Mystery Willapa Harbor Shipwreck Poses a Puzzle to Researchers



She comes and she goes, but when she appears, the remnants of a long ago Willapa Harbor shipwreck on the beach at North Cove never fails to fascinate and draw hundreds of visitors to explore her and to theorize on her origins.

The approximately 125-foot-by-20-foot piece of what appear to be hull or deck timbers held together with large spikes first showed itself in late December 2009.  Storm-tossed waves ate away huge chunks of the bank line just south of Warrenton Cannery Road, revealing a hint of what was to come.

By early February of the next year, the entire piece was revealed.  Originally lying parallel to the shoreline, by mid-February, high tide wave action had eroded enough of the bank line behind the wreckage to allow backwash to float the mass so that it rotated 90 degrees, leaving its narrowest end facing into the waves.

About a month later, it was freed from the bank, and then the wreck disappeared — either covered with sand or it floated out to sea.  It revealed itself again in spring 2010, about 100 yards farther south, toward the mouth of Willapa Harbor.

After a short time, the shipwreck seemed to disappear until early December of that year, when it showed up near the western end of Washaway Beach, totally uncovered and fully visible.

At least small parts of the shipwreck have remained visible as it has repeated the process of drifting and beaching southward into the mouth of Willapa Bay and east along Washaway Beach to a spot west of Tumidanski Tongue at the end of Old Tokeland Road.  There, wind-pushed sand partially covered the timbers.

In mid-October 2016, with erosion slowing along the northern bank line of the bay, the complete piece of wreckage was again revealed.  Since then, it has continued its eastward journey.  By late November, it settled in south of the Tumidanski property, but still well north of Jacobson’s Jetty, where it can be found.

Seeking Origins

In early November, Westport South Beach Historical Society Executive Director John Shaw contacted the Maritime Archaeological Society in Astoria, Oregon, to request that group’s participation in researching the origins of the shipwreck remains.

A registered nonprofit organization, the Maritime Archaeological Society was created to help document and share maritime history with the public.

According to its website: “The mission of the Maritime Archaeological Society is to seek out, investigate, and document shipwrecks and other maritime archaeological sites; conserve artifacts from those sites when appropriate; and educate the public in areas of maritime cultural heritage, historic shipwreck preservation and the science of maritime archaeology.”

Shaw and Maritime Museum Collections curator Jeff Pence joined four researchers from the Maritime Archaeological Society at the wreckage site.  The researchers photographed and measured multiple parts of the wreck and are now in the process of preparing a photo mosaic and a drawing based on their findings, along with researching known long-ago shipwrecks in that area that will be shared with the Maritime Museum.

Since the shipwreck remains first appeared, theories about their origin began to surface as well.  Here are some of the theories:

Canadian Exporter

Some area historians have conjectured that it could be a portion of the Canadian Exporter, a 5,400-ton, 400-foot steel-hulled steam freighter that ran aground on the north spit of Willapa Harbor in heavy fog July 31, 1921, and broke into two pieces.

Supporters of the Canadian Exporter theory maintain that nearly 90 years of immersion in saltwater could have effectively corroded the hull away from timbers that were commonly used for decking, even in steel-hulled ships of that era.

Those who favor this theory cite the huge fir and spruce timbers that began washing ashore along South Beach in 1999.  By early March, they were showing up near Ocean Shores as well.

At the time, historians theorized that the timbers — called cants — were trapped in the hold of the Canadian Exporter.  Scientists speculate the cargo hold containing the wood had been buried under the sand all those years.  Strong currents and shifting sands apparently finally let whatever was holding the cargo at the harbor’s bottom go and allowed the load of timbers to float free and drift ashore.  The cants came in 20-foot and 40-foot lengths.

The ends of each timber bore the stamp HRM in several places, believed to represent the Harvey Reginald McMillan Lumber Mill in British Columbia.

North Cove resident Nick Wood was one of the first to salvage some of the timbers from the beach just north of Jacobson’s Jetty, where serendipitously, the mystery shipwreck’s remains sit.  Up to a dozen other people also salvaged the wood, either to save for future use or to cut into firewood.

Wood sold the timbers he salvaged in Hood River, Oregon, where they were milled into top quality lumber and beams that were then sold for a new house built in Hawaii.

The executive director of the Pacific County Museum at the time, Bruce Wielepp, investigated possible sources for the find.  He consulted the archives of the South Bend Journal, the W.B. and M. H. Chung Library at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, shipwreck charts, and the U.S. Pacific Coast Shipwreck Database owned by Robert Schwenner of Santa Clarita, California.

As a result of his research, Weilepp came to the conclusion that the cargo could be from the Canadian Exporter, built by J. Coughland and Sons in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1920. The ship was launched that same year and took three trips before its ill-fated grounding on the north spit of Willapa Bay.

The ship left Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 29, 1921.  Late in the evening of July 31, it ran aground in the fog.  Three days later, after unsuccessful attempts to free it, it broke in two, and was declared a complete loss, along with its timber cants cargo.

But after studying the wreck, Maritime Archaeological Society researchers have eliminated the Canadian Exporter as a possible match, based on a comparison of its construction and that of the shipwreck remains.

Booze Barge

Nick Wood has another possible theory as to the identity of the shipwreck.  Given the flat nature of the section that has been exposed, including the larger beam understructure that’s visible, the remains could be those of a seagoing barge and, more specifically, a Prohibition-era smuggler’s barge used to bring illegal spirits ashore during the 1920s or early ’30s.

Wood said he came up with the idea because after seeing the shipwreck, he recalled reading an article by Ruth Dixon in the winter of 1976 Pacific County Historical Society’s quarterly publication, The Sou’wester, that discussed Prohibition-era booze barge smuggling.


Others, like South Bend native Jeb Buckingham, hold to the theory that the remains might be those of the American steam schooner Trinidad.  Weighing 974 tons, the wooden-hulled Trinidad became stranded on the north spit of the Willapa bar on May 7, 1937, near buoys 6 and 7, the victim of gale force winds.

A lumber hauler like the Canadian Exporter, the Trinidad was headed to San Francisco with a load of lumber when it went aground and sank.

Maritime Archaeological Society researchers consider the Trinidad a possible match, but the organization’s investigation continues.

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Source: The Chronicle


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