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Shipwreck Hunters Pursue 'Holy Grails' Of West Coast Wrecks

Shipwrecks along the Pacific Northwest coast number in the thousands. A handful have become the long-running obsessions of a cadre of shipwreck buffs.

Arguably, the greatest mystery among many in the region to chew on is: where is the Tonquin? Scuba diver Tom Beasley of Vancouver, Canada, has been involved in the search for her since 1982.

"The Tonquin is one of holy grails of undiscovered shipwrecks in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “For me, the Tonquin is the top of that list."

The merchant ship was owned by New York millionaire John Jacob Astor. In 1811, the Tonquin carried the fur traders who set up Fort Astoria, the first permanent American settlement on the Pacific Coast. The Tonquin then sailed on to Vancouver Island where the captain insulted a native chief. That set off a battle in which most of the crew was killed. A survivor retreated to the ship's powder magazine and blew everything up to avoid capture.

Beasley said this likely happened near present-day Tofino or in a bay northwest of Port Hardy, British Columbia.

"There is a lot more searching that needs to be done,” Beasley said. “These are dynamic bodies of water. In the Tofino area, the prime location is probably an area that has dynamic sand. If the wreck is there, it could be covered one day and uncovered two years later."

"I like it because it is a fascinating period of cultures coming together and first meeting. And the conflict and interaction of those cultures," Beasley said. "It's a fascinating, little-known story that should be known more, mystery and adventure."

Beasley serves on the board of the Underwater Archeological Society of British Columbia when he is not earning his living as an employment attorney.

After decades of searching, a rusty anchor recovered from the sandy bottom near Tofino in 2003 is the most intriguing clue found so far. Beasley described the anchor as oddly encrusted with blue-green trade beads, which dated to the fur trading era when the Tonquin sank. But no markings conclusively link the anchor to the lost barque.

‘We're not treasure hunters’

Archaeologist Scott Williams of Olympia, Washington, has a different holy grail: to find a Spanish galleon lost in 1693, the Santo Christo de Burgos. This is known as the "Beeswax Wreck" after candle wax blocks washed ashore long ago along the northern Oregon Coast. Porcelain shards with distinctive patterns have also been found in the area.

"We always make it real clear, we're not treasure hunters,” Williams said. “If I find the wreck tomorrow and we find cannons and coins, we don't get any of that. It belongs to the state of Oregon."

The presumption of public ownership is the same in Washington state and British Columbia waters too. This makes fundraising to mount search expeditions more difficult because there is no prospect of lucre to repay investors who might back a private salvage effort.

Williams is the principal investigator on a search team called the Beeswax Wreck Project, which began its work on a shoestring budget in 2006. When the ocean calms this summer, the team plans to deploy a magnetometer offshore near Manzanita to look for tell-tale magnetic anomalies underwater.

"We think the lower part of the hull is still intact somewhere offshore and that's what we're hoping to find," Williams said. He added it would be really nice to find a cannon or coin with a date on it.

The lost galleon was part of the Manila Trade, a trans-Pacific shipping route between the Spanish colonies of Mexico and the Philippines. Why the Santo Christo de Burgos foundered off northern Oregon is unknown, but it could have de-masted and drifted, or been pushed there by a storm.

The same magnetometer survey technique is slated to be used on a different underwater search this summer. It's so secret it was discussed at a shipwreck conference in Astoria last weekend only under a codename, the "Wildcat Project." What we know is that an unnamed historian is honing in on a small sidewheeler notable for offering the first scheduled steamboat service on Puget Sound. The ship sank somewhere in South Puget Sound during territorial days.

The ‘wandering wreck’

At the mouth of Willapa Bay in southwest Washington lies the 'Wandering Wreck of Washaway Beach." It is a remnant of what must have once been a large wooden ship.

"The beams are so enormous in that wreck. To me, how that can float on the water?” said Marianne Pence, a volunteer and board of trustees member at the Westport Maritime Museum. “There are beams that are 18 inches square. And then all those handmade spikes and all the hardware. That had to weigh a ton."

The wreck appears to be a coastal freighter according to the museum leadership. Marianne’s husband and fellow volunteer, Jeff Pence, said the wreck emerged from the sand in 2009 and has since floated away and reappeared multiple times in the vicinity of Tokeland, Washington.

"You've got over 100 feet of a double-hulled, apparently sailing ship from probably at least a hundred years ago -- at this point unidentified,” Pence said.

Pence showed pictures of this wreck and another unidentified wooden ship hulk in Beardslee Slough, Grays Harbor County, to a recent meeting of shipwreck hunters and maritime history nuts in Astoria. The gathering last weekend was convened by the nonprofit Maritime Archaeological Society. MAS was founded in 2015 by Northwest shipwreck aficionados to receive grants to do more surveys, provide education and serve as an expert resource.

The possible identity of the Wandering Wreck of Washaway Beach near Tokeland has narrowed to two prime candidates that went aground near each other early in the last century, according to Westport South Beach Historical Society Executive Director John Shaw.

"The list is down to the Avalon and the Trinidad,” Shaw said in an interview Tuesday. He said the Trinidad was a sailing schooner originally, later converted to steam power. The Avalon was a classic late-1800s/early-1900s lumber schooner.

"We may never know definitively which is which," Shaw said, noting the scarcity of information to match up with the partially-burned hulk. "Nobody saved as-built drawings of these."

The propensity of this wreck to move and the possibility it may soon break apart adds to the allure of the historical research.

"Not many wrecks turn up and wander like this," Shaw remarked. "Holy smokes, it still wants to float."

Technically, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources owns the old ship remnant, but the agency has not evinced much outward interest in it.

Shaw said a closer examination in November assisted by Maritime Archaeological Society members ruled out a previous leading theory that the Washaway Beach wreck was the Canadian Exporter, a steam freighter. The Canadian Exporter was constructed mostly from steel.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.