Offbeat Oregon: A Civil War warship's ignominious end
On September 25, 1880, an old and battered but sleek steamship drew into the mouth of Coos Bay, at the end of its voyage from Portland.
As the vessel churned its way into the bay, it suddenly and definitively veered out of the channel and slammed directly into the bank of the bay, close by Rocky Point — hard aground.
All 20 passengers aboard the ship were safely removed from the ship, and barely inconvenienced; after all, the shipwreck had occurred at their destination. The cargo of coal was mostly removed without incident as well. But the ship itself was done for. It had hit the bank hard at the peak of high tide. It was stuck there.
So the wreckage was sold for salvage, and everyone moved on.
In the town of Coos Bay (then called Marshfield), the local paper reacted to the news with bland indifference.
“She will not be much missed at this place,” the Marshfield Coast Mail newspaper remarked, “because in the matter of freighting for hire, her efforts of late have been ‘how not to do it.’”
A few eyebrows did go up, though, when word got out that the ship had been fairly heavily insured — to the tune of $7,500, or about $170,000 in modern dollars. Plus, as it turned out, the steamer’s insurance policy had just been upgraded; it seemed if the owners had wanted to commit insurance fraud, they could hardly have chosen a better way to do it.
“Her owners attach no blame to the officer (captain), and ascribe the accident to unknown causes,” an article in the Portland Oregonian explained. “It has been the practice of the owners to run a heavy insurance in the winter, when navigation is dangerous, and to lighten the coverage in the summer months. The channel where she went ashore is the most difficult one; besides being very narrow, it is bordered on either side by a ridge of low rocks and a shoal.”
Nonetheless, the captain never did specify how the ship came to grief — or if he did, none of the newspapers saw fit to pick it up.
So the wreck disappeared into the mists of memory — a relatively boring mishap, eliminating a relatively nondescript steamship from a relatively unimportant coastwise freight run.
What most people didn’t know was that the Gussie Telfair hadn’t always been a slow, dumpy cargo steamer working drearily on the outskirts of civilization. In her prime, in the service of the Confederate States of America, the Gussie Telfair had been the closest thing to a pirate ship the 1860s had to offer.
The Gussie Telfair was originally named the Gertrude. It was built of iron in Scotland in 1863, specifically to run the Union blockade and trade with Confederate ports. The ship was a straight-up hot rod: 153 feet long and just 21 feet wide, rated at 350 tons, it was fitted with a screw propeller — a brand-new technology at the time. Its masts pivoted to reduce its silhouette, the better to sneak past Union warships, and its funnel telescoped for the same reason.
When the Gertrude was first launched, the Union’s blockade was a bit of a joke. Actually, it was rather worse than a joke. By declaring a “blockade” of Southern ports, rather than simply declaring them “closed,” President Lincoln had by implication recognized the sovereignty of the Confederacy over them. That meant that foreign powers were, by international law, free to trade with them, so long as they could get past the blockading warships. And so they did.
It’s pretty unlikely that anything the Union had on blockade duty in
1863 could catch the Gertrude. In fact, the blockade ships couldn’t catch much of anything at first. The Union had put all sorts of awful old scows out there, because they didn’t have much to spare. Only one of them was even steam-powered when the blockade was first declared, back in ‘61. There were 3,500 miles of coastline to cover. It seemed impossible.
But over the following years, the federal navy got stronger and stronger. By the end of the war, there were 600 ships on blockade duty, in addition to the warships that were regularly shelling Confederate port towns. The blockade was really hurting the South, which didn’t make a lot of the stuff it needed to continue the fight.
By that time, though, the Gertrude was on the other side. The ship had barely started its career as a blockade runner when a federal ship, the USS Vanderbilt, managed to sneak up and capture it.
The Union Navy people knew a good thing when they saw one. So they mounted some artillery on the little speedster and sent it out under the stars and stripes to help enforce the blockade. And in this role, the Gertrude was a wonder.
Ten days into its new career as a Navy ship, the Gertrude captured the blockade runner Warrior after a nine-hour chase. Then it sank the Ellen the following January, followed the next year by the Eco. The Gertrude’s brush with stardom came when it almost caught the legendary Confederate runner Denbigh, which only managed to get away by pitching $10,000 worth of cotton overboard to lighten the cargo load.
After the war, though, the Gertrude’s glory days were over. Technology had raced ahead in the few years since it was built. What had been the fastest thing in the Gulf of Mexico back in 1863 was now just another aging, slowish, tiny, obsolete freighter.
Now re-named the Gussie Telfair, the old warhorse soldiered on for twenty mundane years making the Portland-Victoria run before finally being sold to Frank Bernard and put to work out of Coos Bay.
And that, of course, led to what was very likely an undignified little bit of dirty work in the line of insurance fraud, and the end of a once-proud warrior that had done a yeoman’s job on both sides in the war of the century.
According to historian Don Marshall, as of 1984 it was still possible to spot parts of the wreck near the jetty on the east side of Rocky Point at very low tides. Those bits may still be there, and if so, it’s probably worth taking an afternoon to hunt them up. They’re all that’s left of one of what was, 150 years ago, one of the most storied warriors of the high seas.
(Sources: Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; Marshfield Coast Mail, 02 Oct 1880; Portland Morning Oregonian, 28 Sep 1880, p4)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222