Graveyard of the Pacific and SS Iowa

Graveyard of the Pacific and SS Iowa

Not to be missed is the current exhibit at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum entitled, GRAVEYARD OF THE PACIFIC: DANGEROUS CURRENTS-SHIFTING SANDS. The name, “Graveyard of the Pacific” conjures up some sobering images and for good reason. The Columbia Bar portion of the namesake region has notoriously been home to many (more than 2000) shipwrecks. The entire area of the Graveyard of the Pacific stretches from Tillamook Bay on the Oregon Coast northward to Cape Scott Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. The coastal land formations and unpredictable weather conditions have contributed to the many shipwwrecks and the loss of many lives.

The rendering above is of the SS Iowa. On January 12, 1936 this freighter met its demise as it was outbound from the Columbia River to the Atlantic coast via San Francisco with 34 crewmen aboard. It was driven onto Peacock Spit at Cape Disappointment by hurricane force winds.

It was a standard “type 1019” steel-hulled cargo ship built between 1919 and 1920 for the U.S. Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation, by Western Pipe and Steel Company of San Francisco, California. The vessel was 410.5 feet in length and had a 54-foot beam and a 24-foot draft. In 1935, the ship was relegated to the intercoastal trade, hauling lumber and general cargo from West coast ports to New York and Philadelphia.

At 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, January 11, 1936, the freighter SS Iowa, under the command of Captain Edgar Yates, age 68, left the Weyerhaeuser pier at Longview for the 60-mile voyage down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. The vessel’s holds were loaded with hundreds of cases of canned salmon and wooden matches, tons of flour, innumerable bundles of cedar shingles, plus other cargo. Well over two million board feet of lumber were stacked on her main deck. (China Beach Retreat owner and longtime Seaview resident, David Campiche has some personal ties to this lumber…to be explained.)

At about midnight, the Iowa docked at Astoria to put ashore the river pilot, Captain Stewart V. Winslow. Captain Yates held a Columbia River Bar pilot’s license, which entitled him to take the freighter out the river’s estuary into open water, a task he had performed numerous times during his seven years of service with the States Line. Although gale-warning pennants (winds from 39 to 54 mph) had been displayed at Astoria for the past 36 hours, the weather conditions didn’t appear to be that severe. Ships had been entering and leaving the Columbia River without apparent difficulty throughout the day, and Captain Yates believed it was safe to put to sea. Shortly after midnight there were rapid and extreme changes in the weather.

The inaccuracy of weather forecasting, then as now, is due to the chaotic nature of the atmosphere. Today many more factors come into play when forecasting weather than were employed in the 1930s, and we benefit from more accurate predictions in general.

At 1:40 a.m. on Sunday, January 12, 1936 the SS Iowa crossed over the Columbia River Bar and entered the Pacific Ocean, bound for San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, the storm intensified, with rain squalls and hurricane force winds (73 m.p.h. and above) gusting from the southwest. Captain Yates was in a predicament. If he attempted to turn back, the Iowa might founder, so he sailed on into the storm. At 3:12 a.m., the ship made a routine radio report of her position to the U.S. coast Guard Station at Astoria but reported nothing further.

It proved to be a losing battle with the heavy weather. At 3:45 a.m. the Iowa’s radio operator sent a distress call that the ship was unmanageable and adrift near Peacock Spit. The under-powered, single-screw vessel, unable to make headway in the face of the hurricane and strong northerly current, was swept more than two miles off course, onto the outer reaches of Peacock Spit. The Iowa became helplessly adrift in three to four fathoms of water approximately three miles west of Cape Disappointment and 12 miles northwest of Astoria, Oregon.

Nothing could be done in the dark and formidable storm to save the ship and crew. At daybreak, the Iowa could be seen clearly from North Head through the lighthouse telescopes. Although the storm had been reduced somewhat, the freighter was still being raked by massive waves and gale-force winds. All the lifeboats had been swept away, along with most of the vessel’s upper works and all the lumber stacked on deck.The steep swells had been pounding the Iowa against the shoal for hours, gradually breaking her hull in two.

During the afternoon and throughout the night, Coast Guardsmen and some 250 volunteers from the Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Fort Canby (now Cape Disappointment) patrolled every foot of the 28-mile shoreline between McKenzie Head and Leadbetter Point, at the entrance to Willapa Bay, in search of the Iowa’s lost crew. (A body had to be recovered when first washed ashore, since it would likely be carried back out to sea at high tide.) Four bodies, along with the pilothouse and other flotsam, were found on Klipsan Beach, approximately 12 miles north of North Head. They were first taken to a mortuary at Ilwaco and then to Astoria for identification. Of the 10 bodies ultimately recovered, nine were positively identified through fingerprints and/or personal possessions. In terms of fatalaties, the foundering of the SS Iowa and the loss of the 34 crew members was the greatest maritime disaster recorded on the Columbia River Bar in the twentieth century.

Hundreds of beachcombers on Long Beach Peninsula braved the heavy weather to salvage the tons of lumber, sacks of flour, cases of canned salmon and matches, and quantities of assorted other cargo that continued washing ashore in the unrelenting storm. With unrestricted access beach, the scavengers were able to use all manner of conveyances to haul away their booty. Newspapers reported that flotsam from the freighter had drifted onto beaches as far north as the Hoh River, 100 miles from the scene of the disaster. The abundance of lumber and shingles proved to be a bonanza for people living along the coast of the Olympic Peninsula, who usually had to truck in building supplies from distant mills.

The home in which David Campiche grew up in Seaview was largely constructed out of lumber that had been salvaged from what washed up on the shores of the Long Beach Peninsula from the shipwrecked Iowa. David’s parents, Dr. John and Valera Campiche purchased the house from Harry DeMuth and his wife, Madge. Mr. DeMuth had built the house. It is pictured below as it looks today.

Graveyard of the Pacific and SS Iowa

The majority of the information above was reproduced from an article by Daryl C. McClary from the website, Essay 11007. Here is a link to the full article:

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