The Wreck of
the Santa Clara

(as appeared in the November 1996
issue of The Whole Shebang)

A vignette of one local maritime disaster. 

story by Ann Koppy
photos courtesy of Coos County Historical Museum

Shipwrecks occurred with alarming frequency in the early years of Coos County maritime history. Heavy seas, violent storms, hidden reefs, and shifting sands plagued mariners as they attempted to bring their vessels across the mouth of the Coquille River and entrance to Coos Bay. Dozens of ships were stranded between the 1860's and 1920's off Oregon's south coast. Loss of life and cargo were enormous.

One of this region's most tragic, documented, and photographed maritime disasters was the wreck of the 223 ft. wooden steamship Santa Clara. Late in the afternoon of November 2, 1915, she struck an uncharted reef or sandbar on the south side of the entrance to Coos Bay, near Coos Head. (Four years earlier, in March 1909, the schooner Marconi had wrecked at approximately the same location.)

The Santa Clara (top & left)
is deserted
and deemed a total wreck after
she ran aground near Coos Head.

Launched in 1900 in Washington State as the John S. Kimball, she was renamed the James Dollar, and later, the Santa Clara. Owned by North Pacific Steamship Company, the vessel was inbound from Portland, Oregon. She carried 91 passengers and crew, mail and 500 tons of cargo, including Christmas merchandise for local stores and a Buick consigned to George Goodrum, a Marshfield automobile dealer.

Captain August “Gus” Lofstedt faced a critical situation: The ship was apparently breaking up, water was flooding the engine room through a hole torn in the hull, and the steering gear and wireless radio were not working. After the bow broke loose from the sandbar, the ship turned completely around three times, and drifted broadside onto the South Spit. Lofstedt had not dropped anchor because he believed it would endanger the passengers. Allowing the ship to drift shoreward, he reasoned, would expedite rescue.

The vessel lay close to shore, but deep, churning surf prevented easy retrieval of people on board. In addition, heavy fog, steady rain, and darkness hindered rescue efforts and created confusion. After assessing the chances of passengers' survival, Lofstedt ordered five lifeboats lowered. Women, children, and a few crew members were in the first, which capsized as it neared shore. Its passengers were thrown into the bitterly cold surf; eight drowned immediately — four women, three children, and the ship's oiler. The final report listed twelve known dead and five missing — local residents, visitors, and crewmen.

Lofstedt and six of his crew were in the fifth lifeboat. Its ropes broke as it was being lowered, tossing all seven into the water. They swam back to the wreck, climbed aboard, and attempted to fire the Lyle gun. However, the crew couldn't find the gun's firing caps and were forced to use powder ignited by burning paper.

The Coast Guard lifesaving station at Charleston sent a boat, but realized they needed their Lyle gun and breeches buoy. The men returned to the station, got the equipment, and carried it back along the beach, a sixty-minute round trip.

Local residents quickly learned of the shipwreck when the Coos Bay Times, a daily newspaper published in Marshfield (Coos Bay), carried same-day coverage of the disaster. Captain Olsen of the Adeline Smith,outbound from Coos Bay with a cargo of lumber, had sent a message by wireless radio as soon as he saw the Santa Clara in distress. Rather than risk his ship and cargo, Olsen and a few of his crewmen went ashore and tried to rig a breeches buoy from a cliff.

The accident brought out the best and worst in people who quickly arrived on the scene from their homes around the bay. Local doctors including Everett Mingus and Ira Bartle responded at once. Pauline Wasson, well-known for her seafood culinary skills, was then managing the Sunset Inn at Sunset Beach. Throughout the long, desperate night she served coffee and food to the rescuers. Residents loaned cars to carry survivors to town, although the muddy roads were nearly impassable.

Boarding the wreck
of the
Santa Clara
on Nov. 5, 1919

By the third day, the ship's owners had yet to give merchants permission to salvage goods. Impatient, they took matters into their own hands and hired men to board the vessel and take the merchandise. A free-for-all of looting followed, fueled in part by casks of various kinds of liquors the “pirates” opened and distributed. These “pirates” worked below deck in groups of eight or ten and threw the booty to shore, keeping piles of foods, ship's fittings, and housewares for themselves. Someone eventually tried to facilitate plundering from the outside by placing dynamite under the bow. The attempt failed.

Clothing, meat, flour, canned and paper goods, and valuables that weren't salvaged or pirated were destroyed by leaking oil and water. Within a week of the stranding, one or more arsonists torched the wreckage. Heat exploded one of the ship's oil tanks, sending flames 200 feet into the air and burning everything to the waterline. What little was left of the hull broke up and washed ashore.

Local newspapers decried the mass looting and Coos County's District Attorney declared it a criminal act. By November 11, a federal officer in Portland began an investigation into the pilfering of twenty sacks of mail and promised to arrest those responsible.

The Santa Clara's last moments as she burns.

At Captain Lofstedt's trial for negligence in December 1915, a federal inspector determined that the steering gear wasn't working properly even before the wreck. Lofstedt pled guilty and lost his license.
In terms of loss of life, the wreck of the Santa Clara is one of the most tragic in the region. When combined with unrestrained raiding, the event will be long-remembered with sadness and perhaps, disappointment in human behavior.

Lyle gun: A small cannon used to fire a line to a shipwreck.
Breeches buoy: A canvas seat suspended from a buoy running on a hawser (large rope or cable); used ship-to-shore in rescue operations to carry a ship's crew and passengers.