Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Bad Way to End the Year 1901

Courtesy the Historic Photo Archives

A surprising thing happened on the morning of New Year's Eve in 1901 . The French bark Asie, newly arrived from Tasmania, had come to Portland under contract with Balfour & Guthrie Co. to load grain for Europe as part of the season's grain fleet. At 8:30 that morning the vessel was at  Davidges Wharf, on the west bank of the river, where its ballast of sand was nearly finished being off loaded. Some of the local stevedores were sweeping the last remaining sand into buckets, while others were hoisting the buckets aloft and onto the wharf. A group of sailors were mopping up behind the stevedores to ready the hold for grain, and another group was in the forecastle mending sails.

Monsieur Ollivaud, the captain, had just left the master's cabin, a cabin which he shared with his wife, and was stepping off the gangplank, on his way to a meeting in the downtown office of Balfour & Guthrie Co. At that moment there was a shift in the vessel, as though from the wake of a passing steamboat, and a second later a loud cracking sound.  From various parts of the ship the captain heard shouts of warning. Instinctively obeying the shouts, he leapt for safety, just as the giant steel masts crashed into the planks and timbers of the wharf, splintering them like kindling. The end result can be seen in these graphic photos, made from negatives belonging to the Historic Photo Archive (from which high quality prints can be purchased).

There were 11 stevedores on board at the time, 3 ship's officers, a crew of 22 men, and we must not forget Madame Ollivaud in the cabin. Her safety was the first concern of Captain Ollivaud who quickly found a row boat to take him to where she was hanging on to the side of the leaning deck, shaken, but not harmed. The ship's guardian angel had been hard at work that day—out of all the stevedores and crew there was only one injury. A young stevedore had been hit by a sliding bucket of ballast, but it was not serious.
Why then did the Asie fall over? Many hundreds of ships had gone through this same process without mishap. The Asie was practically a new ship, in very fine condition. During the unloading process the ship was supported, as were all ships of that sort, by the use of "log ballasts," or supporting rafts of logs along each side.  Surveyors on the day of the mishap declared the log ballast, if properly handled, was capable of holding any vessel in an upright position. They also expressed an opinion that the vessel was top heavy, due to the steel masts, a position the captain saw as preposterous.

The disaster unfolded before the astonished eyes of passengers on the Albina ferry, which was in the middle of the river heading for its west side slip, just north of the wharf where the accident occurred. With each new crossing the crowds of onlookers increased, until the gates were closed. Some sailors tried to salvage the wardrobe belonging to the captain and wife, but sadly, all that could be saved was a small amount of pipe tobacco.

The cause of the disaster was never firmly established. Passengers watching from the ferry affirmed that no one had touched the ropes tying the ship to the logs alongside. Several marine surveyors, all sea captains made their examinations, but could find no clue as to the reason for the ship to shift and fall. It was at first believed that the vessel would need to be towed to San Francisco to be repaired, but the ship owners were eventually convinced that Portland would be just as good, and less expensive. The final tab was $30,000, a huge sum, but only half of what the ship's owners had spent on repairs to the Asie's sister ship, the bark Europe. Never before had this new and unproven seaport attempted such extensive repairs on such a large vessel. The incident could have been a tragic disaster, but in the end it turned out that Portland was put into the spotlight in shipping circles as an inexpensive alternative to San Francisco when major repairs to a vessel were required.

July 24, 1902 the Asie left the Portland harbor with a full cargo, proudly restored to its former glory, its towering masts of steel dwarfed by the fir forests lining the shores of the river. The ship would continue to carry cargo around the globe until December 28, 1919, when it ran into a shoal near the mouth of the estuary at Saint-Nazaire, on the coast of France. The ship was lost, though all the crew was brought to safety.  The figurehead on the bowsprit was removed and taken to the Museum of Nantes.

Courtesy of the Historic Photo Archive