The U. S. S. Schooner Shark’s Sad Fate…

Oregon Spectator, September 17, 1846
Loss of the U. S. Schooner Shark.


U. S. S. Schooner Shark
Copy of watercolor, date unknown
Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with the deepest regret we learn from a well authenticated source, that the U. S. Schooner Shark has lately become totally wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia river. We have been favored with the privilege of making the following extract from a private letter received by an individual in this city, written by a person of veracity living at Vancouver. We hope in our next number to be able to give a detailed account of this truly unfortunate affair. We have delayed our paper to a late hour, expecting further news concerning this wreck, but none has yet arrived.

Extract of a letter dated, Vancouver, September 14, 1846.

“This morning we heard from Mr. Pisk who has arrived from Fort George, that the U. S. Schr. Shark is totally wrecked. She got on the south spit nearly two miles outside the cape. After cutting away the masts and doing all she could in vain, the boats were sent on shore with as many of the crew as they could carry; those on board hoisted a light and kept firing guns through the night. The light could barely be seen by our people on the cape, and if they had been on the water in a canoe, they could not have seen it at all, and there would have been no chance of reaching them. At day light, a number of men could be seen on the poop; shortly afterward, two boats were seen approaching the vessel, as they soon left after getting to the vessel, and all hands were seemingly removed from the poop, there is little doubt the crew all reached Point Adams, on the Clatsop shore, in safety. Her B. M. S. Modeste’s first cutter leaves tomorrow with a present supply of provisions. At the hour the canoe was leaving, Mr. Peers writes, “the wind is now blowing fresh from the S. W. and the sea is making a fair breach over the unfortunate Shark.”

Even the local news took time to reach Oregon City, and as the Spectator was only published every other Thursday, the details were not published until the October 1, 1846 issue of the Oregon Spectator…

Loss of the U. S. Schr. Shark – We have been favored in obtaining permission to publish the subjoined extract of a letter from Captain Howison, in relation to the wreck of the U. S. Schr. Shark. We are thus enabled to give our readers the particulars of this unfortunate event, from the best and most authentic source.

Fort Vancouver, Sept. 15th, 1836.
Dear Sir – You have doubtless heard of the fate of the hapless Shark – swept to destruction by the overwhelming strength of the tide, for want of thorough acquaintance with which, I did not made due allowance. Instead of setting along the channel, as I supposed it would, its direction was somewhat to the eastward of south, so that, when I hauled on the wind to pass to sea, it forced me down on the south breakers; in vain, she was tacked to the northward; the tide hung on the weather bow and brought the breakers on the middle sand directly ahead – from these we tacked again to the southward, but finding that we were hurried rapidly to leeward, an anchor was let go, but it did not hold a moment, the chain snapping off like a packthread. We stood back to the northward, losing ground all the time, under the influence of the rapid tide; once more her head was put to the westward, and a favorable change of wind excited high hopes of passing safely out, but the next moment from 3 fathoms, she struck violently on a bank of 10 feet, and remained immovable, prostrating every hope of rescue. I attempted then, by a press of said, to force her in the direction of the tide which ran by us with the velocity of a mill race; but although her head swung in that direction, she did not advance an inch, but rose and fell with the swell of the sea, which immediately began to break over her broadside and told us plainly that she should float over its surface no more. Every preparation was instantly made to get out the boats, and the gig being first in the water, was loaded with the sick, the Purser and Doctor with the ship’s papers and other valuables, with a view of despatching her at once to the shore; but she swamped alongside, and the officers could only get back on board by being hauled back in. Finding that no boat could then live alongside, nothing more could be done than await the abatement of the breakers, which were rolling upon us with terrific violence. About 11 o’clock P. M. she had five feet water in the hold; the flood tide set in – the other boats were got out and loaded with as many men as they would safely carry, and despatched to Clatsop shore, with orders to return again on the ebb, to relieve those who remained on board. After the boats left, the masts were cut away, and before 1 A. M., we were completely water logged. Lieut. Schenck, Midshipman Davidson and 21 men remained with me on the wreck – the flood tide gradually crowding us into narrow limits, until the bowsprit and the two quarter deck houses were the only inhabitable spots on board, and these were frequently washed by the heavy swell. Each man was secured to the vessel by a cord passed around him – a precaution which may have save some lives; for, towards daylight, the surf began again to set in heavily – the boats however soon came off, and we were soon relieved from our perilous situation. The conduct of the officers and men during the whole of this trying occasion, was most praiseworthy, and to their cool exertions and orderly manner of carrying on the duty, may be principally ascribed the preservation of our lives. The wreck was completely untenable an hour after she was finally abandoned, and by 3 P. M., not a vestige of the poor Shark was visible.

The Shark sank below the waves and would never be seen again…but three of her cannonades, her capstan, a sword and a rock with the survivors names carved on it have been found along the coast over the years and are on exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum and the Cannon Beach Historical Society. The first cannonade was discovered a few miles north of Arch Cape in 1898, giving Cannon Beach its name. The cannonade and capstan have recently been restored. For more information on the preservation efforts see: Cannonade.

For more about the Shark and her sinking, see Sympathy and Prompt Attentions,  a resource guide for the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site written by Greg Shine, Chief Ranger.

And for more on the 2008 discovery of two more cannons and their restoration at Texas A & M see: Oregon State Parks and Recreation – Cannons

Photos above from Oregon State Parks & Recreation – 2008 discovery at Arch Cape.


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