SS Columbia

Historic passenger liner. First to use electric light bulbs, made by Thomas Edison himself. Sunk by collision in 1907.
by Matthew Anderson


Year Built

1880

Year Sank

1907

Depth

3000 ft (914.4 m)

Difficulty Level

Technical


SS Columbia

Wreck Location

Columbia lies off Cape Mendocino, California off the small coastal town of Shelter Cove. The exact spot where the wreck lies on the sea floor is unknown. Only the location of where she departed the surface upon being rammed accidentally by the steam schooner San Pedro is known. Based on evaluation of the surrounding seafloor in Google Earth, the wreck most likely lies underneath at least 500 fathoms, or 3,000 feet of water. Though it is possible the wreck may lie in shallower water closer to the coast.

~ GPS Shipwreck Location ~
Latitude:   39° 57' 29.43" N      Longitude:   -124° 11' 2.2596" W

Description

Columbia under full steam and sail in 1880.

(Columbia in 1880 under full sail and steam in rough weather. Columbia had an elegant and magnificent Brigantine auxiliary sail layout which further complimented her pre-existing elegance.)

Columbia
was built by the Delaware Iron Shipbuilding and Engine Works of John Roach and Sons in Chester, Pennsylvania between 1879 and 1880 for the brand new Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. Her homeport was Portland, Oregon. She was ordered originally by the Oregon Steamship Company in July 1879 to join the existing fleet, consisting of the City of Chester, George W. Elder and the Oregon. Columbia was to be a passenger steamship which operated between San Francisco, California and Portland, Oregon with a stopover in Astoria, Oregon. Construction began on what was then called Hull 193 in October 1879. The Oregon Steamship Company was bought by Henry Villard and merged into the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. Villard had massive changes made to the steamship which included grand public rooms of imported wood, lavish first class staterooms and something that had never been attempted before. The crown feature of the vessel was to be her electric lighting system, the first of its kind on any ship in the world, made by Thomas Edison himself. The electric generators were similar to the ones used at Menlo Park and held very little differences; a reason Columbia's generators are considered important to preservationists to this day. At first the electricity installation aboard Columbia caused her to be denied by insurance companies, but eventually, the companies and critics of the vessel, which earlier included Edison himself, relented and showed support.

Columbia made her maiden voyage from New York to San Francisco between July and August of 1880 with a load of 13 locomotives and 200 units of railroad rolling stock. She made a stopover in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where Emperor Pedro II of Brazil boarded her and admired Edison's electric system. The emperor was a large fan and supporter of Thomas Edison. After her arrival in San Francisco, Columbia made her first voyage to Portland, Oregon and arrived without incident. Columbia became exceptionally popular with passengers not only due to her revolutionary Edison electric system and luxurious fittings far beyond anything other ships on the Pacific Coast could offer, but because she was a very fast liner that almost always arrived on time. A voyage on Columbia from San Francisco to Portland, via Astoria, could be as short as a day and a half, about the same time it takes a car to travel the same distance using Interstate 5 now days. Oddly enough, while her running mate George W. Elder served as a troopship along with many other Pacific Steamships in the Spanish-American War, there are no records of Columbia having joined the campaign. There is some evidence however of the OR&N considering to move the Columbia to the lucrative Puget Sound to Alaska run during the Klondike Gold Rush, but nothing ever came of this. In 1898, Columbia broke her own speed record between San Francisco and Portland.

One of the few photographs of Columbia in normal operation under steam.(Columbia around 1905 under normal steam in the Columbia River between Washington state and Oregon.)

Come the turn of the century, Columbia began facing problems, no thanks to the Union Pacific takeover of OR&N. Some were structural and mechanical while others reflected the often reckless attitude of her new master, Captain Peter A. Doran. In 1900 Columbia collided with and badly damaged the Southern Pacific Transportation Company steam ferry Berkely in San Francisco. In 1902, Columbia ran aground in Astoria, Oregon. In 1904, Columbia was transferred away from the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company to a new seperately owned company of Union Pacific's E.H. Herrriman known as the San Francisco and Portland Steamship Company. In 1906, she first collided with a lumber raft in the Columbia River, then during a refit, capsized and was badly damaged in the San Francisco Earthquake. After much trouble, she was eventually repaired and returned to service. In 1907, Columbia was stuck for four days in heavy pack ice in the Columbia River, preventing the steamship from keeping time. Despite these troubles, Columbia continued to almost always remain on time, going so far as to steam full speed in fog. This was a horrible choice that would prove fatal.

