History Column: Cowardice cost sailors their lives

A rescue lifeboat of the type used in the mid-1880s, being used in a practice drill. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

Tales of the heroism of U.S. Lifesaving Service rescue boat crews and their successors in the Coast Guard are so frequent as to be almost unremarkable. After all, theirs is a job that attracts heroic people — people whose fondest fantasies involve risking their own lives to save those of others.

But although that fantasy is an appealing one, it’s not just anyone who can stick to the plan when the risk of death is real and right-now. As the old saying goes, the fire that burns the straw purifies the gold … and, of course, that works in both directions.

One fellow who found out the hard way that his gold burned like straw was the keeper of the Cape Arago Lighthouse, a man identified in the news reports only as Desmond. Mr. Desmond was, one stormy February night in 1883, weighed in the balance and found wanting — with fatal results for the 11 sailors who desperately needed his services.

The whole thing got started during a fairly rough and worsening winter storm when a panting man in dripping oilskins arrived in the Coos Bay office of Chandler B. Watson with the news that the new steamship Tacoma had run ashore near the Umpqua River and was being hammered to pieces by massive seas. The men had taken to the rigging, and desperately needed help.

Watson was an attorney and journalist who had been one of the founders of the Ashland Tidings in 1876, and editor of the Lakeview State Line Herald in 1878; he would later be a key player in the successful effort to get the Oregon Caves designated as a National Monument. Just now, however, in early 1883, he had just been appointed customs collector for the Port of Coos Bay, and also involved (“ex-officio,” as he put it — probably as a board member) with the lifesaving service there at Cape Arago.

Watson sprang into action. At that time, the lifesaving service had only one paid professional at Cape Arago — the keeper. It relied on volunteers to make up its crews.

Making the rounds of the fishermen, Watson collected together a crew of eight doughty volunteers, then consulted with them as to how best to proceed.

High tide would not happen until 4 a.m., and until then a dangerous ebb tide would be pouring over the Coos Bay bar and into the teeth of the massive incoming storm-driven breakers. Nothing could get out of the bay until that ebb stopped. So they had a little time to get advice and make plans. The biggest challenge they faced was, it was going to take everything the lifeboat crew had just to get the boat across the bar and into the open sea. Once they’d done that (assuming it was even possible), they might well be too exhausted to rescue the shipwrecked sailors.

So it was decided that the crew of volunteers would function as a relief crew: they would cross the bar on board the tugboat Escort; Watson would round up a new set of volunteers and, with them and under the command of lighthouse keeper Desmond, row the lifeboat out through the surf at Cape Arago; then they’d rendezvous with the tugboat at sea and the fresh new crew would climb aboard to actually rescue the sailors. They would need the services of the tugboat anyway to tow the rescue boat to the scene of the wreck, 20 miles up the beach.

These arrangements made, Watson and his crew of volunteers set out on foot for the eight-mile journey from Coos Bay to Cape Arago, where they presented themselves to their operational commander, Mr. Desmond.

“By midnight we had the boat on the beach with life-line, cannon to shoot the line, life preservers, etc., all stowed away and ready to push off so soon as the tide should serve,” Watson recalled, writing 45 years later in July 1929. “It was yet four hours before we could expect the tug to heave in sight, which would be about daylight. We could do nothing but wait and think of the imperiled men 20 miles away. The storm was gradually increasing, and the roaring of the surf and the shaking of the island (Chiefs Island, on which the lighthouse stands) was calculated to disturb weak nerves.”

Finally the tugboat hove into view and the order was given to shove off.

Into the maelstrom

“I shall never forget that wild plunge,” wrote Watson — who had never gone out on a rescue before that day. “The seething waters caught us and hurled us with the force of a catapult … out into the roaring surf beyond the island. The water was breaking in 30 fathoms. … Great combers glowing with phosphorescent light seemed miles in length. As a huge breaker rose before us the order to back on our oars was obeyed with alacrity and we’d back away from it until it broke, and then rush forward again into the rush and swirl. Thus for two hours we backed and filled among the breakers.”

