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The Wreck of the Glenneslin

October 1, 1913

Not all of the mystery below the steep walls of Mt. Neah-Kah-Nie occurred in the days before the coming of the white man. The debated loss of the British full-rigged ship Glenesslin in 1913 culminated in a complex court of inquiry and investigation that commanded the attention of shipowners and insurance companies the world over. On the first day of October, 1913, the Glenesslin bound for Portland, 176 days out of Santos, was sighted sailing unusually close to the Nehalem shores. It was a beautiful fall day, the ocean lay calm, and the sky was flecked with light clouds. Visibility was almost perfect and the gentle breeze should have been the delight of any deep water man. Suddenly and for no understandable reason the vessel pointed its bow directly for the devilish waters about the base of Neah-Kah-Nie, five miles north of the Nehalem River. Those who observed the strange antics of the ship thought they were seeing an apparition. But this was no Flying Dutchman; it was a staunch iron ship with a crew of live men. All sails were set and she was coining in fast. At precisely 2:30 p.m. an underwater ledge of rock, ripped a hole in her bottom plates and the ship crashed head on against the precipitous base of the 1600-foot Mountain.

Cresting breakers nipped at her stern with terrific force. With only a ballast of cement to keep her steady, she worked unceremoniously on the jagged teeth beneath her.

Captain Owen Williams, master of the stricken ship, Was aware of his hazardous position. Little time was lost in shooting a line to the rocks, where willing shoreside dwellers had arrived to make it fast. All 21 crewmen reached the rocks safely. Those aiding in the rescue had plenty of questions, but Captain Williams remained silent as did the other officers. There was no mistaking the odor of liquor on many of the survivors. Some were actually said to have been drunk.

Even as some light gear and personal effects were removed, the ship, on a starboard list with all canvas set, gave indication of breaking up.

While photographers and painters captured her death struggles, the groundwork for legal procedure got under way.

Rocks having penetrated the hull, no hope existed of refloating the vessel. Lloyd's Insurance surveyor rushed down from Portland and found the tide ebbing and flowing through the bilge, and the sternpost started. He advised the immediate sale of the wreck. On October 7, A. Bremmer and John Caavinen of Astoria paid $560 for it, but a few days later gladly disposed of it to a Nehalem party for $100. The difficulty of getting anything of value to shore made it extremely problematical that the wreck was even worth the latter price.

A Court of Inquiry consisting of the British Consul; Captain Davidson of the British ship Lord Templeton, and Captain Dalton of the British steamer British Knight, met on October 11. After examining the officers and the crew of the wrecked ship, they revoked the master's certificate for three months and the second mate John Colefield's papers for six months. First mate F. W. Harwarth got off with a reprimand. The officers were also held responsible for the drunken behavior of their crew at the time of the stranding.

Because the wreck occurred in comparatively clear weather, Captain Williams was charged with being "negligent in his duty." The same charge was leveled against the second mate who was on watch when the ship struck the rocks. He had permitted the vessel to get too close inshore before calling the master. The reprimand was given the first mate because he failed to act immediately on being notified of the threatened danger. The charges were serious ones in the light of the obvious facts, and the scars were never erased from the records of the accused.

Navigators who knew the Oregon Coast at the point where the Glenesslin came to grief explained that a windless pocket existed inside Cape Falcon. Once a sailing vessel was in this bight, it became a virtual impossibility to bring it about.

The Liverpool-built Glenesslin became the primary target of crashing breakers which swept the length of her. Though she was quickly destroyed, the legal entangletnent involving her loss was by no means rapid. Pages of testimony went on record and the insurance companies refused to pay claims. The cry sounded that the wrecking of the vessel was part of a nefarious scheme to collect her insured value in a day when the steamer was crowding the square-rigger off the high seas.

Settlement was reached only after volumes of paper work and exhaustive investigation. The insurance was finally paid, the loss being recorded as due to the inexperienced first and second officers who were only 22 years of age.

In pondering the wreck of the Glenesslin, the reader should understand existing conditions under which the latter-day sailing ships operated. Basil Lubbock, one of the best informed of British maritime writers, explains it thus:

In the last half dozen years before World War I it was heart-breaking work for the masters of British sailing ships and many of them left their old love, the square-rigger, for steam, simply because they could not get competent officers or men. Those who hung on usually had to put up with an old "has been" as a mate, who either drank or was such a poor sailorman that he had either lost his ship in disgraceful circumstances or had never been trusted with one. And for second mate, the windjammer "old man" had to be satisfied with a boy just out of his time. More than three-quarters of the crew, also, were likely to be useless steamboat men or crooks and invalids, who were of no use aloft.

In such conditions sail could not be carried safely, for the skipper was certain to be let down by his watch officers or his crew at the first emergency. The former could only handle the ship in the clumsiest fashion and the latter could not take in sail in any wind. There were, of course, any number of good officers and men afloat, but they preferred the easier conditions and greater opportunities of steam. Thus in her old age we find the Glenesslin sailing without her royal yards and with two boys as mates.

And so the loss of the Glenesslin, one of the most discussed shipwrecks on the Pacific, passed into history, but in the memory of many salts, the ship lived on. In 1901 she had won a trans-ocean sweepstakes race over a field of eight square-riggers by some 17 days. In 1902, the Glenesslin covered 1000 miles in four days running. She also held a record never equaled by any other sailing vessel--Portland, Oregon, to Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 74 days. This exceedingly handsome ship, built in 1885, once the pride of the DeWolf fleet, had left her mark but was stricken from the records by human failings.


Source: Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast by James A. Gibbs

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