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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Giant skeleton find recalled
old legend of pirate treasure

Neighbors wonder if the eight-foot-tall corpse found by developer at what today is YWCA Camp Westwind was evidence that an old Native American legend of a pirate ship is true; if so, there might actually be booty buried there, some say.

April 29, 2012 — By Finn J.D. John
An aerial view of Camp Westwind, the YWCA youth camp that today occupies the spot where Elmer Calkins found the giant skeleton.
Three Rocks Beach, Camp Westwind, the mouth of the Salmon River and Cascade
Head as they appear today, photographed from an aircraft in the golden light of an
early summer evening. Photo is from www.westwind.org.

On February 20, 1931, a former Lincoln County commissioner named Elmer Calkins looked behind his horse team at the plow he was pulling — and saw human bones strewn out along the furrow behind it.

Calkins was working up a patch of land near the mouth of the Salmon River so that it could be flattened out into a smooth, park-like landscape for the summer camping resort he was building there. The new Roosevelt Highway — Highway 101 — was mostly built, and car-tripping tourists from the Willamette Valley were starting to make beach trips part of their summer plans. Calkins hoped a few of them would come camp at his place so they could play on the nearby beach, a lovely secluded sandy strand beneath Cascade Head in north Lincoln County known as Three Rocks Beach.

The field he was smoothing out was uneven for a reason: It was peppered with shellfish middens, basically miniature landfills used by Native Americans for disposal of clam and mussel shells, fish bones, and the odd worn-out whalebone club or stone knife. It was in one of these that, unexpectedly, human bones had turned up.

Calkins stopped, got a shovel, and dug up the rest of the body. It was, he immediately noticed, enormous. Most accounts say it was around eight feet tall, and that the skull was over two-thirds of an inch thick in its beefiest spot, with unusually big cheekbones and forehead.

A bit more digging turned up a second, more normal-sized skeleton, the skull of which had been pierced by an arrow and bashed in with something like a stone ax.

Did this mean the legend was true?

Calkins and his neighbors at first thought they’d simply stumbled across a Native American burial. But the more they talked about it, the less sense that made. The Native Americans would no sooner have buried a body in a shellfish midden than we would toss one in a landfill today — unless it were the body of a deadly enemy.

Also — there was an old story still being told along the Salmon River estuary, an old Indian tale. According to the story, a “winged canoe” had foundered just inside the mouth of the Salmon, possibly having mistaken it for the Siletz or the Nehalem in the fog. This would have been a fatal error, since it’s sometimes possible to walk across the mouth of the Salmon without getting one’s shirt wet.

The crew, more than 20 men, had rowed ashore with a heavy chest of the type one would fill with pirate loot. This they buried, and then, leaving two of their number behind, set out east over land, never to be heard from again.

The two they left behind, according to the legend, were a gigantic black man and a regular-sized white guy. These two didn’t last long before they made the natives angry enough to kill them.

Now, most of the neighbors thought this story was entirely made up, or perhaps had been “borrowed” from the legend of the buried treasure on Neahkahnie Mountain, just a couple dozen miles up the coast (here's a link to that story). But Calkins thought there might be something in it, because he’d frequently snagged his fishing nets on a wreck a little way inside the mouth of the river. Knowing the legend, he’d been curious enough to investigate it one day, and confirmed it; it was in about 12 feet of water, the ribs sticking up and rotting away.

Calling in professional help

Calkins contacted Oregon historian Dr. John Horner of Oregon State University (then named Oregon Agricultural College) and Dr. F.M. Carter, a physician with an established practice among the remaining coastal Native American tribes in the area. Carter confirmed the pedigree of the legend as having come from the tribes and being very old, and after reassembling the skeletons gave his professional opinion that the large one was of African descent — although how he was able to be sure of this, given the body’s unique and freakish size and shape, is not clear. It’s certainly possible that, mindful of the legend, he was expecting to see Africa in it from the outset.

The presence of gold or buried treasure in any story has an immediate corruptive influence on its truthfulness, and this effect seems to have kicked in on this story very early in the process. According to accounts from the 1950s, Horner took the bones back to OSU and actually wrote a paper on the find. However, the bones later mysteriously disappeared from the university, and there’s no sign of the paper having been published. Moreover, Horner died in 1933, so by the time these accounts were published, he couldn’t exactly be asked about it. The newspapers of the 1930s don’t mention Horner at all — or Carter either, for that matter.

Treasure hunters move in

In any case, the story touched off a wave of trouble for Elmer Calkins, who found himself having to deal with tourists of the wrong sort — tourists who, rather than coming with money and expecting to leave a week later with less, come with no money and hoped to leave a week later as millionaires. Squatters became a problem. One nervy fellow asked permission to set up a fishing camp, and then pitched an enormous tent and started digging for the treasure underneath it; Calkins figured it out when he saw dirt spilling out from beneath one of the walls.

In the 1970s, Calkins’s son, Edward, mounted an expedition to try and retrieve the old “pirate ship” from the bottom of the Salmon, where it had been more or less covered with sand and silt. The younger Calkins claimed he had a special underwater metal detector that only picked up gold and silver and that it had told him, as the Oregonian put it, that there was “booty in the bilge” of the sunken wreck. If anything came of this, the newspapers were silent on it.

The pirate treasure of Camp Westwind

Today, the site Elmer Calkins was plowing up for his tourist camp is known as Camp Westwind. Westwind is a YWCA camp that holds a special place in the hearts of tens of thousands of former campers — few if any of whom know that it is entirely possible, if not particularly likely, that somewhere on its rustic, oceanside grounds there lies a giant box of pirate loot.

Granted, it’s only slightly less likely that the Tooth Fairy lives in a tree house nearby. Still, it’s a fabulous bit of Oregon Coast folklore.

(Sources: Portland Oregonian, “Large skeleton found,” 2-21-1931, “Finding of old skeleton hints at early tragedy,”  4-05-1931, and “Buried treasure sought,” 5-19-1974; Hult, Ruby. Lost Mines and Treasures. Portland: Binford, 1957)