The Wreck of the Cottoneva

Steamer Cottoneva leaves legacy following shipwreck

by Molly Walker
The Curry County Reporter


Cottoneva beached at Port Orford, Oregon

The Cottoneva. She was a wooden steamer destined to load a full cargo of lumber from a Port Orford mill in February of 1937. And the mill was in desperate need of shipping some of their products. Since a shipping strike had taken place, lumber from the Trans-Pacific Lumber Co. had been piling up on the dock, in the mill yards and even on vacant streets and lots in Port Orford. But the fate of the Cottoneva proved far different than her original destiny had predicted.  She docked at Port Orford on Tuesday, February 9, 1937 and the lumber loading started.  However, by Wednesday, February 10, high winds (reported at 75 miles per hour) hit the harbor and the Cottoneva was pushed ashore by the storm. The crew of 26 was saved by a breeches buoy, rigged by the Port Orford lifesaving crews. The ship went aground directly in front of today’s Battle Rock Wayfinding Point and a piece of the ship remains displayed near the visitors’ center. A stop at the Wayflnding Point can conjure visions of just what the doomed ship and her crew had to endure. It was an excellent spot for spectators (as it still is today), who watched both rescue and salvage operations.

The Cottoneva was prepared to load on the “new” dock at Port Orford when she met her demise.  Today, another “new” dock is under construction in a $55 million project aided by a federal grant.


Life Ring from the SS Cottoneva

The Cottoneva was a wooden vessel, constructed in 1917 on the Columbia River. She was operated by the Steeltree Line from San Francisco with E. Stahlbaum as master.  Originally, the vessel had been named the Frank D. Stout. On her 1937 voyage, she was slated to load approximately 800,000 board feet of lumber at the new dock.  As the heavy storm from the south approached a last-ditch effort was made to take her out to sea, because of the lack of protection for the harbor front that direction. But the heavy winds apparently made it difficult to handle the boat in close quarters and she was driven bow first up on the beach. She was lodged, in 1937, between the Knapp Hotel and the Port Orford Pharmacy.

Initially, it was undetermined the extent of the Cottoneva’s damage. The ship had been driven high upon the sand by the hard south wind and, at that point, it was believed to be extremely difficult to get the Cottoneva afloat again. That analysis proved correct as the Cottoneva was involved in a “fatal” accident for the vessel.

It was reported that approximately 200,000 board feet of lumber had been loaded onto the doomed ship, but it was stowed in such a manner that the bow rode high.  When the Coast Guard put a warning out for the impending storm, the vessel reportedly started out to sea.  But the wind caught the bow and swung it around, making the craft almost entirely unmanageable. She struck either a rock, or the hull of an old wreck, and the captain, in order to ensure the safety of the crew, is reported to have driven her up on the sand.

The lumber was anticipated as salvageable, but the hull was a total loss. The life saving crew put men aboard to remove all the personal effects of the sailors, and the men were to leave for San Francisco.

It was reported that “two or three newsreel photographers were on the scene this morning taking pictures and the insurance surveyor arrived to check up on the loss.”

The Cottoneva had also hauled lumber from Brookings a few years ago, according to a January 11, 1937 article in the Curry County Reporter, when the mill there was up and running.

Hundreds of people in their cars ventured to Port Orford to view the wreck of the Cottoneva.  The boat was lying imbedded in the sand and could be reached on foot at low tide.  One side of the vessel was badly smashed in and it was assumed that she probably could not hold intact under heavy pounding of the seas, but as she lay so close in shore and was out of the reach of the breakers much of the time, it was believed that she would not be broken up for some time.

Lloyd’s of London, who held the insurance, took an assessment of the damage and groups of local men made bids on the hull and cargo.

“It was humorously suggested among a group of Port Orford citizens gathered at the post office Monday that the city might lay claim to the wreck and convert it into a city jail, now much needed,” quoted the Reporter article. “The jail would be equipped with a salt water pool which would be useful in the treatment of drunks.”

But complications with shore rights for the Knapp estate led to a question of whom the wrecked vessel’s real owner was.  The sale of the vessel to bidders for salvage purposes was held up by a lien filed by the Knapp estate on the grounds that the estate held a deed granted in early pioneer days by the state of Oregon, which conveyed the property rights in adjacent tide lands.

C.H. Buffington, attorney, stated that a limited number of tide land deeds were given by the state in the early days and that it was unquestionable that the sovereignty of the tide lands along the coast rested with the state and not with the federal government.  However, Buffington added, the provisions of maritime law relating to wrecks presented other aspects of a more complicated nature.

The boat seemed to be technically the property of the underwriters, but the sale was stopped until the question of property rights was determined.


Cottoneva Propeller at the Visitor Center

On March 4,1937, the Curry County Reporter had the following article:

“Thrills and excitement prevailed along the waterfront in Port Orford Saturday afternoon in which there was one narrow escape from drowning.

“Charles Hayes, one of a small crew of men assisting Orris Knapp in removing the life boats from the wrecked Cottoneva, while attempting to tow one of these boats ashore after it was launched, had his craft capsized by the breakers and was badly buffeted by he waves.

“Roy Mills, city water superintendent and marshal, witnessed the accident and swam out to the drowning man with a line which he fastened to him and both men were pulled to shore by those who had gathered there. The Coast Guard were notified of the accident and reached the scene just after the rescue.”

By March 18, the underwriters had turned over the wreck of the Cottoneva to Orris Knapp.  At that time, the Knapps had planned to use the hull as a tourist attraction for the summer. There was also lumber, machinery and other equipment which was salvageable.

In 1937 the Cottoneva had left Los Angeles and was bound for Grays Harbor – but she would never reach her destiny, instead becoming a part of the history of Port Orford.