The thing sunk in the muck and sand at Trestle Bay looked like the lower jaw and teeth of a giant monster — like dragon’s teeth from a story, Aaron Trotter thought.
But as he walked across the water-emptied bay in Fort Stevens State Park at low tide, he suddenly realized what he was looking at: a wooden boat, tilted to one side, planks crusted in a layer of marine plants and barnacles.
Caspian terns screamed and swooped over the flats. Back across the bay, people wandered with the curve of the beach. Beyond them, large trucks rumbled down a side road carrying massive rocks to repair the nearby South Jetty. Everyone was oblivious to the discovery, the real life shipwrecks-and-buried-treasure delight Trotter was experiencing.
The boat, Trotter thought, could be anything.
Maybe it was a life boat from an old shipwreck. Maybe it was used in the making of South Jetty, built more than 100 years ago — railroad trestles from the rail line that ferried large rocks to the jetty still border one edge of the bay. Maybe it’s an old fishing boat.
Trotter, a Portland artist who sells his illustrated playing card decks at the Astoria Sunday Market, prefers his shipwreck theory.
“I just wonder what the story is,” Trotter said.
It’s a mystery, but there are some clues. For instance, it seems clear what the boat is not.
First, it isn’t a new discovery.
Mark Schacher, who operates Arrow Tugboat and Tour Co. out of Astoria, happened on the wreck several years ago when he was out at Trestle Bay with his family.
“We found it but I had never heard anything about it,” he said. “There’s hundreds of those, but they’re all underwater.”
Second, the boat is likely not a Columbia River gillnetter, a type of commercial fishing boat that was once common on the river and used in salmon fisheries. Modern versions can still be seen working in Youngs Bay and up Youngs River.
The boat appears to be built heavier than a typical wooden gillnetting boat, Schacher observed. The early gillnetters had been built for speed and the ability to operate in shallow waters.
Maybe this heavier wreck was built for some kind of industrial use, he thought.
But, he added, “there were a lot of one-off boats built for very specific things, God only knows.”
Last week, after hearing about Trotter’s experience, Schacher decided to take another look. He walked out at low tide with Jon Norgaard on the phone. Norgaard operates the website “Historic Fishing,” where he maintains an archive of photos of the West Coast fishing industry. Schacher considers Norgaard “one of the best local resources left on everything Astoria, especially fishing.”
Together, they evaluated the boat remnants.
The boat, or what remains of it, is over 30 feet long — an unusual length for a standard Columbia River gillnetter. At the same time, it appears that concrete was poured in one area, possibly to act as ballast. There is a large bronze bolt on the starboard side that may have been used to support a crab davit, a piece of equipment used to pull crab pots from the water.
This last feature was not unusual as some gillnetter boats pulled double duty, with fishermen shifting to crabbing in the winter to supplement their income, Schacher said.
With only a small portion of the boat preserved, it is difficult to tell what its original use was.
“My guess is that it had multiple uses over its lifetime and fell into disrepair and was abandoned at a dock and floated downriver to its final resting place in Trestle Bay,” Schacher said.
Perhaps, he added, the partial removal of jetty stones in past years and the movement of sediment helped uncover it.
When he happened on the boat years ago, Schacher had notified the Maritime Archaeological Society, a local volunteer-based group that investigates shipwrecks in the Pacific Northwest. Trotter, who has had past experience in archaeological work, hopes he can be involved in any future research and documentation of the boat.
But the society is unlikely to launch its own investigation any time soon.
They are already gearing up for summer work on another wreck, The Stranger, a sternwheeler that worked with another ship to take passengers and freight between Salem and Vancouver in Washington state and that, according to local recollections, was tied up to be dismantled on the shores of Youngs Bay.
Boat investigations and removals eat up time and can quickly become costly.
“Nobody has the money to spend on wrecks that aren’t really significant,” Chris Dewey, the president of the society, said. Though he admits the question of significance is an open one.
There is the significance and mystique of wrecks like the Peter Iredale farther south on the beach side of Fort Stevens or the fabled Beeswax wreck believed to be near Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain, or the estimated 2,000 other wrecks in the infamous Graveyard of the Pacific that stretches from roughly Tillamook Bay to Vancouver Island.
Then there is the significance of old but less dramatic vessels like the abandoned fishing boats and industry vessels so common around Youngs Bay. They tell the story of the region and reveal details about the people who lived and worked here, Dewey said.
But, in the meantime, the society, with its limited resources and long list of abandoned and wrecked vessels to explore, has to pick its battles.
The wooden boat in Trestle Bay has been there for years. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Dewey isn’t even sure how feasible it would be to remove it from the bay.
Because of the bay’s location and the fact that the boat is sitting almost right in the middle, accessible only at low tide and without easy vehicle access, removing the boat could cost thousands and thousands of dollars, he estimates.
To even go out and begin documenting it in an official capacity means the society’s members would need a permit from state parks.
“Now, the permits are not too difficult to get normally, but since the (coronavirus) pandemic everything is slow,” Dewey said.
Slow on the state’s side of things, as well as for the society’s volunteer members who, in some cases, have had more pressing personal concerns to address throughout the pandemic than vessel wreck research.
So for now, Dewey said, the Trestle Bay boat is “kind of one of the things where, yeah, we’ll get to it someday.”
Schacher is inclined to agree with Dewey. The boat will likely stay put for now. But he hopes they will get out soon to do some basic documentation.
“The wreck has weathered considerably since I last looked at it a few years ago,” he told The Astorian. “So I’m guessing it hasn’t been exposed until recently.
“It probably will only be recognizable for a few more years before the storms and sea growth finish consuming it.”