Assignment: Neah Bay, Washington, 1909; The United States Revenue-Cutter Service and the USRC Snohomish

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Background

The discovery of the mineral wealth of Alaska led immediately to a large development of the coastwise trade along the northwestern seaboard of the United States, and particularly in Puget Sound. Navigators were then, as now, familiar with the unusual hazards of wind, currents, and fog encountered in this locality. The entrance to Puget Sound is through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This strait is a wide waterway stretching from the Pacific Ocean on the west to the San Juan Islands on the east, with Vancouver Island to the north and the Olympic Peninsula to the south. For six months of the year the strait is obscured by fog and haze which, combined with the erratic currents, render these waters particularly difficult to navigate. Deep-water soundings extend close inshore, so that the lead cannot be depended upon to indicate a near approach to land. During the 1860-1910 period nearly 700 lives and many millions of dollars’ worth of property were lost in the strait and in their immediate vicinity. [1]

The greatest disaster of all occurred in a dense fog on the night of January 22, 1906, when the coastwise passenger steamer Valencia, failed to pick up the lights at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and went on the rocks at the foot of the high cliffs of Vancouver Island at Cape Beale. Although the ship did not go to pieces for a day and a half after she struck, 136 lives were lost, there being no life-saving station within reach and vessels being unable to approach her because of the heavy sea that was running. [2]

As  a result of this maritime disaster, on February 7, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered Lawrence O. Murray, Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Labor, to establish a Federal Commission of Investigation into the wreck of the Valencia, focusing not only on the causes, but also on prevention and navigational safety along the coast and inland waters of Washington  State. Roosevelt appointed Murray as the chairman, and Herbert Knox Smith, Deputy Commissioner of Corporations and Captain William T. Burwell, U. S. Navy, Commandant of the Puget Sound Navy Yard, as members. The Federal Commission commenced the investigation in Seattle on February 14 and concluded on March 1, 1906. They examined 60 witnesses, collecting 1,860 pages of testimony and more than 30 exhibits. The lighthouse tender SS Columbine (NAID 45500024) took the Commissioners to Neah Bay, around Cape Flattery, looking for locations to build life-saving stations, and finally to the scene of the wreck on Vancouver Island. Their 53-page report to the president, including conclusions and recommendations, was published on April 14, 1906. The Commission blamed the accident on  navigational mistakes and poor weather. The Commission, in addition to suggesting the provision of additional lightships, coastwise telegraph and telephone lines, fog signals, wireless telegraph, etc., recommended that “a first-class ocean-going life-saving Steamer, or tug, be constructed and stationed at Neah Bay, Washington, the only available harbor within five miles of the entrance to the Straits, and that the steamer be equipped with the best possible appliances of Surf boats and lifeboats, and with a wireless telegraph apparatus.”[3]

Neah Bay, to which the commission referred, is located five miles to the east of Cape Flattery at the western edge of the Olympic Peninsula, just inside the south entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Map of Cape Flattery and Neeah Harbor.
U.S. Coast Survey, Cape Flattery and Nee-Ah Harbor, Washington, 1853. From Record Group 23, Published Nautical Charts of Coastal Areas of the United States and its Territories (NAID 563731), Chart #645, 1st Edition.

Congressional Legislation

Congress acted quickly. A law was enacted on April 19, 1906 (59 Stat. 1640) that authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to establish a life-saving station near Neah Bay, “at such point as the general superintendent of the Life-Saving Service[4] may recommend.” Congress provided $30,000 to acquire the usual equipment, as well as two self-righting and self-bailing lifeboats. The law also stated “That there shall be constructed, for and under the supervision of the Revenue-Cutter Service, a first-class ocean-going tug, for saving life and property in the vicinity of the north Pacific coast of the United States, which said tug shall be equipped with wireless-telegraph apparatus, surfboats, and such other modern life and property saving appliances as may be deemed useful in assisting vessels and rescuing persons and property from the perils of the sea at a cost not to exceed one hundred and seventy thousand dollars.” The law stated that the “tug shall be manned and operated by the Revenue-Cutter Service, and, under such regulations as the Secretary of the Treasury may prescribe,” and “shall cooperate with the life-saving station hereby authorized to be established.”

The Revenue-Cutter Service

The seagoing military service was established by an act of August 4, 1790 (1 Stat. 145). It authorized the construction and equipment of cutters to enforce the collection of customs and tonnage duties. This service was placed under the administrative control of the Department of the Treasury. This service had no official name for the cutter force, but the semi-official terms Revenue Serve and Revenue Marine were widely used. Congress referred to the “United States revenue cutter service” in an act of February 4, 1863 (12 State. 639). The service was supervised by collectors of customs, 1791-1871, except for the period 1843-1849, when oversight was vested in the Revenue Marine Division of the Department of the Treasury. A new Revenue Marine Division, established 1871, became the Revenue Cutter Service by an act of July 31, 1894 (28 Stat. 171). In addition to its customs and tonnage responsibilities the Revenue Cutter Service acted to suppress smuggling, piracy, and the slave trade; assisted ships; removed navigation hazards; enforced quarantine regulations, neutrality laws, and laws prohibiting the importation of Chinese coolie labor, and after 1867, enforced regulations in Alaska concerning the unauthorized killing of fur bearing animals, fishery protection, and the firearms, ammunition, and liquor traffic. The Revenue Cutter Service merged with the Life Saving Service to form the United States Coast Guard under authority of an act of Congress approved January 28, 1915 (38 Stat. 800).[5]

