Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Wreck of the Emily G. Reed

In the town of Rockaway Beach, buried beneath the sand, rests the broken skeleton of a wooden barque called the Emily G. Reed. Over a hundred years ago, in 1908, she foundered in a storm and broke up, the pieces of her hull scattered from the north jetty to just south of St. Mary’s By the Sea, the local Catholic church. Most of the time her timbers remain hidden under the deep sand, and tourists play unknowingly upon the ship’s grave, but every once in a great while the forces of nature shift the sands and the old boards again appear.

The Oregon coast is home to many shipwrecks, and each has its story, but few can equal the drama in that of the Emily Reed. It began early on a Valentine’s Day morning, not long after midnight. Captain Kersel was endeavoring to sight Tillamook Rock in his journey northward from Australia to Portland with a load of coal. For several days the weather had been heavy, and he had to put much reliance on his chronometer, making mathematical computations to determine the longitude.

But then came the terrible realization: the chronometer was wrong. The ship was too far to the east, almost in the breakers. But this realization came too late. “We had scarcely a minute’s warning of breakers before the shock came,” recalled one of the survivors. The Emily Reed hit the beach bow on, and immediately began to break up. The first mate, Fred Zube, was forward, calling all hands on deck. The captain, his wife, and some of the crew were aft when the jolt came. A huge wave washed over the bow, smashing one of the lifeboats. Seamen Abilstedt and Jahunke, as well as the cook, whose name no one seems to have known, “came tumbling out of the forecastle with scarcely any clothing on their backs.” The three of them, led by Fred Zube, were unable to get to the other end of the ship, and their end was deep in churning water, so they quickly jumped into the remaining lifeboat and cut the lashings. Captain Kersel and the others, clinging to the roof of the aft-house, watched as a huge wave broke, and the lifeboat disappeared.

After witnessing this calamity, the captain ordered those who were with him to stay on the wreck until daylight broke. As the sea calmed, he sent his wife below, but he himself remained on the poop. When daylight came, low tide came with it. Some of the crew decided to see if they could swim ashore, first tying a rope to the wreckage. When they jumped overboard, they discovered that they could touch bottom and simply walk to land. The captain, his wife, his second mate, and the three other seamen who had survived all waded to shore.

Captain Kersel then had the sad duty of reporting the deaths of his crew. It was a long list, and most newspapers carried the headline “Eleven Lives Lost,” though, if the cook’s name were truly unknown, it seems the number was actually twelve:

First Mate Fred Zube (or Dubie)
Ship’s Carpenter Westlund
Seaman Sortzeit
Seaman Johnson
Seaman Dickson
Seaman Darling
Seaman Cohenstad
Seaman Gilbert
Seaman Ewald Abilstedt
Seaman Arthur Jahunke
Cabin Boy Hirschfeld
The cook

But then, three days after the wreck, in Neah Bay, Washington, nearly two hundred miles to the north, someone aboard the sloop Teckla heard by a feeble hail. The crew looked out and saw a steel lifeboat slowly drawing near. There were four figures in the boat, three just barely alive and one dead. Their tongues were so swollen from thirst that they could scarcely articulate. But after some much-needed food and drink, the leader of these men was able to tell his story.

They were, in fact, from the wreck of the Emily Reed, the lifeboat which the captain and the others had thought to be swamped. The wave, instead of swamping them, had swept the lifeboat to sea. They were alive, but without supplies. They had no food, no water, and only one oar. Fred Zube had a broken arm. A biting wind blew most of the time, and we know that Abilstedt, Jahunke, and the cook were barely dressed. The boat had been banged around in the wreckage, and had been punctured in several places, and the men had nothing with which to bale out the water.

They wore out their knives cutting away a compartment built into the boat, but once they wrenched it off they were able to use it as a baler. They set their course, clumsily managed with the single oar, away from shore, hoping to fall into the shipping lanes and thereby meet a steamship. The shore on this part of the coast they thought to be “desolate,” which wasn’t exactly true, but wasn’t much of an exaggeration, either.

On the second night, they saw lights on the shore, but it was too dark to chance venturing in. The cook declared he couldn’t stand the thirst anymore, and he took a drink of seawater. It was not long before he became delirious and lay down in the water at the bottom of the lifeboat.

The next morning, jubilation! There was a big steamer, and she stopped near them. One of the men shook the cook awake. “Don’t you want to be saved?” he asked, pointing to the steamer. The cook stood up, watching the ship. But apparently it had not seen them after all, for it was soon under weigh again. This seemed to break the cook’s spirit, and within a half hour he was dead.

The Tattoosh Island lighthouse appeared in the distance a few hours later, and they drew together their strength to steer the boat into the bay. “Sunday seemed the worst day we were out. We kept seeing all sorts of vessels passing back and forth but none of them would answer our hail. We were generally too far off to be made out plainly, I guess,” said Fred Zube. That is, until they finally met up with the Teckla.

With this news, the death toll of the wreck of the Emily Reed dropped from twelve to nine. Few people had seen the wreck, the area being largely uninhabited, but one Elmer D. Allen later described it thus: “Among the last of the proud, old sailing ships, she lay fast in the sand, broken in two with a pile of coal two stories high; masts, spars and sails toppled and her cargo of coal dumped to the center holding firmly the fore and aft. The beach was strewn with wreckage and coal.”

The area where it had met its fate, known at the time as Garibaldi Beach, soon changed its name to Rockaway, and settlers began to swarm in. The wreck on the beach awaited them, with its wealth of salvage. The pioneers stripped it of its copper, selling it for scrap, and after each storm collected the coal that washed up. The sands eventually crept over the old wreck, hiding it from view most of the time, but even today residents will sometimes find coal after a storm.

A few weeks ago the Emily Reed made one of its rare appearances, for only the third time within my memory. I took the opportunity to make the drive to the beach and take the pictures featured on this page, and the occasion became a spontaneous family reunion! My parents were there, and my uncle and aunt also drove down to see the reclusive shipwreck.

Selected Sources:

Disastrous Shipwreck,” The Argus, 19 Feb 1908, p. 7, col. 8; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 2 Apr 2017), Newspapers: The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848-1957).

Eleven Lost on Emily Reed,” The Spokesman-Review, 15 Feb 1908, p. 17, col. 1; digital images, Google News ( : accessed 2 Apr 2017), The Spokesman-Review: Jun 16, 1889-Dec 31, 2007.

Emily Reed Disaster,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Jun 1908, p. 8, col. 6; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 2 Apr 2017), Newspapers: The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954).

Perils of the Sea,” Barrier Miner, 6 Apr 1908, p. 6, col. 6; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 2 Apr 2017), Newspapers: Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW: 1888-1954).

Lori Tobias, “Shifting sands reveal 102-year-old shipwreck off Rockaway Beach,” The Oregonian, 29 Dec 2010, online archives at OregonLive ( : accessed 2 Apr 2017).

Survivors of the Emily Reed,” Lewiston Evening Journal, 18 Feb 1908, p. 1, col. 5; digital images, Google News ( : accessed 2 Apr 2017), Lewiston Evening Journal: Apr 20, 1861-Jul 26, 1980.


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