ON THE MORNING OF NOV. 5, 1915, at the back of the entrance to Coos Bay, a big steamship could be seen towering improbably over the beach, stuck fast in the sand close to shore.
This was the Santa Clara, a 233-foot steamer on the Portland-San Francisco run.
The Santa Clara didn’t much look like the scene of a humanitarian disaster, jutting out of the sand nearly plumb and level and nearly high and dry; but appearances were deceiving. Sixteen people died trying to get ashore when she first struck, three days before.
Nor did the wreck scene look like a very likely place for a massive, boozy free-for-all mob rampage … but a little later on that day, after a small army of looters swarmed aboard and found she was carrying a cargo of whiskey, things would be different.
Here’s how the wreck of the Santa Clara — arguably the most tragicomic maritime disaster in Oregon history — went down:
IN THE AFTERNOON of Nov. 2, 1915, the Santa Clara was on her regular run from Portland to San Francisco. She was making her scheduled stop at Coos Bay, where a large cargo of shipments consigned to Marshfield and North Bend merchants would be offloaded along with several dozen of her complement of about 60 passengers.
But as she made the turn into the mouth of the bay, something happened to the steering gear. Captain August Lofstedt had called for a 55-degree turn, but the best the ship could do was 15. The ship was now headed straight for South Spit.
Lofstedt called for full power astern, hoping to pull the ship back in time.
He was too late. The ship left the channel and struck something hard, evidently an underwater basalt reef; then the heavy seas lifted her over the obstacle and she was wallowing in deeper waters for the moment, just inside the mouth of the bay but still in unprotected waters.
Lofstedt called for the power to be reversed: All ahead full. Whatever they’d hit was letting a lot of water into the hull, and it was crystal clear to him that the ship was doomed. He wanted her as close to the beach as he could get her, so the passengers could be saved.
The big steamer churned up to the beach and shuddered to a stop, still outside the line of breakers. The seas were high and rough — the waves started pounding her into the sand. Things started cracking and breaking below.
Lofstedt then, in the pressure of the moment, made what was almost certainly the worst mistake of his life: He gave an order to abandon ship.
What followed was a nearly unmitigated disaster. The first lifeboat pulled straight for the beach, hit a rock, and was somersaulted over by the next breaker. Men, women and children struggled for life’s breath in the cold, roiling water. Some of them made it to shore. Some of them didn’t.
The other lifeboats made it through the surf and onto shore, all except for the last one — the one into which Lofstedt had stepped after seeing everyone off the ship. This lifeboat flipped over almost immediately after launch. Lofstedt and the others struggled around to the lee side of the wreck and managed to climb back aboard the hulk.
And there they spent a more comfortable night than the survivors on shore did. The spot where the boats landed was not far from Marshfield (as the town of Coos Bay was then named), but it was very remote, and the road to town was long, muddy, and awful. Rain poured down all night long, and the only shelter available was a fishing-club cabin with a tiny, inadequate woodstove and a single kerosene lantern for light. Some 45 survivors packed into it. They brought the bodies of the dead and the unconscious and tried to revive them, mostly unsuccessfully. Those close to the outer walls shivered in the damp cold.
The next day was almost as bad. The cabin in which the survivors had taken shelter was only accessible by a long, slippery walking trail that led to a long, slippery, winding dirt road — 18 miles long — to Marshfield. And after a night of heavy November rains, the road was a bog. At least 20 automobiles got stuck on it trying to reach the scene.
Meanwhile, the pounding breakers were driving the stranded ship higher and higher on the shore. By the time they’d finished their work, the wreck was so high up on the beach that it was possible to wade ashore at low tide. Ironically, if the passengers and crew had stayed aboard to ride it out, it’s almost certain that they would have all been fine. They might not even have had to get their feet wet walking ashore.
A DAY WENT BY. Then word started getting around that the Marshfield merchants, who had initially thought their shipments were covered by the steamship’s insurance policy, were probably completely out of luck. Naturally, their thoughts quickly turned to wondering if they would be able to salvage any of it from the stranded ship.
On the beach, the ship was still being pounded hard by breakers at high tide. Sooner or later it would probably break up — its hull was, after all, made of wood — and everything would be gone. But maybe, they thought, maybe there was still time to salvage some of it.
They reached out to the president of the shipping line with a telegram. He didn’t reply.
Meanwhile, Lofstedt and his officers had moved back onto the ship. There was about $50,000 worth of cargo on board, and if it were fully abandoned, it would be vulnerable to a salvage claim if someone else managed to take possession.
And their fears weren’t unjustified. Word had gotten around that the shipwreck was loaded with valuable cargo, and there was a large encampment of local residents nearby waiting for a chance to get at it — either by waiting for the ship to break up and scavenging goods up off the beach, or — for the more assertive — by simply boarding the wreck and looting it.
Another day went by without word from the shipping company, and the business owners started talking about actually forcing their way aboard ship to salvage their cargo.
Finally, on the third day, just as the business owners had decided to do just that, the owners replied to the telegram:
“Consignees may go aboard Santa Clara and remove any cargo that may be salved,” they wrote. “It will be necessary to thoroughly guard and prevent any pilferage by unauthorized parties. Keep an accurate account of everything removed for future adjustment between the underwriters and the owners. Captain Lofstedt will assist and represent us.”
Trouble was, it was all well and good to urge a “thorough guard” and request an “accurate account.” Making those things happen was going to turn out to be something of a “you and whose army” kind of proposition.
The businessmen and their hired helpers chartered a boat to take them to the scene. They presented their permission credentials to the captain, who stepped aside and let them come aboard.