They didn’t have much to show for those two hours’ work, but they were slowly making progress when the stout cords that had lashed down the Lyle gun — the cannon used to shoot the lifeline — broke. The cannon now started sliding around in the bilge, threatening to burst out the side of the boat. Two volunteers grabbed it and hung on as the others pulled for the shore of Chiefs Island — which, in two solid hours of toil, they still hadn’t managed to leave behind.

To Watson fell the task of bringing a line ashore when the boat struck the beach. Accordingly, he shipped his oar and prepared himself to jump.

“The moment came just after a great roller had drawn back to sea and the succeeding one was coming in,” he wrote. “I plunged forward into the water waist deep, only to be caught by the incoming roller, which was not less than 10 or 15 feet high. … I was completely submerged but fortunately retained presence of mind enough to hold onto my line.”

With Watson’s help, the crew got the boat up on the beach. Then, while the volunteers set about tying down the Lyle gun, Mr. Desmond muttered something about getting something from the lighthouse station and hustled off across the island toward the lighthouse.

Soon everything was trimmed up and ready for a second attempt, but Desmond had not yet returned. So Watson and another man followed him to the lighthouse to see what was keeping him.

“We found him snugly ensconced behind the stove, and in answer to us he declared that all the money in Christendom would not induce him to go out into that surf again,” Watson wrote. “We begged, argued, entreated, and finally threatened, but all to no purpose.”

Thinking quickly, Watson got two members of the crew to take a smaller boat out to the tug, explain the situation, and ask the tugboat captain to send the relief crew ashore in the tug’s dinghy so that they could help row. Nothing doing, said the Escort’s skipper; an attempted beach landing in 10-foot breakers amid basalt rocks and reefs was more risk than he cared to have his dinghy exposed to.

At a loss, the two men rowed the little boat back ashore, where after a quick consultation the volunteers climbed back into the lifeboat again to have another try at getting off the beach, despite the absence of their captain.

But then, as they prepared to launch, they saw the tugboat turn and steam back across the bar and into the port. Apparently the Escort’s captain thought he was now off the hook and might as well head for home. Or perhaps he was afraid the volunteers, none of them trained surfmen, would try to launch without Desmond — as they were, in fact, preparing to do — and be drowned in the attempt.

In any case, the optics were not good. “It looked like a shocking piece of cowardice all around,” Watson wrote.

Lame excuses

In the subsequent newspaper article, Keeper Desmond claimed his reluctance to go with the crew was down to their being green and untrained. This story may have made him feel better, but it didn’t win back any of the friends his recusal had lost him. That’s especially the case because of how the shipwreck turned out. Eventually the storm subsided enough that a group of local dory fishermen was able to get off the beach and out to the wreck. Just before they did, a mast with 11 sailors clinging to it collapsed into the sea, drowning all of them. Every sailor who was lucky enough to have not climbed up onto that particular mast was safely rescued by the fishermen (although one man died of hypothermia after reaching shore) — so that was good. But it was clear to everyone that if someone had gotten there even just a few hours earlier, none of the men would have died.

“Captain Hill of the tugboat Fearless, returned from the wreck today,” the Portland Oregonian’s Coos Bay correspondent wrote in the Feb. 4 issue. “He thinks that if the lifeboat and the gun for throwing lines had been at the place of the disaster on the day that the volunteer crew went to the station for the boat, all those lost on the ill-fated Tacoma would have been saved.”

Watson thought so too. “Desmond ought to have gone to prison for the balance of his natural life,” he wrote, the anger still palpable in his words four decades later. “But as it was, after several days’ investigation, he was simply relieved of his position.”

(Sources: Watson, C.B. “An Adventure in the Surf,” an article published in the June 1965 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; archives of the Portland Morning Oregonian, February 1883)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers.

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