Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Terse Message Indeed

In the early hours of January 7th, the steamer Rosecrans transmitted the following message: “We are breaking to pieces on the bar – send assistance – ship breaking up fast – can stay at my station no longer - goodbye.” This quick message announced the end for one of the unluckiest ships to ever set sail.

To fully understanding the story, perhaps more detail would be helpful. The steamer Rosecrans was a tanker owned by the Associated Oil Company, loaded with 19,000 barrels of oil, bound for Portland, Oregon. As the ship approached the entrance to the Columbia River with gale force winds driving a blinding sleet, the ship’s second officer made a small but fatal navigational error. The year was 1913; radar and GPS were yet to come, navigation depended solely on charts and the reference points provided by the light from lighthouses. In the stormy darkness, the officer mistook the light of the North Head lighthouse for that of the Lightship Columbia. His error placed the ship on a course that was less than two miles off shore. The standard course for entering the river is to approach no less than five miles from shore and then turn east into the river. His mistaken course directed the ship to steam head long into the south jetty (the massive rock wall in the picture) and as it rode up and over the jetty, the hull was torn to pieces. The ship quickly sunk sending thirty-three crewmen into a watery grave.

So why was the Rosecrans consider to be so unlucky? During its life, the ship was reincarnated several times before finally sinking. Originally launched in Glasgow, Scotland in 1833 as the Methven Castle, she served as a mail carrier until 1898. Later that year, the United States purchased her to serve as a troop transport during the Spanish-American war. Following the war’s end, she was sold as surplus and acquired by the Associated Oil Company who converted her into a tanker, renamed the Rosecrans.

In the early 1900s, while sailing along the California coast, she was driven onto the beach during a fierce storm. Following the grounding, insurance listed her as a total loss; however Associated Oil decided to rebuild the ship. Shortly thereafter while loading oil while tied to a pier, the ship caught fire. Once again the ship was rebuilt and placed back into service. On the night of January 7, 1913, the final bell tolled as the steamer quietly sunk into the grave yard of the Pacific.


Paul said...

wow! That was a bit of bad luck, indeed! Yet, they just kept on putting her back in the water. Leave well enough alone, I say.

Thanks for the tidbit of history!

Earl Moore said...

Steve, what a great bit of maritime history. I've a history buff and I find this type of information fascinating. It must of ripped the bottom out of the old girl when she steamed into that jetty.

Thanks for sharing!

Amy said...

It was sixteen years ago this month that my husband went to his watery grave in the Atlantic when gale force winds and rocky shoals broke up our boat. What a horrible way to die. I think about it a lot this time of the year. He'd had a near sinking mishap a few years prior to that ... when will these sailors learn?

Thanks for sharing this, Steve. Interesting story!