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A color lithograph of George and Kate Ann Williams’s Victorian  mansion, located at 18th and Couch streets downtown.

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A prominent Portland socialite led a sect called "Truth," with the motto "Pray and Be Cured," that required 40-day fasts. It vanished after its leader starved herself to death during a 110-day fast. Here's the story.

An illustration of the scene in the Davis Hotel when detectives saw a hand suddenly  reach out from under the bed, grabbing for a pistol hidden there, from the Portland Morning Oregonian.

Railroad Murder mystery solved with the victim's help

The thieves, cornered in a boxcar, shot their way out, mortally wounding a railroad "bull." But the dying man was still a pretty good shot. Here's the story.

The archway monument leading up to the Wallowa County Courthouse,  built in 1936. The bronze plaque on the inside left of the arch includes  the name of murderer and horse thief Bruce “Blue” Evans.

A monument in honor of a horse thief and mass murderer?

Bruce "Blue" Evans led the gang that slaughtered over 30 innocent Chinese miners in 1887. So why is his name celebrated on a monument to Wallowa County Pioneers? Probably because they didn't know. Here's the story.

Legendary Coast Guard rescue-boat man Tom McAdams.

Newport's legendary cigar-chomping Coast Guard lifesaver:

In one famous incident, he saved four drowning people and earned a lifesaving medal — but the Coast Guard had wanted to reprimand him for risking their nicest boat to do it. Here's the story.

Jonathan Bourne Jr., the rascally and creative political mastermind behind the 'hold-up session.'

The legislature's notorious 40-day drunken party

Lawmaker Jonathan Bourne Jr. knew if the state House convened, it would elect his opponent. So he held things up for six weeks — with a Bacchanalian bender. Here's the story.

Three Rocks Beach, Camp Westwind, the mouth of the Salmon River and Cascade  Head as they appear today.

Is there pirate loot buried at this YWCA youth camp?

The discovery of a giant skeleton in the 1930s suggested that the old Indian legend of a pirate ship sinking in the Salmon River might be true ... or maybe not. Here's the story.

This is not a picture of the Sunshine; it's a lumber schooner of a similar type, the Wawona. The Sunshine, on her way home from her maiden voyage to San Francisco, vanished and then reappeared, upside down, 200 miles off course.

Gold was gone when schooner washed ashore ... empty

The fate of the Sunshine's passengers and crew is unknown ... did somebody wreck the ship on purpose?. Here's the story.

The gravestone of Ame, who despite having died 10 years after the Civil War, was still considered a slave.


Ame came over the Oregon Trail from Missouri. But when the North won the Civil War, her status as a slave didn't change. Here's what happened.

Ray V.B. Jackson in a booking photo from the Oregon State Pen, in 1896. Four years after this photo was taken, he was teaching grade school in Silver Lake.

Is this the face of oregon's first serial killer?

Like an "angel of death," ex-con Ray V.B. Jackson just happened to be at the scene of at least five Central Oregon homicides. What are the odds? Here's the story (in two parts).

Vaudeville's famous Klondike Kate became a Central Oregon legend

central oregon's most fabulous homesteader ever.

Homesteader Kitty "Klondike Kate" Rockwell, retired from the bright lights of Vaudeville, often wore full costume just to weed the garden. Here's the story.

Early Oregon 'holy roller' cult ended in murder, suicide, insanity

THE holy-roller "NAKED LADIES' CULT" IN CORVALLIS and waldport.

It started out as a church seeking perfect holiness and Godliness. It ended in murder, insanity and chaos — and, yes, rumors of naked ladies. Check out the full story (in two parts).

The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

mariner's spooky nightmare came true the next day

In his dream, the first mate of the German barque Mimi saw seaweed covering all but three shipmates. The next day, all but three drowned in one of Oregon's worst-ever salvage disasters. Here's the story.

Florence's famous exploding whale: A highway engineer didn't know how much dynamite to use, so he guessed ... and guessed wrong.

Whale explodes: Details at 11.

The highway department guy didn't know how much dynamite to use, and said so on camera. But he still thinks the operation was a success. Check out the story of Florence's famous exploding whale ...

The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

was this shipwreck insurance fraud or just drunken incompetence?

On a beautiful clear October day, astonished beach-goers watched a big windjammer simply turn and sail straight into the side of a mountain. Why would her crew do such a thing? Here's the story.

Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

The mysterious demise of the S.S. South Coast: What happened?

Historic steam schooner vanished on a calm night in 1930, leaving lifeboats and debris floating in the water — but no bodies, alive or dead. Was it a violent micro-storm? A “seaquake”? A boiler explosion? We'll never really know.

Line drawing of the then-new steam schooner South Coast, shortly after the little freighter had been fitted with a steam engine.
An old line-drawing of the steam schooner South Coast, most likely
from the 1890s. In this illustration, you can see both masts are
rigged to carry sails; the ship was initially designed as a sailing
vessel. Later, the aft mast was removed entirely, and the forward
mast was used as a loading boom. (Image: Superior Publishing)

On a calm day in mid-September of 1930, a small steam schooner put out of Crescent City, Calif., bound for Coos Bay with a crew of 18 men and a 250-ton load of logs.

It was never seen again.

The ship was the S.S. South Coast. On that day, three decades into the 20th century, she was already a historic vessel. In a sense, she actually predated the steam schooner era — in 1887, when her keel was laid, all steam schooners were actually sailing ships retrofitted with steam engines. The South Coast was one of these. The fact that she was still working 43 years later, near the end of the steam-schooner era, was unusual.

