Peter Iredale Shipwreck

June 8, 2009 — I'm not a scuba diver for all the reasons that you're not a scuba diver. It takes too much effort, money, time, education, and equipment for something that, unless you live on a tropical coast, are a biologist with a hit wildlife show, or were cast in one of the three major underwater movies that came out in the late 80s, pays off only infrequently. Also, as much as I like seeing ocean life, there are just much easier ways to do so without risking decompression sickness, air embolisms, and being dropped into a tree by a fire and rescue helicopter.

I don’t see how my envy of scuba divers could be any more evident.

One of the downsides, though, of being a landlubber like myself is that I don’t get to experience shipwrecks, and that is a tragedy. Well, I guess the shipwrecks themselves are technically the tragedy. Not getting to see their deteriorated remains slowly softening in the sopping sand is just a tragedy slightly compounded and an exercise in alliteration.

That’s because there's something uniquely compelling about a shipwreck, with its barnacled, fish-inhabited bulkheads, soullessly empty portholes, and flesh-picked human skeletons swaying in the current, all alone in the murkiness and pressure a thousand miles and fathoms from anything remotely human. It’s enough to make Gordon Lightfoot write a song.

In fact, to me the image of a shipwreck on the bottom of a dark ocean is highly underused as a symbol, and would, for instance, make a much better representation of death than the usual gravestone, Grim Reaper, Joan Rivers headshot, or motorcycle enthusiast. There’s just something so tangibly hopeless, alone, terrifying, and forgotten about a shipwreck. Wait, is that my view on death?

Regardless, when I found out that in Oregon you could see and enter an actual shipwreck, in the actual place that it wrecked, where it has lain in a more-or-less undisturbed and slowly decaying state for more than 100 years, without actually going into the water, I typed it into my West Coast itinerary hard enough to make my computer say “ouch” and then drew stars, arrows, and evil eyeballs around the item on the hardcopy (the last being my standard doodle and pretty irrelevant to the point). It’s the type of oddity that would have immediately gone onto my “Top Ten Oddities I Want to See” list had I not been able to visit it so soon after hearing about it.

The name of this ex-ship is the Peter Iredale. It was built in England in 1890, was christened for its owner, and is pretty much the classic-looking quadruple-masted brute that you’d think of for the term ship during a word association game...or a session of psychiatric analysis, whichever is your personal experience with such activities.

In 1906, just a week before Halloween (despite my phrasing, not the beginning of a ghost story, unfortunately), the ship was arriving at the Oregon Coast from Mexico, where the plan was for it to slip into the Columbia River and continue on to Portland. It was at that inopportune moment that the storm that is pretty much inevitable in every shipwreck story cropped up, and the ship found itself doomed to the proverbial wrong turn at Albuquerque. The good news (for people who value human life over a good story) is that all 27 people aboard were evacuated safely before it ran aground on the coast.

Despite the bad parking job, the ship remained relatively undamaged. However, subsequent attempts to tow it back out into its natural habitat failed, as the ship had sunk intractably and untractorably into the sand. So they gave up. Because sailors do that sometimes, I guess. The beach can often be as harsh a mistress as the sea.

And that’s the understandable part of the story. The rest I kind of don’t get. And, as loathe as I am to write in detail about my ignorance only to have a reader respond with a succinct and sensible answer that will make the next few paragraph obsolete, here I go.

Since that time, the Peter Iredale has just sat there on that beach in Oregon for more than a century, weathering tides, jungle-gym-ing beach goers,, and—once during World War II—a Japanese bombing. And I don’t know why.

I mean, I know why the carcass abides. The ship was made from iron and steel, and, although much of it was salvaged for scrap, what was unusable was left beached...and metal likes to stick around like an alcoholic party guest. However, after having its bones picked clean, it seems to me like the rest would have been removed for reasons of safety or aesthetics, or at least as busy work for some bored town council. Remember, this is the same state that dynamited a dead whale.

I mean, sure, a 100-year-old shipwreck is cool now, but at one point it was a six-month-old shipwreck and basically the equivalent of that jalopy your annoying and unsanitary neighbor allows to rust in his front yard. My confusion is further compounded by the fact that other shipwrecks along this part of the coast have been removed at various ranges of expense (for instance, the recent instance of the New Carissa).

Alternatively, since it has become a tourist attraction, I’m confused why the opposite hasn’t happened, that it hasn’t been carefully preserved and even more carefully exploited as one. Granted, part of what makes this oddity cool is the fact that it’s not touristy in a “pay admission, here’s a brochure and a wristband” kind of way. I’m not saying I want it to be that way, just that the fact that attractions get to that point makes complete sense. The fact that the Peter Iredale has not, doesn’t.

Of course, it’s not the only example of its kind along the Oregon coast. This is the Graveyard of the Pacific, after all. Every once in a while, some random shipwreck gets unearthed due to shifting dunes or changing tides. Few, perhaps, as old as the Peter Iredale, though, and certainly none so easily accessible.

But you know what? Sometimes asking why is just a dumb thing to do. I mean, it exists, and it’s worth seeing. The rest is just bad horse teeth.

The Peter Iredale is located in Fort Stevens State Park in Hammond, just above the Goonie-haunted town of Astoria. To get to the ship, just take the road named for it, which ends at a parking lot. The shipwreck is right there. You’ll be able to see it as soon as you step onto the beach, sitting there like the exposed and broken rib cage of a defenestrated burn victim. I’ve had harder times finding parking spots in my own driveway than finding this epic shipwreck.

We visited on a cold, gray, and windy weekday morning, so nobody else was there except a few clam diggers who found holes in the sand more interesting than the thing I had flown the width the country to see. We also hit it at low tide, so it was basically surrounded by sand. Not as cool an effect as seeing it surrounded by the shallow ocean of high tide, but definitely a little bit more worth it since we didn’t have to do any wading to get all tetanusy inside it.

As you can see by every picture in this article, all that’s left of Pete is a bit of the skeleton bow and a few masts, all corroded and barnacled to varying textures and shades of rust. No information or warning signs are staked into the ground around it, no fence or barricade stops you from climbing all over it. As I mentioned already, it’s just there. It does, however, look like any second it’s not going to be, pulled back into the sea or taken apart by that town council I’ve already made fun of, but I have no proof of that other than a Robert Frost poem and general cynicism about things.

In conclusion and to shift this topic back from “odd things” to “I’ve seen,” I'm not a beach person in the usual sense of the term. I find it maddeningly mind-numbing to just seal-bask in the sun, flip through some airport-level literature, moisten myself briefly in the ocean, and then repeat the process to a nice sand-encrusted brown hue. However, if I could find more stuff on beaches like the magnum Peter Iredale, I'd proudly count myself among the bleached, sand-clotted, and melanoma’d.