Background photo is an image of Highway 395 on the shores of Abert Lake, made by F.J.D. John in 2016.
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Of course, when temperatures in the valley get down that low, pipes burst and engine blocks freeze; but there was one cold snap that did more than just that.
THE NIGHT OF Jan. 16, 1943, was a bitter cold one — around 10 degrees. It was cold enough that residents of the Laurelhurst neighborhood in southeast Portland were able to ice-skate on the shallow pond there in the park. The brand-new 523-foot, 16,000-ton steam tanker S.S. Schenectady, which had just rolled out of the Kaiser shipyard in Portland a week or two before, was docked there on the river, building steam to put out to sea.
And then, around 11 p.m., with a crack that one bystander said actually shook the ground, the huge ship suddenly broke in half, folding like a jackknife. The bow and stern plunged down into the water and wedged into the muddy bottom of the lagoon, pushing the middle of the ship high into the air. And the 30 crew members, who had been preparing the big ship to cast off and head out to sea, surely thought they were about to die.
Luckily, the water beneath the dock was shallow — barely deep enough to float the ship, which drew up to 30 feet depending on its load. The crew members were easily able to get up on deck. In the rush to escape, the third mate hurt his ankle, but that was the only injury.
This being war time, suspicions naturally turned to sabotage. But authorities quickly ruled that out. Eventually it was determined that flaws in some of the steel used to build the ship had made it brittle, and the temperature differential between the 10-degree air and the 40-degree river water had been enough to start a crack, which had raced around the ship from one side to the other, splitting the big vessel in half.
Because of where the ship was, the repair was relatively simple. The ship was simply sunk the rest of the way, so that it rested entirely on the bottom of the shallow lagoon; this naturally forced the crack closed as the weight of the ship straightened her out. Then scabs were welded across the crack, and she was refloated, and limped back upriver to the shipyard. A few weeks later, good as new, she was heading out to sea with a load of gasoline to power the American war machine.
We can only imagine how apprehensive the sailors assigned to the Schenectady’s crew must have been as the big, freshly patched ship cleared the Columbia Bar and headed out into the deep blue sea. But they did have one consolation: They were headed for the Pacific Theater … so at least it would be nice and warm.