A Shipwreck Rises from the Grave
Winter winds uncover a mystery on the Oregon coast...
story & photos by Megan Harper
Only the bold detective work by a team of archaeologists could solve this riddle from the sea...
As a particularly tempestuous New Year began to unfold, the dark wooden bow of an old shipwreck emerged from its sandy grave on the southern Oregon Coast.
At first, only a couple feet of the ship's hull and the top corners of a porthole were visible. But harsh winter storms unforgivingly pounded the seawall, eroding almost 30 feet of dune over a ten-week period.
With the sand washing away, more and more of the shipwreck returned from the grave. Now almost 30 feet of the bow of the old lumber schooner is visible showing two anchor holes, three portholes on each side, a large mast, antique wiring, and beds – also known as "racks."
For months investigative minds began asking, "What was the name of this ship?" and "How did it end up buried in the sand on Coos Bay's North Spit?" and of course, "Where's the treasure?"
Solving this nautical mystery would require serious detective work by an interagency team of archaeologists. Thus did a team of scientists from the Bureau of Land Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department, and the Coos County Maritime Museum come together to comb through historical photographs and newspaper articles to discover that the true identity of what was now being dubbed by locals "the Mystery Shipwreck" was, in fact, the George L. Olson, a lumber-carrying schooner built back in 1917.
"Once we put a current picture of the shipwreck next to a historical photograph of the Olson, we were able to say 'Yup, that's it,'" said Steve Samuels, Archaeologist with the Coos Bay District. "The position of the portholes, the unique bolt pattern on the bow…they were all an exact match."
The George L. Olson was built in San Francisco at the Stone Shipyard and was originally named the Ryder Hanify. At 223 feet long and nearly 44 feet wide, the ship was one of the largest wooden ships built to date at thislocation. Then the George L. Olson worked as a lumber carrier in the Pacific Northwest for over 20 years, hauling 1.4 million board feet of lumber at a time.
The schooner's fate was sealed on a seemingly benign day in June of 1944 when it struck Coos Bay's North Jetty and drifted aground on a nearby rock. There were no casualties when the ship wrecked, but it was declared a total loss. The lumber cargo was salvaged over the next several months, and then in December 1944, the hulk of the George L. Olson was towed to sea and cut adrift with the intention that she beach on the North Spit.
Dune build-up over the next several years buried the wreck. Historical records indicate the ship was visible for a short time in 1946 and then again in 1960.
Before our mystery ship became the George L. Olson, it was harbored in France where it hauled lumber under its previous name: Le Gabriel.
"Obviously, the pattern has been for the ship to appear, become buried, and then re-appear for a short time," explained Samuels.
Starting in December 2007, visitors from across the country flocked to the North Spit in record numbers to see the ship, peering through portholes and taking pictures. Over 10,000 people have visited the shipwreck since it (re)appeared during this year's winter storms.
"There is a strong connection to the shipping and lumbering industry in this area," explained Samuels. "This shipwreck is a historical representation of a significant portion of the area's heritage and people are excited to see it," continued Samuels.
Now the BLM, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Coos County Maritime Museum will continue their joint effort to document the ship and its unique story – before it again becomes buried by the sands of time.
For more photos and info about ghostly shipwrecks washed up and discovered on BLM-managed public lands, please visit us online.