On January 12, 1936, early on Sunday morning, the freighter SS Iowa, outbound from the Columbia River to the Atlantic coast via San Francisco with 34 crewmen aboard, is driven onto Peacock Spit at Cape Disappointment by hurricane force winds. The radio operator manages to send a distress signal but the fierce storm will prevent rescue vessels from approaching within range of the foundering vessel. Within a short while, enormous waves break up the Iowa's hull and she sinks into the sand with only her pilothouse, masts, and king posts visible above the surf. After the violent storm, U.S. Coast Guard vessels, aircraft, and beach patrols search the area for survivors but find none. Of the 34 mariners aboard, only 10 bodies will eventually be recovered from the flotsam that litters the Long Beach Peninsula for several weeks after the disaster. In terms of lives lost, the foundering of the Iowa on Peacock Spit is the greatest maritime disaster recorded in the twentieth century on the Columbia River Bar.
A Standard Cargo Vessel
The SS Iowa was one of 18 standard "type 1019" steel-hulled cargo ships built between 1919 and 1920 for the U.S. Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation, by Western Pipe and Steel Company of San Francisco, California. Originally called the SS West Cadron, the 5,724-ton vessel was 410.5 feet in length and had a 54-foot beam and a 24-foot draft. The freighter was powered by a triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine that delivered 2,800-shaft horsepower to her single screw (propeller). Her cruising speed was 10.5 knots (12 m.p.h.).
In March 1928, the newly established States Steamship Company, headquartered in San Francisco, purchased 11 of the "type 1019" cargo ships, including the West Cadron, from the U.S. Shipping Board for operation on transpacific routes from West Coast ports to the Orient. In 1935, the ship, now called the Iowa, was relegated to intercoastal trade, hauling lumber and general cargo from West Coast ports to New York and Philadelphia.
Captain Yate's Decision
At 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, January 11, 1936, the freighter SS Iowa, under the command of Captain Edgar L. Yates (1868-1936), 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.
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 m.p.h.) 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.
Battling the Storm and Losing
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 loosing 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.
The Attempted Rescue
Shortly after receiving the SOS from the Iowa, the 165-foot U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Onondaga (WPG-79), commanded by Captain Roderick Stanley Patch (1890-1976), got under way from Astoria to assist the stranded vessel. While crossing the Columbia River Bar, giant waves caused considerable damage to the Onondaga's upper works and two of her lifeboat stations. Despite the peril, the cutter proceeded with the mission.
Meanwhile, Charles Hubbard, assistant meteorologist at the North Head Light Station, two miles north of Cape Disappointment, received a transmission from Coast Guard Station Astoria, to watch for the Iowa, thought to be adrift somewhere near Peacock Spit. At about 4:30 a.m., Berry Bray, assistant lighthouse keeper, sighted the freighter drifting helplessly over the treacherous sandbar, approximately three miles from shore. He immediately notified Andros G. Siniluoto, head lighthouse keeper, and Nino Sunseri, meteorologist, and together they watched through telescopes as the breakers continued to drive the ship further onto the shoal.
When the Iowa failed to respond to radio calls, Astoria requested Sunseri to attempt to contact the vessel using a shuttered signal lamp. After sending the Iowa repeated queries in international code, he spied a dim light on top of the pilothouse. At that moment, however, a heavy rain squall completely obliterated the ship from view. Eventually, the squall subsided and it began getting light. Sunseri then ran a line of signal flags up the lighthouse flagpole and the Iowa immediately responded in kind. But the wind was so fierce that neither he nor his coworkers were able to read the message.
At daybreak, the Iowa could be seen clearly from North Head through the lighthouse telescopes. Although the storm had moderated 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. The only movement observed was a sailor emerging from the pilothouse and making his way toward the foremast. A wave breaking over the ship quickly swept him into the ocean. Before long, the Iowa was imbedded in the sand with only her pilothouse, masts, and king posts visible above the surf.
Drowned Seamen and Wrecked Cargo
During the violent storm, it took hours for the Onondaga to get steam up and cross the Columbia River Bar into open ocean. The cutter finally arrived at the outer reaches of Peacock Spit at about noon, but was only able to get within 1,500 yards of the Iowa. There was no sign of life aboard the wrecked vessel and high wind and waves made it impossible for the crew to launch her undamaged lifeboats. The Onondaga dropped anchor and soon was joined by three motorized surf boats, two from the lifesaving station at Point Adams in Oregon and one from Cape Disappointment in Washington. The surf boats recovered two floating bodies, cruised around the Iowa long enough to determine there were no survivors, and then returned to station. After concluding nothing more could be accomplished at the wreck site, the cutter Onondaga weighed anchor and returned to Astoria. The bodies were taken to Hughes Mortuary at Astoria for identification by Clatsop County Coroner Hollis Ransom.
During the afternoon and throughout the night, Coast Guardsmen and some 250 volunteers from the Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Fort Canby 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.
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.
For weeks following the disaster, winter gales continued to roll in from the Pacific Ocean, gradually reducing the Iowa to rubble. During breaks in the weather, the Coast Guard sent out Douglas RD "Dolphin" amphibian aircraft, from Port Angeles, to fly over the wreckage and along the Long Beach Peninsula looking for bodies, but several days of reconnaissance produced nothing. The Iowa's forward section remained embedded in the sand on Peacock Spit, while the strong current dragged vestiges of the aft section some 125 yards north. The Coast Guard intended to send divers to explore the forward section for victims, but huge breakers made the task suicidal. Any such mission was suspended until calmer weather prevailed. Meanwhile the forward section broke up, leaving nothing to investigate.
