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No. 2925:
Francis H. Leggett

Today, Oregon's worst shipwreck. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and about the people whose ingenuity created them. 

September 18, 1914: WW-I was only in its 8th week and life in America seemed little affected by it. Still, the Japanese cruiser Idzumo was off the coast of Oregon, stalking German naval vessels in the Pacific. Japan, then our ally, had declared war on Germany along with France and Great Britain.

But war did seem far away; and ships kept moving along the West Coast. Two days earlier, the steamer Francis H. Leggett had left Grays Harbor in Washington, bound for San Francisco. She carried 37 passengers, 25 crewmen, and an overload of railway ties. 

A serious gale had built up in the ocean; but Grays Harbor was calm as the Leggett set out. Once at sea, the ship felt the full brunt of the sixty-mile-an-hour gale. The railway ties on her deck finally shifted when she was off the north Oregon coast. Then great waves ripped a hatch cover off the listing ship. Water began filling the Leggett. She was clearly going down. Her captain had distress signals sent out on the primitive radio system. The only radio operator who heard those signals was on that Japanese Cruiser. But it was at war and feared being called into a German trap. The Japanese did relay the call for help, but they did not sail to the rescue. 

The Leggett captain ordered her two lifeboats loaded. They capsized immediately, killing more than half the people on board. As the Leggett sank, it left the rest trying to survive by clinging to ties in the heaving water. The radio call was finally passed from ship to shore to an American tanker. It reached the site too late, and could save only two survivors.

Vintage photo of the Leggett's ties on the beach

The 60 or so deaths in the wreck made this Oregon's worst Maritime disaster. So what was the aftermath? Railway ties from the Leggett came ashore on the beach just north of the lovely little town of Manzanita. One house, still standing in Manzanita, is, in fact, built from the very ties that doomed the Leggett.

Manzanita house built of railway ties from the Leggett

House made from those ties in Manzanita

The wreck itself is hardly known in Manzanita. The wreck that people talk about is that of a completely unknown ship. It seems that blocks of beeswax and other artifacts have turned up over the years on the nearby shore. Those pieces suggest the wreck of an early merchant ship - maybe even a 17th century Spanish Galleon. 

Now there is romance we can sink our teeth into - romance that's missing in the Leggett tragedy. And we're reminded that, to be fascinating, history must harbor mystery. Still, the more we know about an event, the more mystery develops. What about that Japanese cruiser? Was its decision cold-blooded or did its officers really feel under threat? 

And, of course, there's the railway tie house. Do its owners know all about the Leggett? Did either of those two survivors ever see it? And, we wonder, does the faint essence of creosote - or of the salt sea - still perfume its rooms.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

R. C. Belyk, Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001): Chapter 8, Francis H. Leggett: Battle Lost.

H. W. McCurdy, Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. (The Superior Publishing Company, 1966).

The two survivors were James Alexander Farrell and George Poelman. 

See also this New York Times article about the Leggett wreck. See also the Wikipedia entry for Manzanita.  My Belyk source identified the Japanese Cruiser as the Idzumi. Actually, the Idzumi was retired in 1912. This cruiser was the Izumo or Idzumo

My thanks to Peter Newman and Mark Beach of Manzanita for their counsel. Thanks to Peter Newman for the photo of the Railway Tie house and to Mark Beach for providing the vintage photo of ties on the shore. Color photo of the shoreline by John Lienhard.

Where the ties came ashore, today

Where the ties came ashore, today

This episode was first aired on Jan 31, 2014.