Columbia departed San Francisco on what was to be a normal journey on July 21, 1907 bound for Astoria and Portland. Heavy fog and rough seas embraced Columbia as she reached the Mendocino Coast, but Captain Doran remained adamant on keeping her full steam recklessly through the fog. Due to navigational error on behalf of both crews, Columbia ended up colliding with the steam schooner San Pedro in dense fog off Cape Mendocino, California. San Pedro was barely kept afloat with her massive buoyant wood cargo, destined for Eureka, but an 8 foot holl had been torn in Columbia's side by the San Pedro's bow. Investigations into the sinking implied the collision likely took out the watertight bulkhead between the first and second compartments.


(By no means am I an expert on steam whistles, but given the size and shape of the steam whistle aboard Columbia in photographs, I believe this larger whistle, which came off a World War II era Liberty Ship, to be similar in some respect to the whistle Captain Doran sounded that fateful night as the ship vanished beneath the waves.)

The ship began sinking immediately with panic erupting in a scene of pure chaos on deck. The crew and captain did all they could to keep the situation at bay with Captain Doran giving a short but stern approach to the chaotic passengers. Lifeboats began launching without much issue, but the water was catching up on the crew faster than they could launch the boats. Captain Doran stepped into the bridge and tied the whistle cord down making whatever steam Columbia had left sound her whislte in a single continuous dying blast. The Captain waved at his escaping passengers yelling calmly "Goodbye, God Bless You!" Doran went down with his ship, the whistle dying about the same moment the bridge went under water. Seven minutes after the collision, Columbia made a sudden and violent lurch forward, her stern coming vertically out of the water. In the next minute and a half, she slid beneath the waves, taking with her 88 passengers and crew. An underwater explosion of unknown origin propelled 11 would-be-victims to their strange survival. The survivors were rescued by the San Pedro and later the George W. Elder and Roanoke. San Pedro was towed to Eureka by the Elder and Columbia's survivors brought to Astoria, Oregon. The wreck is said to have been caused by negelect and improper maintenance on behalf of the steamship company. The sinking of Columbia lead to a massive impopularity of American coastal steamships.

The wreck has yet to be discovered, but most likely lies within US territorial waters. The exact condition of Columbia's wreck is unknown as the wreck has never been found, but most likely, the wooden superstructure masts and funnel have corroded away since she sank in 1907. Damage from the San Pedro and an air explosion on her final plunge may also be visible. Due to the depth, the main hull might have remained relatively intact, despite its brittle wrought iron construction.

Sources:

AUTHOR NOTE: I am well aware of the fact that these sources are exactly the same as the ones on the Wikipedia page. I would like to point out that I am the author of that page as well and used the exact same sources for information. I would also like to point out that almost all the information on the ship's sinking was sourced from the work of Robert Belyk in his book: Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast and he deserves credit where due.

Footnotes

The Columbia is a mostly unknown and underappreciated steamship. My name is Matthew Anderson and I am the author of this article. I first heard about the Columbia in a book my Mom got me during middle school. Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast by Robert C. Belyk (I highly recommend you buy and read it). In 2013, I decided to dig further into the story of the Columbia and came across the fantastic connections to Thomas Edison and later the Emperor of Brazil and President Rutherford B. Hayes. I can say most of the intformation outside the sinking came from newspapers of the era, financial reports of the OR&N and memoirs. I am the one who has written most of the text for the Wikipedia article and originally published it in the late 2000s. More recently, I have gotten into contact and discussions regarding Columbia over interesting matters, but the details can't be publicly released just yet.




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6 Comments & Ratings

.I have always been curious about whatever info I can find on the Columbia as my great great aunt was a passenger who passed away on it. Her name was Frances Schroeder. The other two women she was with for the teaching conference survived and wound up on Eureka.
Thanks for your interest in this. I will keep this site as a bookmark to check in on.
Thank you for your kind comment Liz! I'm glad you found this enlightening. The Columbia is a favorite subject of mine and I have done all the digging around I could to tell her story. I hope you and I can get in contact sometime over email or meet up and discuss the Columbia further. I'd be glad to tell you everything I know.
That would be awesome! I feel like I need to do this for my family.
Wonderful! My email is matthewanderson707-at-gmail.com if you're interested.
How can we exchange info? My email is lizschroeder27@gmail.com
I hope to hear from you! Thank you again!
anonymous by Joaquin on 10/14/2018

There is a boiler laying on the shoreline at Big Flat about 9 miles to the North of shelter Cove. It can be seen while hiking the Lost Coast Trail. I was never sure if it’s origin, but it may be related to the Columbia.

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