BANDON - People are fascinated with shipwrecks, and Bandon, with its treacherous bar and once-busy port, definitely has its share.
In the area, residents and visitors can view the remains of more than a half-dozen boats or ships. What’s more, hundreds, perhaps even a thousand other shipwreck sites dot the South Coast and the Coquille River’s banks, according to a local enthusiast.
One such wreck, recently visible again, is the Acme.
The 416-ton, 154-foot wooden steam schooner, built by J.W. Dickie at Alameda, Calif., in 1901, went ashore about four miles north of the Coquille River near Cut Creek on the morning of Oct. 31, 1924.
Capt. Fred Miller had arrived offshore the previous evening and missed the river entrance in the fog — or decided the bar was too rough — depending on which account you read. The vessel became stranded on the beach north of the river as the tide went out, but none of the 15-person crew was lost.
One account indicates that the vessel was abandoned by insurance underwriters and repurchased by Moore Mill. The company is said to have salvaged the 100 tons of railroad iron the ship carried.
Eventually, the wreck was set afire on the beach, and the remains broke apart. About half of the vessel washed up on the beach near the lighthouse, where it remained visible for about 50 years before being covered by sand. The bow section of the Acme that remained near Cut Creek also was buried by sand, but was uncovered by high wave action during the winter of 2006-07.
Local cartographer and shipwreck enthusiast Ned Reed explained that the condition of the bow section indicates the vessel was pretty well stripped before being abandoned — the planking and most everything else useful having been salvaged.
Reed added that one reason for the numerous shipwrecks that occurred near the Coquille River entrance is the fact that tugboat service wasn’t available in this area in the early 1900s.
“Ships coming over the bar had to do so under their own power, either steam or sail,” he said. “If the wind died, you were out of luck.”
Reed, a retired engineer, has developed a fascination for shipwrecks over the years.
“I dove on wrecks as a kid in the estuaries of Oakland, Calif., and was raised in a house on piling over the bay in San Leandro,” Reed said. “We had all that sandy mud to play in, and there were lots of wrecks and remnants of wrecks.”
Later, he responded to boating and shipping accidents as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard. While serving on the Bandon Historical Society board of directors in the 1990s, he developed a growing interest in history and, being an ex-railroad engineer, was interested in transportation.
But he’s been researching shipwrecks off and on for roughly 40 years. He’s compiled a database of more than 15,000 shipwrecks from the West Coast of the United States and British Columbia, Canada. Eventually, he plans to document every shipwreck that he can from the North Pole to Panama, plus Hawaii and parts of Russia. He also collects photos of shipwrecks.
“I probably have a thousand shipwreck photos, and I’m always looking for more,” he said. “There’s a cocoon of history wrapped up in shipwrecks. That’s why it’s vital to keep them open and known and available to be enjoyed by all.”
Reed estimates that, over the years, there have been a thousand shipwrecks on beaches and rivers within a hundred miles of Bandon. The federal government, he said, believes that about 120 vessels have gone down on or near the Coquille River bar.
“I’ve located information on the types and locations of probably 40 or 50 of these wrecks,” Reed said. “They went down on or near the bar, on the north or south jetties, or in the lower river itself. Seven of these can still be seen today, while others were removed or covered up by sand.”
If the feds are right, another 70 to 80 wrecks or remnants of wrecks are lying nearby beneath the ocean waves, along the river bottom or under drifting sand dunes.
The remains of the visible seven wrecked vessels are within a few miles of Bandon. Perhaps the easiest and most convenient to view is the wooden lumber barge located off the southwest end of Bullards Bridge at the edge of the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The skeleton and adjoining marsh have been favorites of artists and photographers for decades.
Near the same location, but on the opposite side of the highway, rest two old ferry boats, one believed to have been used at Riverton and the other at Bullards. The ferries sit on the riverbank at the site of the old Bullards ferry, near the old Rogge Mill. Trees are growing up through the remains now. Access is via private property or viewing from a boat.
At Parkersburg, near river mile 7.85, rests a sunken motor launch, possibly a tugboat from the wood products industry. Access is via private property or viewing from a boat.
At Prosper, near river mile 4.82, rests a steel hull from an unknown abandoned vessel. At river mile 5 are the remains of another abandoned vessel, possibly a Riverton ferry boat. Both wrecks are located on the south bank of the river just east of the old port shipyard. Access is via private property or viewing from a boat.
A portion of the bow of the Acme is visible on the beach near Cut Creek, several miles north of the Coquille River Lighthouse.
The Oliver Olson, a 307-foot-long, 2,235-ton steamship built in 1918, was inbound to load lumber in November 1953 when it was caught in a cross current and went hard aground on the rocks at the entrance to the South Jetty.
Eventually, the Oliver Olson was declared a total loss. It was decided to strip the ship’s salvageable parts, cut down the empty hull level with the existing jetty, fill the cavity with quarry rock and, thus, extend the jetty by 300 feet. The project was completed in the fall of 1954.
To view the remains of the wreck, walk on the South Jetty at low tide until you’re about halfway between the small signal building and the westernmost tip of the jetty. The ribs of the Oliver Olson can be seen protruding from the mud on the river side of the jetty.
“These wrecks show our lineage, how the area grew, what kind of people brought these vessels here and why,” Reed said. “There are a thousand different stories for a thousand different wrecks, which provide clues to our heritage and a peek into the past.”
To learn more about shipwrecks, Reed suggests a visit to the Bandon Historical Society Museum, or visit a few Internet sites related to shipwrecks: http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g%2Dcp/h%5Fbiblio/h%5Fshpwrk.html, http://www.langara.bc.ca/prm/1999/shipwrecks.html and http://www.maritimeheritage.org/ships/ss.html.