Heroes and rascals, shipwrecks and lost gold: Strange but true stories and secrets of Oregon's wild past | Offbeat Oregon History The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 While doing some cleaning-up around the Odd Fellows Hall in Scio, a local girl found a tiny coffin with this partial skeleton inside. Whose? We'll probably never know ... (Story No. 204, Oct. 14, 2012) The ever-elusive D.B. Cooper peeks into the page from behind his signature shades. The story of his skyjacking exploit starts with episode 237, from June 2, 2013. Meet Kitty Kat, the wealthiest feline in the state of Oregon and landlord to the City of Tangent. Kitty Kat, until he died at a ripe old age in 1995, owned City Hall. (Story No. 163, Jan. 8, 2012) This crazy-looking speedboat was the invention of Portland wizard Victor Strode. The city commissioned a harbor patrol boat based on his design, but it didn't work out. (Story No. 201, Sept. 23, 2012) The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 This is the roof of the Franz Bread Rest Hut at Pixieland, the Oregon Coast's ill-starred answer to Disneyland, which opened in 1969 and went out of biz in 1974. The Rest Hut consisted of a giant fiberglass loaf of bread sticking out of the top of this giant fiberglass hollow log, the whole thing towering over a log-flume roller coaster ride. It's probably the most campily awesome example of the proud display of crass commercialism that was Pixieland. (Column No. 52 - Dec. 6, 2009)
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Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

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This hunk of pallasite came from the same 1820 meteor strike in Chile that many scientists believe was the source of the 'sample' Dr. John Evans claims he chipped off the Port Orford Meteorite when he found it. Was the meteorite a fraud? Many think so; others think not.

The voice of Bugs Bunny went to high school in Portland

Legendary Hollywood voice man Mel Blanc's teachers weren't too impressed with his voice talents, but Oregon radio listeners and cartoon fans sure were. Here's the story.


This hunk of pallasite came from the same 1820 meteor strike in Chile that many scientists believe was the source of the 'sample' Dr. John Evans claims he chipped off the Port Orford Meteorite when he found it. Was the meteorite a fraud? Many think so; others think not.

port orford meteorite: a hoax? or is it still out there somewhere?

The man who found it was in financial trouble; did he really find an 11-ton, $300-million rock, or did he make it all up so he could stay employed? Here's the story.


This is not a picture of the Sunshine; it's a lumber schooner of a similar type, the Wawona. The Sunshine, on her way home from her maiden voyage to San Francisco, vanished and then reappeared, upside down, 200 miles off course.

Gold was gone when schooner washed ashore ... empty

The fate of the Sunshine's passengers and crew is unknown ... did somebody wreck the ship on purpose?. Here's the story.


One of Conde McCullough's bridges -- the steel one linking Oregon City with Gladstone. he's better known for the Oregon Coast bridges.

Sammy Davis Jr. used to regularly play portland clubs.

Many consider him the coolest member of the Rat Pack. Sammy caught his big break while he was in Portland. Here's the story.


One of Conde McCullough's bridges -- the steel one linking Oregon City with Gladstone. he's better known for the Oregon Coast bridges.

The man behind Oregon's most famous bridges.

Conde McCullough's genius was in getting the most gorgeous bridge to also be the cheapest, over the long term. Here's the story.


The steamer Telephone, fastest boat on the river in the 1880s and possibly the world -- until it burned to the waterline one day.


riverboat captain had to choose: save passengers, or save his boat?

The steamboat Telephone caught fire at the widest spot in the Columbia; the decision must not have been too tough, because Captain U.B. Scott didn't hesitate for a moment. Here's what happened.

A shallow-draft riverboat of the type pioneered by Uriah B. Scott, on the river at Albany around 1900 or so.

Turns out the 'ignoramus from back east' knew what he was doing.

The big steamboat outfits laughed at the crude, ugly riverboat Uriah B. Scott was building ... until he used it to eat their lunch. Here's how.


The gravestone of Ame, who despite having died 10 years after the Civil War, was still considered a slave.

sHE DIED AROUND 1874. SO WHY DOES THE GRAVESTONE SAY SHE WAS A SLAVE?

Ame came over the Oregon Trail from Missouri. But when the North won the Civil War, her status as a slave didn't change. Here's what happened.


Ray V.B. Jackson in a booking photo from the Oregon State Pen, in 1896. Four years after this photo was taken, he was teaching grade school in Silver Lake.

Is this the face of oregon's first serial killer?

