Insurance fraud, or just drunken incompetence?

Windjammer still holds a world speed record for sailing ships, but by the time of her demise, had been losing money for years; the age of steam had made her obsolete. So when she sailed onto the rocks, many people smelled a rat.

Crew members pose in front of the Glenesslin, stranded on the rocks by Neahkahnie Mountain.
Crew members, freshly rescued from the stranded Glenesslin, strike
clownish poses on the rocks with their doomed vessel in the background.
It's hard not to speculate on whether these men were among those
reputed to have been drunk when they were rescued. (Image: Ben
Maxwell collection, Salem Public Library) [Larger image: 1200 x 933]

One beautiful clear October day, 98 years ago, astonished onlookers watched a big square-rigged sailing ship simply turn and sail straight into the side of Neahkahnie Mountain.

If such a thing had ever happened before, nobody could remember it. Why would a full-size windjammer and crew simply sail into a mountain, as if it didn't exist? If the ship were in some kind of trouble, wouldn't its crew drop the sails at the very least? And there were very nice beaches, suitable for an emergency grounding that would likely do minimal damage, to the south at Manzanita and to the north at Cannon Beach. Why not try for one of these?

Nobody knows for sure. For whatever reason, the captain and crew of the ship refused to talk much about it. But there are several pretty good possibilities.

Built for speed, but now obsolete

Under almost full sail, the doomed Glenesslin grinds against the side of Neahkahnie Mountain as its crew members pose for the camera.
Crew members from the Glenesslin pose on the rocks in front of their
ship. This image demonstrates how very close to land the ship was.
Note the ship is under full sail, except for the topsails. (Image: Ben
Maxwell collection, Salem Public Library) [Larger image: 1500 x 944 px]

First, a bit about the ship. She was the 1,818-ton steel-hulled square rigger Glenesslin, 260 feet long, built in 1885 in Glasgow. For two decades this big, astonishingly fast windjammer was the pride of the C.E. DeWolf & Co. fleet. But soon after the turn of the new century, things started to go sour — not just for the Glenlessin, but for all sail-powered capital ships.

Steam power hadn't been much of a threat at first. But by the early 1900s engines and drive systems had gotten efficient enough that there was simply no longer any reason for an owner to run a sail-powered ship. They were slower, less predictable and far less flexible, being really only efficient when running downwind or reaching across it.

No reason, that is, except for one: The owner can't afford to replace the ship. In 1913, there were a number of obsolete windjammers plying the seas for that very reason. The Glenesslin was one of them, and she hadn't turned a profit in years. Luckily, after the Oct. 3 accident, the owner would have a nice fat insurance check with which to replace the old money-losing blow-boat with a shiny new steamship.

Insurance fraud?

The article in Popular Mechanics telling the story of the Glenesslin shipwreck.
An article that ran in Popular Mechanics just after the wreck. The
image shows the rescue lines from the ship to the shore. [Larger
image: 800 x 1221 px, PNG]

Naturally, insurance fraud was the first thing most people thought about when trying to understand what had happened. Indeed, if that were the plan, it could hardly have been better executed. The Glenesslin fetched up on rocks, tearing a hole in her steel hull and making a re-float impossible. The almost-full suit of sails, still full of air hours after the accident, guaranteed the ship would stay on the rocks long enough to break up. The shore was close enough to hit easily with a rescue line, virtually guaranteeing that nobody would be killed; indeed, most crew members probably didn't even get wet.

Once safely on shore, Captain Owen Williams and his officers refused to tell anyone what had happened — which, of course, made people all the more suspicious.

But there were some other possibilities too, and some reasons to believe fraud wasn't the goal.

Three sheets to the wind

First, there was good old Demon Rum. The captain was, by most accounts, utterly pickled when the wreck happened, and had left his ship in the charge of the second mate. The onlookers helping get the men off the wrecked ship couldn't help but notice that most of the crew members were also drunk, or at least had been drinking.

It seems unlikely that, if planning to wreck a ship for insurance reasons, the captain would get liquored up before doing so. Nobody who expects to have to swim for his very life prepares for the ordeal by getting drunk. And the inebriation of the crew members could explain why nobody climbed up into the rigging to drop the sails before impact.

Doomed by a wind shadow?

Secondly, there is a standing wind shadow in that particular spot, just inside Cape Falcon. If a sailing ship gets into that pocket, getting her to come about can be impossible; she simply won't answer the helm. So it's possible that the ship got into that shadow, became becalmed and drifted onto the rocks, where — in a cruelly ironic twist — the winds picked back up and pinned her to the reef. This also would explain why nobody made any move to drop the sails: They were hoping to catch a stray breeze and bring the helm around.

Incompetent officers and crew?

But perhaps the most compelling explanation for the wreck was the age of both officers: 22. Both the first and second mates were barely adults. Twenty years before the wreck, anyone who suggested hiring a 22-year-old boy as a top officer on a ship like the Glenesslin would have evoked gales of laughter, not to mention forcible ejection from the better waterfront watering holes. But by the 1910s, it was common, because it had become very hard to find people willing to work on a sailing ship.

The difference in the life of a crew member on a steamer versus a windjammer was striking, and only men who had no alternative would sign up to serve on a sailing ship. Victims of crimping ("shanghaiing"), always a part of the scene, had become an important part of making up a crew. This meant the crews handling sailing ships in 1913 were often incompetent, unmotivated, or both. They also lacked discipline: after all, as hard as it was to find people to serve on a windjammer, what was the skipper going to do — fire you?


A live Google map of Neahkahnie Mountain. [View Larger Map]

With officers, the situation was similar. Sailing-ship officers tended to be very young, ambitious fellows who, given the choice of a low-ranking berth on a steamer or First Mate on a windjammer, went for the tougher but higher-status spot. They earned their stripes and moved on to the steamer fleet, to be replaced by the next class of ambitious young fellows in their turn. There is much to be said for ambitious youths, but the system guaranteed a certain level of inexperience in shipboard high command.

That left the captain — usually a lonely old salt, surrounded by derelict and incorrigible crew members and callow youths with whom he had little in common, bitterly pining for the glory days of sail. Such a fellow often heard the call of a cup of rum to make it all better for a while — a call Captain Williams clearly had been answering on the day his ship was wrecked.

So insurance fraud isn't the only possibility here. And indeed, after a long legal process of hearings and accusations and counter-accusations, the insurance finally paid out $30,000. Captain Williams' license was suspended for six months (which probably ended his career); the first mate was reprimanded; and the second mate, who had been in charge at the time, lost his license for a full year.

Glenesslin's world speed record

In happier times, just 11 years before, the Glenesslin earned the world speed record for a 1,000-mile voyage under sail, after sprinting from Portland to Port Elizabeth in South Africa in 74 days. She still holds that record.

After the shipwreck, the ruined vessel was sold for salvage, sight unseen, for $560, but when the new owner saw what he'd bought, he turned around and re-sold it for $100. Today, much of the Glenesslin's steel hull can still be seen rusting away among the rocks at the foot of the mountain — all that remains of what was probably the fastest sail-powered freighter ever built.

(Sources: Gibbs, James. Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast. Portland: Binford, 1957; Lubbock, Basil. The Last of the Windjammers, vol. 1. Glasgow: Brown, 1954; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; http://www.cimorelli.com/magellan)