The schooner USS Shark — which had battled piracy and the slave trade on the open oceans — met its fate 171 years ago, Sept. 10, 1846, on the Columbia River bar. The vessel is pictured courtesy of the Naval Historical Center.
How it happened is a tale of unlucky circumstance at almost every turn, according to a National Parks Service publication (http://tinyurl.com/shark1846). For example: No experienced river pilot was available to guide the captain, Lt. Neil M. Howison (pictured, inset), across; his map was inaccurate, and the sands had shifted; he entered the bar on the wrong tide; and, he was exhausted from an elk hunt. It didn’t help that he felt pressured to proceed because he was 10 days behind schedule, either.
The crossing went badly from the start, when the tide forced him toward the breakers, despite trying to tack away from them several times. To avert the impending peril, Howison dropped anchor, but the rope snapped. He tried tacking again, and was still losing ground when he rammed into a sandbar and got stuck. Permanently.
Howison ordered the doctor, the purser and those who were sick into one of the small boats, along with the Shark’s papers, captain’s logs and an iron box holding $4,000 in gold. The boat was almost immediately swamped and sank in the heavy seas. Luckily, there was a rope dangling from the Shark, and everyone was saved and hauled back aboard. The gold, papers and logs were lost.
Trapped for hours on the Shark, with waves rolling over its sides, the men were tied to the vessel for safety. At last, the tide changed, the waves calmed, and Howison sent the remaining boats to shore. He and 24 crew members stayed aboard for an ugly, wet night aboard the vessel, which had taken on a great deal of water by then. The only refuge was provided by the bowsprit and two quarterdeck houses.
At sunrise, the crew was overjoyed to see the boats return to retrieve everyone left on the ship. The bad news — that the Shark was a total loss — was far outweighed by the good news: All hands made it safely to shore.
Next week: Sharkville.