Like an "angel of death," ex-con Ray V.B. Jackson just happened to be at the scene of at least five Central Oregon homicides. What are the odds? Here's the story (in two parts).


The four-masted schooner North Bend, stranded on a sandy spit, 'sailed' through two and a half miles of sand and relaunched itself on the other side.

The stranded sailing ship that salvaged and re-launched itself.

The North Bend was the last tall ship ever built on the West Coast. When it ran aground on Peacock Spit, it just kept on sailing through the sand, crossing two miles of sandy beach to reach Baker Bay. It took over a year. Here's the story.


The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra on its 'giant violin' float, after riding it through the town of Burns in the Fourth of July Parade, 1915.

america's first youth orchestra came out of tiny sagebrush town.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic says it was founded in Portland in 1924. Actually, it's older than that -- and much more rural. Here's the story.


Vaudeville's famous Klondike Kate became a Central Oregon legend

central oregon's most fabulous homesteader ever.

Homesteader Kitty "Klondike Kate" Rockwell, retired from the bright lights of Vaudeville, often wore full costume just to weed the garden. Here's the story.


Goal of Oregon whale hunters: Grow fur coats, and put a man on the moon.

helping put a man on the moon, one dead whale at a time?

Whale oil is special stuff, and NASA needed it for the space program. So an Astoria group launched a whaling venture in the early 1960s. Here's the story.


Shipwreck ended Astoria's 1840s bid to become the Nantucket of the West Coast

astoria could have become a mecca of whale hunting ...

... had it not been for the Columbia River Bar, which wrecked the only whaling ship that ever dared try to cross it with a full cargo hold. It was a total loss. Here's the story.


Early Oregon 'holy roller' cult ended in murder, suicide, insanity

THE holy-roller "NAKED LADIES' CULT" IN CORVALLIS and waldport.

It started out as a church seeking perfect holiness and Godliness. It ended in murder, insanity and chaos — and, yes, rumors of naked ladies. Check out the full story (in two parts).


The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

mariner's spooky nightmare came true the next day

In his dream, the first mate of the German barque Mimi saw seaweed covering all but three shipmates. The next day, all but three drowned in one of Oregon's worst-ever salvage disasters. Here's the story.


Florence's famous exploding whale: A highway engineer didn't know how much dynamite to use, so he guessed ... and guessed wrong.

Whale explodes: Details at 11.

The highway department guy didn't know how much dynamite to use, and said so on camera. But he still thinks the operation was a success. Check out the story of Florence's famous exploding whale ...


The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

was this shipwreck insurance fraud or just drunken incompetence?

On a beautiful clear October day, astonished beach-goers watched a big windjammer simply turn and sail straight into the side of a mountain. Why would her crew do such a thing? Here's the story.


.44-caliber Colt Dragoon revolver, designed in 1848.

gold-rush bandits hunted down and killed ... but where was their loot?

No one has ever found it — or if they have, they've been awfully discreet. The Triskett Gang had stolen it hours earlier from the assaying depot in the town of Sailors' Diggins. Here's the story.


US Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat takes on a heavy sea off Cape Disappointment.

tired of seeing mariners die, lighthouse keeper took action.

In 1865, Joel Munson watched 17 sailors drown on the Columbia Bar. But when their lifeboat washed up near his lighthouse, it gave him an idea — an idea that lives on today in the U.S. Coast Guard. Here's the story.


Delake Rod and Gun Club as it appeared in 1960.

mysterious mansion was haunted only by olympic medalist's dream.

OSU Wrestling legend Robin Reed, an Olympic gold medalist, was never pinned once in his entire career. But his plan for the Delake Rod and Gun Club ended in defeat. Here's the story.


U.S. Coast Guard cutter Algonquin.

bootleggers save sailors' lives, but get thrown in jail anyway.

In the early years of Prohibition, a Canadian rumrunner entered U.S. territorial waters to save the lives of nine castaways — and got caught and sent to jail anyway. Here's the story.


Bobbie the Wonder Dog

Bobbie the wonder dog's 2,400-mile odyssey.

Left behind in Illinois, the big collie dog walked home to Silverton, Oregon. It took him six months. Here's Bobbie's story.


A modern reproduction of a classic Concord Stagecoach.

a few legends of buried gold and treasure ...

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This crater marks ground zero in the Roseburg Blast. It's about 60 feet across.

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Part of the historic entry to Portland's Chinatown.

he dressed in rags like a beggar, so no one would know ...

