The wreck of the S. Oregon Coast Tacoma, a tale of cowardice and confusion

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The wreck of the S. Oregon Coast Tacoma, a story of cowardice and confusion

Posted 11/21/21 6:26 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

(Winchester Bay, Oregon) – From brand new and avant-garde to the ghost of a wreck off the coast of Oregon in less than a month: such was the fate of the Tacoma steamboat in 1883. Both a tale of heroes and chickens, the last day of the steel ship is marred by the deaths of ten men, highlighted by a screw-down compass, and filled with massive, deadly waves and twists and turns.

The SS Tacoma was brilliant technology at the time, considered the best. But sometime on the evening of January 29, 1883 – about a month after launching in San Francisco – the steamer suddenly struck a shoal a few miles from Winchester Bay on the south coast of Oregon. The impact was powerful, sending sleeping men flying off their bunks and the heaviest objects floating around. The helm wheel almost tore off the pilot’s arm that he spun so madly. After all, it sailed at a rapid speed of 14 knots and was carried away by the force of more than 40,000 tons of coal and ships.

Events quickly began to unfold in two separate areas, like a split-screen TV: one on the ship itself and the other ashore. First, however, the men huddled under the bridge as the ship creaked more and more amid a powerful storm. When morning broke, all but one of the lifeboats were gone and no ships had come to the rescue. Captain George Kortz set off with four men, braving rough seas, eventually descending to Cape Arago over thirty miles away.

First, a trio of rescue tugs were dispatched to attempt a rescue: the Sol Thomas, the Escort, and the Fearless. These efforts failed because of the high seas and protruding rocks, and the ships turned around. In one case, the ropes used to tie the Lyle pistol snapped in the intense waves – the device that was to be used to pull a lifeline towards the Tacoma.

As this little boat made its way back to shore and the device was about to repair, it was here that the lighthouse keeper named Desmond from Cape Gregory (before his name was Arago) returned ashore muttering that he had forgotten something. He had chickened out. He refused to send any more crew there and he didn’t want to get out of the lighthouse. The newspapers of the time had called him “inhuman”.

In the midst of it all, the escort captain also apparently “pushed” himself, or somehow thought he was no longer needed. Much to the horror of onlookers – many of whom had heard of Desmond’s cowardice before – they saw the tug returning to the port of Empire City (later part of Coos Bay).

After a few attempts to navigate the bar in these wild conditions off the Oregon coast, it was Captain Kortz and his men who set out for the rescue. However, they only managed to catch two men off Tacoma before they were also submerged in the sea.

Finally, a group of local volunteers stepped forward on their own and managed to save the remaining men from the ship. However, a series of swells threw the boat skyward and every man on board was submerged in the ocean. Some managed to hang on to the mast of the ship, but each slowly fell and drowned. Those who made pieces of debris were saved.

The first assistant engineer Grant was the ironic hero aboard the Tacoma. He had threatened his panicked men with a gun: let them stand up and disembark in an orderly fashion, thus ensuring their first rescue. He was the tenth man to die in the waves.


Cape Arago Lighthouse in the 1880s

Subsequently, the media got a lot of stories about Desmond’s cowardice, but for a few years little was said about the other ships and their outrage. History and many of those who were there were at times quite venomous about the matter. Immediately afterwards, Desmond claimed he did not want to send his inexperienced crew in these conditions. He was publicly skewered for it, but decades later a man on the scene suggested Desmond should have been jailed.

The Oregonian newspaper at the time claimed that a number of factors were to blame, including their breakneck speed while being so close to shore. At the heart of the problem was a faulty compass – one of two that could have been used. It derailed them. Officials should have checked the other compass, as the newspaper noted that one in 20 compasses had issues with steel ships at the time.

There is nothing left of her. In fact, in a matter of days, the whole of Tacoma was gone under the waves.

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