WRECK OF THE TACOMA August/September 1983

Ten sailers lost their lives in the wreck of the Tahoma as brave men tried to save them. You can still see the memorial to these men in Gardiner, just North of Reedsport.

Story By Linda Noel -

The next time you enter Gardiner from the north on Highway 101, take time to survey the Gardiner cemetery.  Not only is this the last resting place for many of the area’s first settlers and pioneers, it is also the burial site for 10 men who lost their lives 100 years ago this year.  Theirs is a common grave marked by a large cypress tree planted by their shipmates.

The men were on the maiden voyage of the streamer Tacoma, out of Puget Sound and headed for San Francisco. They had loaded the steamer at Port Townsend with 3,500 tons of coal from mines at New Carbonado, Washington.

The Tacoma was under the command of Captain George D. Kortz, a veteran mariner who had achieve fame in 1870 for his role in rescuing many of the passengers from the wreck of the ocean steamer Great Republic in the lower Columbia River.

He was now in command of a 3,000-ton iron-hulled steamer which had cost her eastern builders, H.S. Crocker and Company, $500,000.  She and her three sister ships were built to carry coal for the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads.

Her maiden voyage was to be her last.

The disaster began January 29, 1883 around 9 p.m., four miles north of the Umpqua bar when she struck a rocky reef during a storm. It wasn’t until dawn the next day that Captain Kortz could assess the damage.  He wasn’t prepared for what he found that stormy morning.

He had been running full steam when his ship had ran hard aground.  There was no hope of the tide lifting the fully loaded steamer.  To complicate his situation, all the ship’s small boats were damaged or washed overboard, save one.

In this one boat, six crewmen and the captain managed to pull hard through 400 yards of churning sea to the shore. Now, however, they were stranded because as they made the beach their boat was dashed to pieces on the rocks.  With the rest of the crew still on board the wrecked ship trying their best to protect themselves from the storm, Captain Kortz immediately send word to Gardiner, just up river from the Umpqua bar.

Gardiner was known as “the little white city by the sea.”  Gardiner’s life centered around the sea, fishing and the ships that brought supplies from San Francisco. The people of Gardiner had responded with preparations for a rescue. They gathered blankets, food, medicine and a wagon to transport them.

In the wagon was 8-year-old Louis Seymour (later the manager of the Gardiner Mill Stone) with his dad. Louie remembered watching all the activities on the beach- people building fires, helping where they could, and one group hauling a dory and waiting for the storm to give them a chance to launch it.  One man, John Bergman, stood out as a leader in these activities.

Other rescue efforts were also in progress.  The Umpqua bar tug Sol Thomas, Captain Lawson in command steamed to the wreck, only to stand off, unable to get a line on the Tacoma. His mate, John Erickson, hurried south to Empire City, and a volunteer crew was organized to man a boat from the Cape Aargo Life Saving Station.  The tug Escort 2 was to tow the lifeboat from Cape Aargo to the Umpqua the next morning.  Included among the volunteers were Tom Hall, C.D. Getty. C.B.Watson, George Morris and L.Geiger.

The life boat was the responsibility of the keeper of the Cape Aargo lighthouse, James Desmond, who had held his position since 1881.  When approached by the volunteers, he was ready to lend the lifeboat, but he subsequently changed his mind and  refused to risk the equipment.  His denial to help caused his dismissal.

Anothergroup of veteran seafaring men, knowing what the storm could do to the Tacoma and crew, boarded the tug Fearless in North Bend.  Ready to man the lifeboat when the Fearless reached the wreck were John Kruse, pioneer ship builder in North Bend; Captain Nelson of the schooner Gotama; Captain Falk of the schooner Mary and Ida and Captain Bendergard of the schooner Wing and Wing.  Upon reaching the Tacoma, the tug could only lie as near as the heavy seas allowed, waiting for the moment that would allow rescue of the stranded sailors still aboard.

Three days had now passed.  The storm continued to rage and had swept the deck clean save the mast and staff.  The crew had taken refuge in the officers’ messroom, but were finally forced out into the gale-drive sleet and fog.

John Bergman and his fellows had tried on the second day to launch the dory.  Repeatedly, they were capsized into icy water. They could hear the cries of the crew during slacks in the gale, but could not make a rescue in the treacherous storm.

Finally, on the third morning, 18 to 20 men were brought to shore and greeted with dry clothes, hot food and medical treatment. Two trips were made that morning. The boat on the first trip was almost swamped when those on board started to pile in it. Only the action of first assistant engineer J.K. Grant prevented disaster. He stood with drawn pistol and firm command to prevent the rush. Grant himself waited with the others for the second trip.

All aboard the boat in the second trip were spilled into the ocean by a huge wave.  The men made it to shore, but Grant died on the beach from exposure.

Nine men were still stranded on the wrecked Tacoma. The next day, Thursday, more rescue attempts were made from shore by Bergman and his exhausted crew. The relentless storm now included snow, and the pounding waves either swamped or capsized each attempt.

Friday morning, through the fog, four men could be seen clinging to the rigging of the main mast and five to the foremast.  Friday evening the main mast was lost and Saturday morning the foremast disappeared.

The men had remained on the ship for three days and four nights, hugging the rigging, wet, cold and hungry during the worst storm experience in many years.  Despite the unselfish efforts of many, their lives were lost.

John Bergman, known along the coast as the “cannery man,” was the leading force in the rescue work.  He had been sailing since the age of 15 from the ports of his native Germany.  Late in 1869 he found his way to the pacific Northwest and the Columbia River.  Later he moved south to operate the steamers Favorite, Lillian and Mischief on the Siuslaw River.  At the time of the wreck of the Tacoma he was in Gardiner involved with salmon fishing and canning industry.  In 1801 he was appointed keeper of the life saving station at the Umpqua River mouth, near the site of Fort Umpqua.

The Marshfield Sun praised him highly for his heroic work:

Mr. Bergman, of the Umpqua cannery, should rank among the bravest of the brave for his gallant conduct in rescuing the wrecked seamen of the ship Tacoma. He appeared to take command of the rescuers naturally, as is frequently the case where natural adaptation to command men asserts itself.  Six times his boat was capsized in the surf, all hands washed ashore by the breakers, and every time he was ready to try again, at the imminent risk of his life, and then men obeyed him when they would no other. Two trips were necessary to the wreck, and many who are alive may thank the gallant Bergman.

He was officially recognized for his efforts by the United States government on April 27, 1802, when he was awarded a gold life-saving medal of honor and a citation: “You were the first to the rescue and the last to quit the field of your heroism. But for your skill and indomitable leadership, seconded by the fidelity of your comrades, any if not all of the 18 to 20 people you saved would undoubtedly have lost their lives.”

John Bergman and others spent days after the rescue searching for the beaches for the bodies of those who had perished and helped in giving them a Christian burial.  The shipmates that survived returned a year later to place the cypress tree at the common grave of their shipmates.

One hundred years later the large cypress tree, near the south end of Gardiner cemetery, continues to serve as a living memorial to the lost lives.

         

 

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