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Oregon’s deadliest shipwreck was on this day 108 years ago

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California State Library
The steam-powered schooner Francis H. Leggett docked awaiting cargo. Circa 1905.

On Sept. 18, 1914, at least 60 perished in a sudden storm

If you’ve spent time on the Oregon Coast, you know that you can never really be sure of the weather. Sunny skies can suddenly turn stormy. A coastline of glassy, calm water can turn into white, choppy waves. That’s exactly what happened one September day in 1914 – resulting in the deadliest maritime disaster in Oregon’s recorded history.

For 11 years, the steam-powered schooner, Francis H. Leggett, hauled wheat, lumber and passengers up and down the West Coast.

Its final run began in Portland. From there, the Leggett headed north for Grays Harbor, Washington, where it picked up about 37 passengers and a load of lumber and railroad ties. Reportedly, the steamer was overloaded and sat heavy in the water.

The following morning, Sept. 18, 1914, began with fair weather as the Leggett set out for San Francisco. Just two days before, the U.S. Weather Bureau issued the season’s first storm warning off the Oregon Coast but canceled it when the storm appeared to die down.

But by afternoon, the skies turned dark. As the Leggett made its way south past the Columbia River, gales reportedly reached 60 miles per hour. Giant swells churned the ocean, and the vessel began to take on water.

The crew and passengers worked to pump water from the flooding ship.

The seas swept off the hatches, and the hold began to fill.

At about 5 miles southwest of Tillamook Rock, as the ship rolled in the waves, a load of railroad ties shifted, throwing the steamer further off balance.

As passenger James Farrell of Sacramento later told reporters, “The seas swept off the hatches, and the hold began to fill.”

According to Farrell, “When it was seen that there was not hope for the vessel, (the) captain ordered the lifeboats launched.”

Thirty passengers, including two children, piled into the small boat. But as soon as it hit the water, waves swamped the lifeboat, capsizing it.

“A few minutes later, an attempt was made to launch the second lifeboat. It contained four women and their husbands. The boat met the same fate.”

As the steamer began to sink, 25-year-old Captain Charles Maro ordered the ship’s radio operators to send a distress call.

But for passengers and crew, it was already too late.

“I was standing on the bridge when the ship went down,” Farrell told The Oregonian. The ship capsized, throwing everyone into the water. “I grabbed a railroad tie and hung on. I saw men sinking all around me.”

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Historical Oregonian
The Sept. 20, 1914 edition of The Oregonian. To the left is a story with shipwreck survivor James Farrell's interview. A photo of him is also printed bottom center.

A nearby Japanese cruiser patrolling the coastline heard the distress call. The warship didn’t offer assistance. Instead, it relayed the call for help.

By the time two rescue ships arrived at the scene, only wreckage remained. Over the next few weeks, railroad ties and timber would wash up along the Oregon coastline.

Only Farrell and George Pullman of Winnipeg, Canada, survived hours in the icy water by clinging to debris. It’s believed that 35 passengers and all 25 crew members perished, making it the deadliest maritime disaster in Oregon’s history.

Among the lost was Jens Jensen. Only a few weeks before, Jensen had been rescued from an island off the coast of Mexico. He and his family were marooned there for five months after another shipwreck.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting