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Everyday People: Shipwreck hunters of the Oregon Coast

Combing through history’s wreckage

Published on February 6, 2017 8:43AM

Christopher Dewey at “History and Hops” discusses shipwrecks off the Oregon Coast.

Rebecca Herren/The Daily Astorian

Christopher Dewey at “History and Hops” discusses shipwrecks off the Oregon Coast.

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Galena near Gearhart, 1906.

Submitted Photo

Galena near Gearhart, 1906.

Wreck of the Peter Iredale at Fort Stevens.

Submitted Photo

Wreck of the Peter Iredale at Fort Stevens.

SEASIDE — Ever have a fascination with shipwrecks? Did you ever wonder about the mysteries surrounding their demise, stories of lost treasures, or about claiming the rights to abandoned wrecks?

Maritime archaeologist Christopher Dewey does and during the Seaside Museum and Historical Society’s History and Hops lecture at Seaside Brewing Co. in January, he answered questions to unravel a few mysteries and myths.

Dewey is a retired naval officer, an adjunct instructor at Clatsop Community College and founder of the Maritime Archeology Society in Astoria. He is listed on the Register of Professional Archaeologists and is a secretary of the interior and Oregon qualified archaeologist. If that wasn’t enough, he is a modern-day shipwreck hunter in Oregon and Washington state.

Unlike treasure hunters, he searches for, investigates and documents shipwrecks and maritime archaeological sites. He and a team of volunteers search sites using side-scan sonars, a magnetometer and a remote operating vehicle much like Robert Ballard used to find the Titanic, the Bismarck and the USS Yorktown wrecks, but smaller.

He does not salvage or excavate the wrecks he finds, explaining, “I am not a treasure hunter, I’m not out there looking for ships full of gold doubloons. I am an archaeologist.”

A garbage collector

Dewey jokingly says that he is oftentimes referred to as a garbage collector because he finds other peoples garbage and lost things throughout the world.

According to Dewey, underwater archeology looks at shipwrecks and submerged land sites both historically and prehistorically, meaning Native American and the like. “Nautical archeology,” he said, is not only about the ships, “it’s about the information that connects us to our past and it’s about maritime cultures.”

One slide of Dewey’s presentation revealed a photo of a bronze bow. “Entire areas in the Mediterranean are littered with these bronze bows from galleons that sank during the many battles that took place there,” he said. Another slide showed a row of vessel-like casks made out of terra cotta. “These are the only things left from this shipwreck from the Bronze Age.” The 40 to 50 casks found measure about a foot wide by 2-feet tall. This style of stackable container held grains, oils and wine.

Over the years, Hollywood has glamorized shipwrecks and treasure hunting in such movies as “The Deep,” “Fool’s Gold” and “The Goonies.” But who really owns abandoned shipwrecks?

Up until 1988, divers could sneak around and salvage a few trinkets they found on abandoned shipwrecks. But due to the damage many historical wrecks received from salvaging, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act was signed into law.

Shipwrecks embedded in lands in which they lie belong to the state including rivers, lakes and up to 3 miles offshore.


An archaeological site, Dewey explains must be 50 years or older in Washington and 75 years in Oregon. He discourages treasure seekers from making a site claim for excavation due to the mass amounts of paperwork and the amount of money needed for an excavation. “It’s expensive to claim an excavation site and by doing so many historical objects have been lost to private collections.”

Sites around shipwrecks are as important as the artifacts. “If they had been lost into a private library, there would have been nothing left to see because the ship is gone,” Dewey said, referring back to the wreck with the containers. “So there is a good reason to leave artifacts where they lie.”

The shipwreck of the Peter Iredale is the most visible and well-known wreck on the Oregon Coast. Located on Clatsop Spit, its skeletal structure towers above the wet sands during low tide. Even though larger and more famous shipwrecks such as the Titanic and Peter Iredale are intriguing, Dewey said lesser-known ships that have wrecked in the region equally capture his attention.

One such wreck was found on the Seaside beach in November 2014. Three men were metal detecting in the dunes and uncovered a large piece of wood. Dewey investigated and sent his data and a drawing of a boat keel to the state’s archaeologist. After much research, the state concluded it was a 1950s trawler.

It didn’t take long for the Colewort Creek boat to be identified. The abandoned boat was located in the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park and through word of mouth, a relative and a photo, the boat was determined to be a 1920s square-stern gillnetter owned by a local man who transported milk from a dairy farm to the Astoria market.

The ongoing Beeswax Wreck Project is a shipwreck near a Nehalem beach. The ship is thought to be the Santo Cristo de Burgos, a Spanish galleon from 1693 that wrecked sometime around 1700 between Cape Falcon and the Nehalem Spit.

Future projects for the team include the Coastal Survey Project to examine the T.J. Potter, a side-wheel steamer built in 1888 in Portland. It traveled from Portland to Astoria and Portland to Ilwaco, Washington. In 1920, its license was revoked and abandoned on Youngs Bay where it was burned and salvaged for metal. The Potter remains on Clatsop County property.

The Silvia de Grasse, a lumber schooner that sank in Astoria in 1849 is located on the rocks off Pier 39. And, the C-Trader, another lumber freighter sank in 1963 and is located in the Columbia River near buoy 20.

This summer, the team will study the Emily Reed wreck that ran aground in 1908 and is known to be located in Nehalem Bay. A 1700s wreck is rumored to be located in the southern harbor of Nehalem Bay and Dewey would like to take a look at it at a later date.

— Rebecca Herren


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