To avoid getting robbed and murdered, Chinese couriers dressed as beggars while carrying thousands of dollars in gold from the fields. This is the story of one of these men, and the woman whose life he saved.


Steamer Admiral Evans, f.k.a. Buckman, which the two would-be pirates tried to hijack

THE dumbest would-be pirates in the history of the universe.

Their plan: Hijack a passenger steamer (that's it, in the thumbnail above), run it aground and sneak off into the bushes with 3 tons of gold. Do I need to mention that it didn't work out? Here's what happened.


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Far-out guru "enlightens" Central Oregon.

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this oregon youth went on to save half a billion lives...guess who?

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oregon's most spectacular shipwreck ever.

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the gallant rescue of portland's floating brothel.

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take off to the province of oregon, eh?

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timberline lodge could have been a glass skyscraper

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pixieland: an edgy, vanished amusement park

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Coast Guard's worst Columbia disaster started as routine rescue

Mammoth seas on the legendary Columbia River Bar, plus the untimely removal of a vital piece of life-saving gear by short-sighted military brass, cost the lives of five Coast Guardsmen that night.

Editor's Note: This column is part 1 of a 2-part series on this incident. To read Part 2, click here.
U.S. Coast Guard 52-foot wooden motor lifeboat. Although very stable, rescue boats of this type were not always able to be successfully rolled in surf.
The Coast Guard only built two 52-foot wooden motor lifeboats. One
was the Triumph, which sank during the 1961 attempt to rescue the
fishing vessel Mermaid. This photograph is of the other one, the
Invincible. (Image: US Coast Guard)

It was the worst disaster in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard in Oregon. Three rescue boats, including two of the legendary “unsinkable” motor lifeboats, went out to rescue someone — and none of them returned. Five “Coasties” died.

And yet it all started as a routine rescue, late in the afternoon on Jan. 12, 1961.

At a little after 4 p.m., a radio call came in to the Cape Disappointment Life Station, on the Washington side of the Columbia River entrance. Two Ilwaco men, brothers Bert and Stanley Bergmann, had lost the rudder on their crab-fishing boat, the 34-foot Mermaid, just when they needed it most — while crossing the bar on their way back in. They’d dropped anchor, but the current was dragging them slowly toward Peacock Spit anyway.

A Coast Guard legend: the indestructible, go-anywhere 36-foot motor lifeboat. The only one of these ever lost at sea on the West Coast was lost on the mission that sank the Triumph - but all the men aboard got safely ashore.
An early version of the Coast Guard’s legendary 36-foot motor
lifeboats. The boat sent out to rescue the Mermaid was very similar,
but lacked the small furled sail this one sports. (Photo: US Coast
Guard)

No problem. Conditions were pretty good for January on the bar: winds in the 35-knot neighborhood, the seas in the 10- to 12-foot range. There was a small-craft advisory in effect, but nothing that would stop anything the Coast Guard had, and the weather service was expecting to cancel the advisory around 5. Speed was critical, though. If the Mermaid hit the outside line of breakers on Peacock Spit, it would be all over.

So the life station immediately sent two boats out to the rescue: a 40-foot utility boat, and one of the Coast Guard’s legendary 36-foot motor lifeboats.

The fact that the 40-footer was sent demonstrates the utter unexpectedness of the disaster that was about to happen. The 40-footers were fast general-purpose boats built for protected waters, not for surf operations and bar rescues. But at this point, the weather was reasonable and the mission looked simple. They’d be back on shore with their grateful rescuees in a couple hours … right?

How the bar works

A Coast Guard legend: the indestructible, go-anywhere 36-foot motor lifeboat. The only one of these ever lost at sea on the West Coast was lost on the mission that sank the Triumph - but all the men aboard got safely ashore.
One of the legendary 36-foot motor lifeboats is on display at the U.S.
Coast Guard station in Newport. (Photo: F.J.D. John)

Before continuing, I have to explain in more detail what it is that can make the Columbia River Bar so deadly. Essentially, it’s three factors: shallow water, swift current and a steady, strong wind that (in winter at least) nearly always blows toward the north side of the river. The shallowness means the big, deep waves that have pulsed all the way across the Pacific Ocean start to get compressed into just a few feet of water, just like they do in surf on the beach. When they do, the current coming out of the river sort of pushes their feet out from under them, creating a sort of a circular swirl with the top moving shoreward and the bottom moving seaward.