When the encamped looters saw the businessmen and helpers being allowed aboard the ship, they thought this signaled that the shipping company had finally given up and was abandoning the wreck to its fate. So, naturally enough, they surged forward en masse to grab their share of the loot.
There was probably a moment at which the captain and crew could have discouraged them with a couple of careful rifle shots, but the attack seems to have caught them entirely flat-footed.
Soon the ship was full of men, all strangers to the ship’s officers, grabbing boxes and hustling them to the rails and flinging them into the sea. Other men and boys were fishing the boxes out and hustling them up on the beach, making little piles of booty watched over by women and children.
And then … someone found the whiskey.
Lots of whiskey. Cases and cases of bonded liquor, no doubt consigned for some unfortunate local merchant. And after that, there was no shutting the party down.
“The merchants saved little of their goods and were soon forced out of the running by the pirates,” the Coos Bay Times reported in the next day’s edition. “All last night the looting went on in one mad orgy. Case after case of whiskey was broached and the beach was covered with swaying men.”
“At one o’clock it is reported there was a regular riot on the sands,” the article continues (under an eye-catching sub-headline reading “HAVE DRUNKEN RIOT”); “and a hurry call was sent for the Coast Guard in the hope that they might be able to still things.”
One might think this was a situation that would call for a response from law enforcement. The problem was, there was no law enforcement agency willing to get involved. The hoped-for Coast Guard intervention didn’t happen. The sheriff claimed his jurisdiction ended at the high-tide line. Someone sent a plea for help to the U.S. Marshals Service in Portland, and the marshals claimed they didn’t have jurisdiction either, and referred the increasingly frantic merchants to the state government. The Oregon State Police did not yet exist, so there was no help coming from that quarter either.
So, unmolested by any legitimate authority, the pirates kept up their frenzy of plunder and pillage all the next day, and the next.
As word got around, more locals came to the scene to join in the fun.
“At low tide, over on the rocks could be seen any amount of little piles of stuff with a woman or child standing guard,” local resident C.F. McGeorge told reporters. “The husband or relatives would come running up with something more to add to the heap and then dash back to the wreck for more.”
By the third day of the spree, the looters had their pillaging methods down to an applied science: “In getting the stuff off yesterday, the pirates were using ropes,” the Times reporter wrote. “One would stand on the beach with one end of the rope and the partner aboard would tie it to a package and heave it overboard. The one on the beach would pull it in. About 200 such teams and lines were working.”
Things in the hold were jumbled and everything was covered with seawater and fuel oil, and by the fourth day of the looting spree the pickings were getting slim. So one of the looters set a charge of dynamite, hoping to blow a hole in the hull through which more goodies might be extracted.
This did not work — the dynamite didn’t go off — so instead, the next day, someone just lit the ship on fire, and it spent the next couple days belching flames and smoke at the sky while the pirates lurked in the woods nearby, waiting for it to cool down enough to resume operations. It burned all the way down to the high-tide waterline.
Meanwhile, legitimate salvage operators sent by the ship’s owners to consider buying parts of it shook their heads in disbelief and left to tell the ship’s owners “no, thank you.”
WHEN THE FIRE had finally burned itself out, the pirates found to their dismay and consternation that, rather than burning off the top of the ship to reveal the loot beneath, they’d simply caused all the heavy spars and timbers to collapse down on top of the hull, covering the cargo holds with an impenetrable jumble of charred wood.
Almost none of the cargo was accessible now — certainly nothing of any value. Plus, by now all the whiskey had been carried off or guzzled on scene.
And so, the biggest and most outrageous larceny-fueled drunken beach party in the history of Oregon, if not of the entire West Coast, faded quietly out as the erstwhile pirates drifted home to nurse hangovers and arrange their water-damaged booty around their hearths to dry.
FOR A FEW DAYS AFTERWARD, looters could be seen openly swapping their booty from the backs of wagons and automobiles. One who’d come away with a case of Shinola shoe polish might trade a couple cans with another who had a case of ammonia cleaner or ketchup.
As for the business owners, they were simply out of luck. The riot effectively absolved the shipping line of any responsibility for the cargo — or so their attorneys argued; and the merchants decided it wasn’t worth wasting their time litigating, so they gave it up and took the loss.
It wasn’t just the money, though, for them. Remember, these were the leading citizens of Marshfield and North Bend, and their community image was taking a beating in the regional and national press. The story of the army of hundreds of local looters descending on the wreck of the Santa Clara like vultures on a carcass had been interesting enough to catch every newspaper editor’s eye, and the story had gotten national press. The businessmen were not taking any chances on their town acquiring a reputation for the kind of drunken, larcenous lawlessness that they’d seen on the beach a few weeks earlier.
So they absorbed their losses stoically, and when offered the opportunity to prosecute a particularly egregious looter (he had stolen several wagon loads of their goods out of a neighbor’s barn, where they had staged it for transport back to town) they said no.
The great Coos Bay looting party, they said, had been in the newspapers enough. Now it was time to get busy pretending it had never happened.
As for Captain Lofstedt, he had plenty of reason to wish it had never happened as well. In the subsequent hearing, his master’s license was revoked. The board ruled that he had put the ship to sea despite knowing the steering engines were too small to force the rudder to turn if something went wrong in the gears. As a justification, this makes little sense; then, as now, it seemed more likely the penalty was really for ordering lifeboats launched and rowed through the heavy breakers when the ship was already safely beached.
(Sources: Archives of the Coos Bay Times and Portland Daily Journal, 03 Nov – 03 Dec 1915; historicbeaverton.org)
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. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.