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Not all George Olsons created equal: the ‘mystery’ vessel and its imposters

NORTH BEND — It’s the wooden-hulled George L. Olson, the press release said.

It was a mystery ship no more, uncovered by grinding waves from this winter’s unusual storms on Coos Bay’s North Spit.

The George L. Olson, a 223-foot-long, wood-hulled schooner, was launched on Jan. 22, 1917, from the W.F. Stone shipyards in Oakland, Calif. Then, it was called the Ryder Hanify, built for J.R. Hanify and Company of San Francisco. That December, it and six other lumber ships were sent to France and the Ryder Hanify became the Gabriel. About five years later, steamship owner Oliver J. Olson bought it and renamed it the George L. Olson. That’s what ran aground at Coos Bay’s North Jetty on June 23, 1944.

As soon as the announcement was out, the doubters started talking, calling, e-mailing.

“I thought the George Olson was steel hulled?”

“I am finding it hard to believe that this is the ship. I wish that I could see these other pictures that they saw to make this decision.”

“I found this website that states the George Olson went down on the Columbia River Bar in 1964.”

Yep, there were two George Olsons.

Two Ryder Hanifys.

Not all the photos in the Coos Historical & Maritime Museum’s archives were labeled correctly.

In the weeks that followed the shipwreck discovery, the museum’s Executive Director Anne Donnelly, Calum Stevenson, who is the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s coastal coordinator, and U.S. Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Steve Samuels were adrift in their research.

Donnelly and her staff pored over historical photos. They read through accounts from the late Victor West, a North Bend man considered the expert on shipwrecks and shipping history in North Bend/Coos Bay. However, his extensive photo collection is stored away in the Coos Art Museum until the Maritime Museum builds a new facility. Stevenson had archaeological experience on shipwrecks, but from much older eras, and Samuels is well-immersed in North Spit history. Even so, all were stumped for a while.

In came Robert Schwemmer, the West Coast Region Maritime Heritage coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Everybody brought a piece of the puzzle to the table,” he said.

They had trouble tracking the movement of ships in 1944. Many decades ago, newspapers printed the comings and goings of ships. Snippets of information detailed the ships’ destinations and what cargo they carried. During World War II, that information was censored, Schwemmer said.

“The government really didn’t want a lot of this in. … We did have Japanese subs patroling and attacking ships,” he added.

But an old article from the L.A. Times in 1917 pointed to the Ryder Hanify as being in port in San Pedro. Schwemmer obtained photos of it and the shipwreck. Lining up the photos, the researchers found their match.

“Now that you know the whole history, you see why it was so crazy,” Donnelly said.

Here’s the history.

The other George Olson was a steamship, but it was metal-hulled. It, too, was owned by the Oliver J. Olson company for a time. Tacoma Public Library Ships and Shipping Index records say it was built in 1919 and then-named the Castle Town. In the end, it was converted to a lumber barge, but ran aground and broke up at the entrance to the Columbia River in 1964.

The “other” Ryder Hanify was built at the Kruse & Banks shipyard in North Bend and launched in 1920. It had four irregularly spaced port holes, unlike the three on the George L. Olson shipwreck. It, too, was destroyed on the Columbia River Bar, in the late 1940s, Samuels said.

The interest in the shipwreck has been a boon for the historical museum. The museum has set up a special photo exhibit for people who can’t make it out on the North Spit to see the shipwreck. Last weekend, 150 people stopped in the museum.

Donnelly is hoping this excitement over the shipwreck rekindles interest and support for the museum that’s been in its tiny building in Simpson Park since 1958. She wants area residents to donate copies of their historical photos — but more, she wants them to get involved in the effort to build a new museum.

On the Net: Coos Historical & Maritime Museum

Tacoma Public Library Ships and Shipping Index

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