On a clear day, this swirling motion isn’t even noticeable in the middle of the channel, especially if the tide is slack or ebbing and the river is at low summertime flow rates. But winter storms off the Columbia regularly generate hurricane-class wind speeds, and whip up waves to match. When the seas get big, and the river flow is high, and the tide is coming in, you get some incredible breakers on the bar, breaking all the way across the channel — up to 70 feet tall with a powerful undertow right in front of them. When a boat or small ship is tackling one of these waves, what can happen is the undertow can grab the boat by the taff rail and pull the stern into the face of the wave while the top of the wave pushes the boat over — what sailors call a “pitchpole,” or end-over-end flipping. The hydraulic pressure this puts on a boat or ship is unbelievable, especially if the water is shallow enough for one end of the vessel to dig into the sandy bottom as it goes over. Ships have been known to actually break in half.

A Coast Guard legend: the indestructible, go-anywhere 36-foot motor lifeboat. The only one of these ever lost at sea on the West Coast was lost on the mission that sank the Triumph - but all the men aboard got safely ashore.
The 36-foot motor lifeboat at the Newport Coast Guard station.
(Photo: F.J.D. John)

As the waves come into the bar on a nice day, they form breakers in the shallows along each side of the channel. As the weather gets heavier, the breakers spread farther into the middle of the channel, so that less of the water in the bar is left unbroken. When the weather gets really nasty, the waves break all the way across the channel, and boats and ships alike have to heave to and wait for it to settle down again. Only the Coast Guard’s motor lifeboats are truly seaworthy in those conditions, and they almost expect to get rolled once or twice.

Then there’s the wind. It’s almost always blowing out of the south-southwest, usually blowing hard. That means if you are trying to cross the bar and lose your propulsion, you’re headed for Peacock Spit.

Which is exactly what had happened, and was happening, to the Mermaid on that day.

First on the scene

The Coast Guard's hot rod of the seas, the 40-foot utility boat. Operators sometimes souped these up, and they were extraordinarily fast - but not able to take on the really rough seas.
This steel-hulled, twin-screw 40-foot utility boat is of the same type
as the one launched to rescue the Mermaid. These boats could do
almost 25 miles per hour on the water. (Photo: US Coast Guard)

The speedy 40-foot utility boat got across the bar and onto the scene first, and towed the Mermaid  far enough offshore to be out of danger from the breakers. Then the rescuers and rescued conferred. The tide had turned and was starting to rough up the bar. So there were two options, they figured: First, they could take the Bergmann brothers aboard the 40-footer, turn the Mermaid loose to drift ashore wherever it wanted, and bring everyone to the Columbia River Lightship, anchored several miles offshore. The other possibility was to tow the Mermaid to the lightship.

At this point, nobody knew how much trouble they were in. The seas were high, but not bad by bar standards. The Bergmann brothers naturally didn’t want to lose their boat. So the decision was made, by default, to tow the boat to the lightship and moor it there until daylight and ebb tide the next day.

An impossible tow

And here we come to a crucial point in the story. Because somewhere up the anonymous chain of command at the U.S. Coast Guard, some time earlier, some nameless functionary had ordered that rescue vessels would no longer carry drogues.

A drogue is a special sea anchor designed to make a vessel track straight in the water and stay pointed upwind. Because the Mermaid had lost its rudder, a drogue was needed to make it tow straight behind the 40-footer rather than yawing out to one side and taking seas on its beam — which, on a night like this was shaping up to be, would probably roll it.

Drawing of the 52-foot wooden motor lifeboat design used in building the Triumph.
An architectural drawing of the 52-foot motor lifeboat design. The
Coast Guard built two of these boats; one was the ill-fated Triumph.
(Image: US Coast Guard)

The Coasties tried trailing crab pots out behind the boat to increase its drag. This worked OK, but slowed the pace of the boats to the point of barely making headway. They would have been all night making their way to the lightship. They decided they needed more power. And weather conditions were, by this time, getting pretty bad.

So they called up the biggest, toughest rescue boat the Coast Guard had at its disposal in 1961: the 52-foot motor lifeboat Triumph, stationed on the Oregon side at Point Adams Lifestation.

The Triumph, with six Coast Guard surfmen aboard, chugged out into the towering seas to lend a hand and take over the tow. Of those six men, five would not come back.

We’ll talk about how that played out in the next column (here's a link to it).

(Sources: Noble, Dennis. Rescued by the Coast Guard. Annapolis: Naval Institute, 2005; Weisensee, Erika. “50th Anniversary: One of Coast Guard’s greatest sea tragedies,” Natural Resource Report, Jan. 10, 2011)