Wednesday, December 01, 2004


Museum director dives in to solve shipwreck puzzle


The Daily Astorian
By Tom Bennet

Wreck found in ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’ wasn’t the one they expectedNever take anything for granted in the Graveyard of the Pacific.

Last summer, James Delgado and a crew of professional divers from the National Geographic television program “Sea Hunter” came to Astoria to film the wreckage of the British sailing ship Isabella, lost inside the mouth of the Columbia in 1830.

Delgado, executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum in British Columbia, Canada, and a leading expert on North American shipwrecks, has been studying the wreck almost since its discovery in 1986, and it figures prominently in a book chronicling his work on famous sunken vessels around the world.

A funny thing happened during the Sea Hunter project, however. Delgado and his crew discovered that the bones at the bottom of the river didn’t belong to the Isabella at all. He now believes that the wreck is that of the American steamship Great Republic, which ran aground on Sand Island south of Ilwaco, Wash., in 1879.

The Sea Hunter TV episode will still air sometime next year – but with a new ending.

“You work with the available information you have, and you can be wrong,” said Delgado, who shared this latest twist in the shipwreck saga recently at the annual trustees dinner at the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

The available information all seemed to point to the Isabella in 1986 when the wreckage was found just south of Sand Island by a local diver freeing a snagged fishing net. The next year, Delgado dove to the site himself and came away convinced, by the wreck’s apparent size, age and location, that it was most likely the long-lost vessel.

There was also what Delgado called the “smoking gun” – a small, square opening cut in the hull right where the Isabella’s log says a carpenter made a hole to drain water out of the ship during salvage operations after the vessel grounded.

“Everything fit for the Isabella,” he said.

On camera
It was considered a significant find. A cargo vessel carrying supplies to the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost at Fort Vancouver at the time of its sinking, the Isabella is considered an important link to the Pacific Northwest’s early history. And as one of the first recorded wrecks at the mouth of the Columbia, it also helped give the notorious area its nickname, “Graveyard of the Pacific.”

That’s why Delgado and crew returned to the Columbia River this summer to film the wreck for “Sea Hunters.” But even as he and his partners were recording footage for the program, they were noticing clues that didn’t add up.

In recent years, the tides and currents have been washing away sand from around the ship’s bones, uncovering more of the wreck and revealing hidden features that raised questions about the vessel’s real identity, Delgado said. Those clues were much more evident this summer.

First was the sheer size of the wreckage, which was much more expansive than when he first saw the ship 17 years ago and which seemed too large for the 80-foot Isabella, Delgado said.

“I was particularly struck by how much structure was there,” he said. “What we thought was the entire area of the wreck turned out to be only one-half or one-third of it.”

The divers also found attached to the hull several massive cast-iron bits that would have been out of place on a modest cargo vessel like the Isabella. The same went for the iron strapping discovered on the interior of the hull that was usually only found on warships or steam-powered vessels.

Even that “smoking gun” betrayed him. The divers found a second identical hole in the hull that had no explanation if the ship was, in fact, the Isabella.

“Something was very definitely wrong,” he said.

Science steps in
With all these red flags, Delgado decided a more conclusive test was needed. He collected wood samples from the wreckage that were sent to a lab in Wisconsin for analysis. The findings: American yellow pine, something that definitely would not have been found on an early 19th-century British ship.

“OK, well then, we know it’s not the Isabella. The question is, what ship is it?” Delgado said.

Several ships wrecked near Sand Island over the decades, but the size, metal fittings and type of wood all point to the Great Republic, he said. The side-wheeler was 376 feet long – four times bigger than the Isabella – and would likely have carried iron reinforcing bands inside its hull to help support the weight of its engines and hundreds of passengers.

Staff from the Columbia River Maritime Museum, which helped sponsor the Sea Hunter project, also dug up old records of shipwrecks, including eyewitness accounts, that pinpointed the Great Republic’s location and described its last hours.

“But there’s no smoking gun,” Delgado said. “What I can say is that it is definitely not the Isabella, and is probably the Great Republic.”

Eleven died
The wreck of the Great Republic is a dramatic story in its own right. The vessel was carrying more than 1,000 passengers and crew members en route to Portland from San Francisco when it crossed the Columbia bar at high tide just after midnight on April 19, 1879. The night was clear and the water calm, but as the ship proceeded the pilot failed to heed the captain’s warnings as it steamed closer and closer to Sand Island, and with a jolt the vessel ran aground.

The falling tide left the ship stranded, and with a storm approaching the captain had the 896 passengers removed and ferried to Astoria on local boats. The crew stayed on board to try to re-float the vessel, but the storm-driven waves began breaking up the hull, and as they abandoned ship. The last boat to leave overturned, casting 14 men into the water. Eleven died.

The stricken vessel was soon pulverized by the waves, but parts of the wreckage remained visible at low tide for many years. Soldiers at nearby Fort Canby reportedly used the ship’s rusting boilers for artillery practice.

Delgado said the Great Republic has its own place in history. Launched in New York in 1867 by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, it was part of the first generation of steamships built specifically to serve the Far East trade, carrying passengers and cargo between the west coast and Japan and China. The Great Republic eventually proved to be unprofitable on the trans-Pacific route, and had been sold and put to work on the West Coast at the time of its demise.

It’s the first project in his career, which includes dives to the Titanic and U.S.S. Arizona, involving a case of mistaken identity, Delgado said. But “unless you find a bell with the ship’s name on it,” proving a wreck’s identity can be iffy, he said. During past dives to the wreck, he and other researchers were careful not to remove pieces of the vessel, excavate sand or do other potentially damaging work that might have tipped them off to the ship’s identity earlier.

“You try to be as cautious as you can,” he said.

Good process
CRMM executive director Jerry Ostermiller, who has dived to the wreck several times himself, said the new discovery is a testament to the scientific process, and a credit to Delgado’s willingness to let the facts speak for themselves despite his years of involvement with the wreck.

“It’s hard to be invested emotionally in something for so long, and have to restate your position,” he said.

As for the Isabella itself, Delgado believes it has likely vanished, swept away bit by bit by in the decades after its sinking.

The sand bar where the Isabella wrecked is not the Sand Island of today, or even the island that claimed the Great Republic 39 years later. The shifting river channel pushed the island northward between the 1830s and the 1870s, and the Isabella likely would have been left exposed to the strong river current, Delgado said.

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