A hopeful scheme to scrap out the Peter Iredale wreck
January 21, 2021 | View PDF
By Finn J.D. John
In 2012, a big section of a Japanese harbor dock that had drifted across the Pacific Ocean was removed at considerable expense from the beach near Newport.
The state government had gotten itself into something of a lather over the dock — as it also did several years ago with the wreckage of the freighter New Carissa. The government wanted that stuff off the beach immediately, if not sooner, and was willing to go to great lengths and spend lots of money to get it done.
That hasn’t always been Oregon’s official attitude, though. There was a time when Oregon state and local governments took the opposite approach — as happened in a somewhat comical squabble in 1960 over salvage rights to the wreckage of the Peter Iredale.
History’s most uneventful shipwreck
On a foggy late-October morning in 1906, a 287-foot steel-hulled four-masted barque called the Peter Iredale was running before the usual southwest wind, making for the mouth of the Columbia River, when a sudden squall roared out of the northwest, driving the ship straight up onto the beach on Clatsop Spit.
What followed was, as author Don Marshall describes it, “the most singularly unexciting shipwreck scenario in maritime history.” The crew members were all uneventfully evacuated with a breeches buoy (essentially a zipline), but had they waited a few hours until low tide, they could have all walked ashore.
Instant tourist attraction
Of course, a 2,000-ton sailing ship parked on the beach is something you don’t see every day, so there was a good bit of excitement on shore. Local schoolchildren were released early for the day so they could go check it out. A local railroad operator started making plans for a special excursion train. And photographers, both professional and amateur, started making images of the Peter Iredale — which has been called, with some justification, the most photographed shipwreck in the world.
It’s also quite possibly the most long-lasting shipwreck in the world. In part, that’s because of geology. After the ship grounded, of course, it was stuck firmly on the beach, but beaches change. Sometimes the wind and currents wear them away, and other times they grow.
In the case of Clatsop Spit, the beach was growing. Over the years, more and more sand accumulated around the wreck, until it was high and dry most of the time.
This made it more popular than ever. Tourists posed on its decks and explored its depths. As time and weather and salt spray eroded away its hull, a ladder-like structure of rusty steel remained for children to climb and play on.
The Peter Iredale quickly became counted among the state’s great treasures — a real, picturesque shipwreck that you could walk around and photograph and imagine as a setting for maritime adventures and ghost stories.
The salvage scheme
The growth of the beach sands changed other things as well, though. A ship stuck fast on a beach in six feet of water with West Coast surf breaking around it is a hopeless proposition for scrap salvage, but a ship stuck on a dry beach is a two-week easy-money job. Couple that with the fact that unsalvageable wrecks were frequently sold to suckers for small amounts of money in the aftermath of incidents like this, and you have a recipe for — well, for what happened next.
On June 2, 1960, a Clackamas County man named Cliff Hendricks notified the Oregon Highway Department (which was in charge of beaches at the time) that he was the owner of the wreck, having inherited it from his father, and that he intended to start salvage operations immediately.
Clatsop County dons war paint
Anyone who remembers the state government’s angry determination to get every last vestige of the New Carissa off the Waldport and Coos Bay beaches will likely find the state’s response to Hendricks’s letter amusing. It started with a Clatsop County judge, who — after threatening to throw Hendricks in jail if he tried anything of the kind — alerted the city of Warrenton; the growth of Clatsop Spit in the intervening half-century had, the city claimed, put the wreck inside its city limits.
Local newspapers picked up the story, and the public got very excited. Astoria newspaper editor Fred Andrus settled everyone down by spending an afternoon at the county courthouse examining all the records for 1908, the year Hendricks said his father bought the wreck for $25. There was no trace.
But then, after everyone had settled down and breathed a sigh of relief, a county records clerk found the record. It had sold in 1917, not 1908.
Things started heating up. An offer came in from the “Oregon Coast Ad Club,” which wanted to buy the wreck and make it part of Lincoln County’s “Twenty Miracle Miles” tourism project. Hendricks’s attorney suggested his client might be inclined to donate it to Clackamas County, where it could be arranged in the parking lot in front of the courthouse in Oregon City. The people of Clatsop County, of course, viewed all these schemes as a form of piracy.
The tension mounts …
Various governments were taking hard lines, as well. The state parks department cited the potential for harm to state-owned property around the wreck. The city of Warrenton asserted its jurisdiction (again) and told Hendricks to get lost. Editor Andrus pointed out that if Hendricks did in fact own the ship, he owed five decades’ worth of property taxes on it. Attorneys for the highway department started looking into abandoned-property laws.
By June 5, the wreck was being watched 24 hours a day by guards with machine guns.
But just as everything seemed to be building to some sort of horrible climax, the Clatsop County records clerk — the one who found Hendricks’s record of purchase — found something else. It seemed the elder Hendricks had, 72 hours after buying the Peter Iredale, sold the wreck for $325 — an annualized return of 85,166 percent on his $25 initial investment. Hendricks, it now appeared, had no claim on the wreck at all.
Then as now, it was hard to imagine how this could have all been an innocent misunderstanding. Nonetheless, nobody seems to have pursued it, apparently because it was such a relief that Oregon’s only visible and visitable shipwreck was safe.
The Peter Iredale remains Oregon’s only visible shipwreck to this day (excluding, of course, small bits like the boiler of the J. Marhoffer in Boiler Bay). And, given the attitude of the state government during the New Carissa debacle, it doesn’t seem likely that that will change anytime soon.
(Sources: Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; http://www.iredale.de)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected], @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.
Top image: Oregon Historical Society
The wreck of the Peter Iredale as it appeared a few months after its stranding.
Bottom image: Matt Conwell
The wreckage of the Peter Iredale as it appeared in the summer of 2006.