But however great that might have been for a historian, for a sailor working on that ship, it was bad — very bad. Wooden steam schooners, after a couple dozen years in the water, usually became waterlogged, as the seawater percolated into their hulls. When that happened, they lost a lot of both flotation and strength. By all accounts, the South Coast was plenty waterlogged by 1930; in fact, the word in the Coos Bay area was that she was barely seaworthy.

That should not have mattered. It was early autumn and the weather was mild and calm.

But, as it turns out, it did.

A mysterious debris field

The first sign of trouble came on Sept. 17, when the freighter Lake Benbow reported by wireless that it had spotted an empty lifeboat floating on the sea, with the South Coast’s name stenciled on it. There were no oars in it, or any sign of food and water containers; it was just the bare hull.

Now, a lifeboat floating in the ocean is a very bad sign. Lifeboats are secured to ships very carefully so that high winds and boarding seas can’t easily carry them away. If a lifeboat is in the water, there are only two possibilities: Either somebody launched it, or tremendous force was applied to the ship it was attached to. And if somebody had launched it — why were there no oars on board?

Everyone hoped for the best, but all hopes for a harmless explanation for this find were dashed by the next report, which came in soon afterward from the oil tanker Tejon:

“Numerous logs floating over large area,” the Tejon’s radio officer reported. “Also ship’s deck house and other wreckage. Position about 30 miles southwest of Cape Blanco, Oregon.”

Looking for survivors

An intensive search for survivors ensued, spearheaded by a Coast Guard seagoing tug, the Cahokia, as well as a number of aircraft. They soon found the debris field, and two of the ship’s lifeboats were adrift in it — again, completely empty: no people, no food or water supplies, no oars.

After looking them over, the Cahokia sank the two lifeboats with its deck gun (a standard practice, as they were considered to be hazards to navigation), along with the deck house.

No further clues were found, and no bodies were ever recovered.

So, what happened?

Looking for answers

Theories started flying around almost immediately. Perhaps, some suggested, there had been an at-sea collision. But no other ships had reported such an incident, and no other ships were missing.

Perhaps the ship hit an uncharted rock, others posited. But the debris field was found so far off shore as to make this very unlikely.

There are also what author Grover refers to as the “the X-theories” — the highly unlikely ones. One such theory might be a sudden, very small, very intense storm of a type similar to the famous Columbus Day Storm that pounded the Willamette Valley in 1962, or the one that sank much of Astoria's Columbia River salmon fishing fleet in a one-hour burst of mayhem in 1880.

Another possible-but-unlikely theory was a sudden burst of seismic activity on the seabed under the ship, of the sort witnessed by two schooners off the coast of California in 1895, which caused a violent explosion of water above it. Depending on the depth of the water, it’s possible that such a “seaquake” could have delivered shock waves powerful enough to break the old, tender ship apart.

But none of these explanations account for the fact that no bodies were ever recovered — nor for the fact that at least two of the ship’s complement of three lifeboats were somehow launched, but stripped of their oars and provisions.

A boiler explosion?

There is one possibility that makes sense, and there’s actually some evidence to support it — scant evidence, but evidence nonetheless. It’s a boiler explosion.

Boiler explosions, in 1930, were about as common as chicken lips. During the pre-Civil-War heyday of river steamboats and railroad locomotives, back when these powerful and dangerous appliances were assembled and operated in ways that substituted competitive recklessness for engineering expertise, boiler explosions were a big enough problem that the government formed the Steamboat Inspection Service in 1852 to deal with them. The new agency did a yeoman's job; by 1887, when the South Coast was built, boilers just didn’t explode any more. And the one on the South Coast had been working just fine for three decades.

But the ship was grossly underpowered — its engine put out just 190 horsepower. That’s the same amount produced by the engine of a new Chevrolet Malibu, but instead of a one-and-a-half-ton automobile, it was muscling around a 301-ton freighter. This engine had been running at full throttle, day in and day out, since it was first installed in the ship. Metal fatigue is a real possibility under such conditions, and the ship was fully laden when it blew, so the power plant would have been working hard.

Furthermore, a group of Gold Beach residents reported seeing a blue flash on the horizon, followed by the sound of a distant explosion, on the night the ship vanished.

This could explain a number of things. Photos of the South Coast show two lifeboats on davit cranes atop the aft end of the deckhouse. The boiler was situated beneath the forward end. Had it exploded and taken the deckhouse off the ship, it’s entirely possible that those crane arms might have been broken off, releasing the boats. The residents saw the flash at night, or at least after sundown, so most of the crew would have been inside the deckhouse at the time — sitting ducks. Many if not all of them would have been severely mangled by the blast, which means there would have been plenty of blood in the water to attract sharks — which could explain the fact that no bodies washed ashore.

Such a blast also would have removed the upper works — decks, deckload, masts, stuff that would float — from the waterlogged timbers of the hull, which would not.

Well — it’s a theory. But to prove or disprove it, a person would have to look at the evidence … and the evidence was all shelled and sunk by the Cahokia’s deck gunner.

So we’ll never really know.

(Sources: Grover, David H. The Unforgiving Coast: Maritime Disasters of the Pacific Northwest. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2002; Newell, Gordon & al. Pacific Lumber Ships. Seattle: Superior, 1960; www.deafwhale.com/maryceleste)