The Wreck of
the Steamship Czarina
(as appeared in the May 1998
issue of The Whole Shebang)

A tragic tale in Coos County's History

story by Ann Koppy
photos courtesy of Coos County Historical Museum

The Czarina, docked at Marshfield (Now Coos Bay).

Shipwrecks are the stuff of legend, tragic stories of lives lost and cargo destroyed. Dozens of coastwise vessels and riverboats have wrecked in the Coos region since Euroamericans colonized the area in the 1850s. The most catastrophic was the steamship Czarina, wrecked on January 12, 1910 on the North Spit of Coos Bay. The 216' steamer was outbound from Marshfield (now Coos Bay) to San Francisco loaded with cement, coal, and 40,000' of lumber on deck. She usually carried freight only, no passengers. But on this voyage the son of Southern Pacific Railroad's general manager was aboard, in addition to the ship's 23-man crew. An international group in the Deck, Engine, and Steward Departments served under the ship's master, Irish-born Charles Duggan. They came from Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Argentina as well as the United States. They were married and single, between 27 and 68 years old.

The headlines of the January 21, 1910 edition of The Coos Bay Times announced the disastrous news of the Czarina wreck. Most of the other headlines on the front page of that edition of the paper, such as: Last Six of Men Lost in Breakers Last Thursday - Some Drop From Mast and Others Jump in Futile Effort to Reach Shore, Ask Complete Investigation of Disaster and Life Savers (a look into the Coos Bay Life Saving Crew by the Port of Coos Bay Commissioners), Second Body Unidentified - Longshormen Think it One of Firemen - Maybe Captain Dugan, eluded to the wreck also.

Southern Pacific owned the iron vessel, built in Sunderland, England in 1883 as the British steamship G.W. Jones. She had been homeported in New York City before S.P. re-registered her in San Francisco. The U.S. Bureau of Navigation listed 913 gross tonnage in 1891, but official wreck reports indicated 1,045 gross tons at the time of the disaster. Approximate value was $100,000; cargo was estimated at $20,000. On the afternoon of January 12 she steamed over the Coos Bay bar on her final voyage. The day was partly cloudy, an east wind was blowing, and seas were turbulent.

A succession of huge waves hammered the Czarina, carrying her first to the South Spit where she blew a distress signal. The waves then drove her about one miles north into the breakers. Five feet of water flooded the engine room, dousing coal fires. Duggan, an experienced captain, ordered anchors dropped. She settled broadside, parallel to the beach, but too far out to receive assistance from land. Investigators later calculated the ship was 1,860' from shore. Her lifeboats were smashed to pieces or washed away. Attempts to launch a surfboat from the Coos Bay Life Saving Station on North Spit and to shoot a lifeline failed. Floating lumber accumulated in the surf. Heavy seas prevented rescue efforts by steamer Nann Smith, heavily loaded with lumber and by Captain W.A. Magee of the harbor tug Astoria. The crew, meanwhile, sought refuge in the mainstays and forestays throughout the long, cold night. Bystanders on the beach lit fires to offer encouragement.

The Czarina in her final moments. To the horror of helpless onlookers doomed crew members can be seen clinging to the rigging of the ill fated ship.

The situation worsened. Rigging gave way, and the ship foundered and settled. Slowly, one by one, the exhausted men dropped to their deaths, buffeted by strong winds and fierce waves breaking on the shore. Some fell into the chilly Pacific Ocean, others to the ship's deck, only to be washed overboard. By the next day, only the mast and the men holding fast to it were visible. Of 24 men aboard, one survived. Harry Kentzel, 1st assistant engineer, had clung tightly to a 10' x 12' timber. As he drifted toward shore, a surfman waded into the waters and dragged him to safety. Only a few of the crew, including the engineer, had been wearing life preservers.

Six members of the Coquille River Life Saving Station, about 15 to 20 miles south of the wreck, reported for duty on January 13 to retrieve bodies and avert looting. Two members of the Coos Bay Life saving crew were eventually charged with plundering and suspended.

An inspector from the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service later accused the Keeper of the Life Saving Station of failure to fulfill his duties and "professional unfitness." The Keeper resigned his position and returned to his previous assignment as a surfman at the Coquille River Life Saving Station. Czarina, insured for $70,000, was a total loss. More horrific was the enormous toll of lives in what an Annual Report of the United States Life Saving Service would note as "an appalling marine casualty." It was an event long remembered by witnesses and even today, by students of history.