In late January 1936, two bodies, identified as Iowa crewmen George Marr and Homer T. Mercereau, washed up on the Long Beach Peninsula near Oysterville. And in mid-March 1936, two more bodies from the freighter were found on the peninsula, one near Klipsan Beach, identified as John P. Noel, and the other, unidentifiable, near Seaview. Of the 10 bodies recovered, nine were positively identified through fingerprints and/or personal possessions. The remains of the unidentified sailor were buried in Astoria’s Greenwood Cemetery at the expense of States Steamship Company.
Investigation and Litigation
On Thursday, January 31, 1936, the first inquiry into the causes of the Iowa disaster commenced in the U.S. Courthouse at Portland, Oregon, conducted by Joseph B. Weaver, Director of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, Washington D.C., assisted by Captain Walter Fisher, Supervisory Inspector, U.S. Marine Inspection Service, San Francisco, and Captains Frank X. Edthofer and John H. Nolan, Inspectors of Hulls and Boilers at Portland. That investigation concluded on February 6 with the final report to the Department of Commerce dated March 18, 1936. Since the vessel had been totally destroyed and there were no survivors to reconstruct the accident, the inspectors relied on expert testimony from 11 witnesses to provide relevant information. These included the captain of the cutter Onondaga, officers from the lightship Columbia, river and bar pilots, and officials from States Line and Association of Marine Insurance Underwriters.
The board of inquiry essentially exonerated Captain Edgar L. Yates from responsibility for the mishap. "It is reasonable to assume that Captain Yates, with all his years of experience was not unskillful, negligent or careless," the report stated. "It was impossible to foresee the rapid and intense changes that took place in such a short space of time, and after reaching a point when to turn back was impossible, control of the vessel was beyond human hand or the seamanship of man" ("Captain of Iowa Cleared of Blame"). The report concluded with several recommendations to make crossing the Columbia River Bar safer.
The second inquiry, which began on Friday, May 21, 1937, was based on multiple tort claims filed against the States Steamship Company in U.S. District Court, Portland, Oregon. In addition to the seamen who had lost their lives, the case included several companies that had suffered the loss of cargo. District Court Judge James Alger Fee appointed Portland attorney Robert F. Maguire as special commissioner to conduct the hearing. The litigation took most of a month to complete.
Attorneys argued which of the claims should be taken up first, those of the cargo owners or those of the victims' families. Attorneys for the plaintiffs asserted that the Iowa wasn’t seaworthy and the States Steamship Company had been negligent, and therefore liable for unlimited damages. States Line records, however, showed that the U.S. Marine Inspection Service had inspected and certified the ship's boilers and hull on August 30, 1935. She was inspected again on December 23, 1935, and found to be in good condition. Attorneys for the defense maintained the wreck of the Iowa was not caused directly by States Line’s negligence; therefore the company should be absolved of all liability.
In his report to Judge Fee, submitted in May 1938, Commissioner Maguire found that the disaster was caused by unusually violent weather conditions rather than the vessel's lack of seaworthiness. Captain Yates, however, had been guilty of negligence in putting the Iowa out to sea in such a terrible storm. Although the States Line was exonerated of negligence in connection with the wreck, Maguire determined that the company had limited liability under maritime law. He recommended that States Steamship Company pay $10,624 in claims for loss of cargo and $340,000 ($10,000 per victim) damages for loss of life. On Wednesday, August 11, 1940, Judge Fee affirmed Commissioner Maguire’s finding and recommendations and the case was officially closed. In his final comment, Judge Fee remarked: "In light of all the circumstances, the captain's recklessness was the sole cause of the disaster. He misjudged and failed. He expiated fault by going down with his ship, according to the traditions of the sea" (“Captain Held Wreck Cause").
In terms of fatalities, the foundering of the SS Iowa was the greatest maritime disaster recorded on the Columbia River Bar in the twentieth century. Previously, on February 1, 1852, the side-wheeler SS General Warren had foundered on the bar and in that disaster, 42 people drowned.
Lost at Sea
Johannes Aben, seaman
Thomas E. Barrett, oiler
Hubert Browne, messman
Frank Caldwell, radio operator
Valentine Cloherty, first assistant engineer
Edward Cooper, steward
Otto Doehring, seaman
Theodore J. Frison, second assistant engineer
Donald Graham, third mate
James Houston, second cook
Donald Kidd, seaman
Alfred G. Krieger, first mate
Allan E. McCaughan, messman
Donald McLeod, seaman
Edward Mislok, ordinary seaman
Milton A. K .Olsen, ordinary seaman
Elven Severine, deck engineer
Walter Spencer, ordinary seaman
Charles Steinmetz, fireman
William Tardy, messman
James W. Welsh, fireman
Wilbur W. Welter, seaman
Fred W. Whiteside, second mate
Edward Wolfsehr, oiler
Edgar L. Yates (1868-1936), captain/master
Karl George Bendixen, chief engineer (recovered January 12, 1936)
Frank H. Hlucik, chief cook (recovered January 12, 1936)
James McHenry, oiler (recovered January 12, 1936)
George Marr, wiper (recovered January 17, 1936)
Homer Theodore Mercereau, fireman (recovered January 25, 1936)
August O. Meyer, boatswain (recovered January 12, 1936)
Phillip John Noel, seaman (recovered March 17, 1936)
Charles Ogan, third assistant engineer (recovered January 12, 1936)
Marion J. Perich, carpenter (recovered January 12, 1936)
Unknown crewman (recovered March 14, 1936)