The Snohomish

With money in hand and instructions from Congress as to what was desired, the design of the tug boat proceeded, with the following three conditions that were to be fulfilled: 1. The vessel must be sufficiently large to be seaworthy under all conditions of weather. 2. An ample coal supply must be furnished to enable the vessel to keep the sea for a number of days, as it is presumed that she will be quite often called upon to search for missing vessels. 3. Every known provision must be fitted to equip her for life-saving in the open sea, and for rescuing persons from wrecks on the shore.[6]

The building was done by Pusey & Jones Company, of Wilmington, Delaware, at their shipbuilding yards on the Christina River. The vessel, named the Snohomish, was 152 feet in length over all, 29 feet in breadth, and her displacement on a mean draft of 12 feet 4 ¼ inches with 125 tons of coal and 11,000 gallons of water on board is 795 tons. She was built of steel, with an inner bottom extending the length of the boiler space; the scantlings heavy throughout, and the hull divided into several watertight compartments. She was driven by 1,200-horse-power engines at a speed of between 13 and 14 knots, and her coal capacity enabled her to steam for 3,000 miles at a speed of 12 knots. She was armed with two 1-pounder semi-automatic guns. As required by law, she was equipped with every device of any practical value in the saving of life. The vessel was equipped with two self-baling and self-righting lifeboats and a life-raft, besides her regular boats. She was equipped with wireless telegraphy, with the Ardois system of night signaling, and with two searchlights. She also carried an apparatus for pumping out vessels, and a fire-fighting outfit. The most interesting and novel equipment was a special marine cableway designed by Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company for taking passengers and crew from a wrecked ship when it would be impossible to approach by lifeboats. There was also a line-throwing gun that insured the Snohomish‘s cableway a reach of 1.600 feet.[7]

Four images of the Snohomish at the Pusey & Jones shipbuilding yards can be seen at the Hagley Digital Archives.

The Scientific American in early March 1909 observed that “as Neah Bay, the headquarters of the new craft, is a most dreary and unattractive place, considerable attention was given to providing as comfortable living quarters for the officers and crew as could be fitted in the limited space available. [8]

A photo postcard of Neah Bay, ca. 1950.
A real photo postcard of Neah Bay, ca. 1950. The postcard is from the author’s collection.

The Trip to Neah Bay

The USRC Snohomish, which had been commissioned on November 15, 1908, left Norfolk and Hampton Roads in Virginia on December 10, 1908.[9] The captain of the vessel was Francis Adelbert Levis. The other officers were First Lieutenant Benjamin Little Brockway, Second Lieutenant John B. Turner, Second Lieutenant John T. Carr, and surgeon Dr. Fairfax Irwin of the United States Marine Hospital Service.[10]

The Snohomish arrived at San Francisco on March 20, 1909, in good condition and on schedule, after a trip of 15,000 miles. During the trip she made calls at nine ports and passed through the Straights of Magellan. After passing quarantine the Snohomish went to an anchorage off Sausalito.[11]

After a week or so off the coast of California, the Snohomish steamed off to Neah Bay. It reached and entered the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, passing by the lighthouse on Tatoosh Island, off of Cape Flattery and traveled some five miles to its station at Neah Bay.

Photograph of Cape Flattery Light Station, Washington.
Photograph showing Tatoosh Island with Cape Flattery in background; Cape Flattery Light Station, Washington. SE, 1/2 mile. District: 17. NAID 45708195.
Image of Light station and Indian canoes at Cape Flattery.
Light station and Indian canoes, Cape Flattery. Local Identifier: 26-LG-61-28. NAID 45708183.

Neah Bay

By the time the Snohomish entered the harbor at Neah Bay, a life-saving station had been established there as a result of the 1906 legislation. The station was established at the south end of Waaddah Island in 1908. Not long afterwards large waves from the Pacific destroyed its boat rails. In 1910, a new launchway was constructed at Baaddah Point, on the mainland opposite Waaddah Island.[12] The United States Coast Guard still has a facility at Neah Bay.[13]

The Revenue Cutter Snohomish, Cruises in vicinity of Cape Flattery, Washington (NAID 158884000).

At Neah Bay the Snohomish was kept in constant readiness to answer calls for assistance. In 1915, she was designated the USCGC Snohomish (CG 16) and she was acquired by the United States Navy on April 6, 1917. She was returned to the Treasury Department on August 28, 1919 and her services continued at Neah Bay until December 1, 1934, when she was decommissioned and sold to the Puget Sound Tug and Barge Co. of Seattle.[14] Russell Randolph Waesche served as her captain during the early 1920s. Waesche was appointed Commandant of the United States Coast Guard with the rank of Rear Admiral on June 14, 1936.  He served as Commandant through 1945.


For more about Neah Bay see the 3 part blog series:

 225 Years Ago: Spanish Explorations of the Pacific Northwest and the First Spanish Settlement in Washington State, Núñez Gaona (Neah Bay), 1792.


Footnotes:

[1]  “United States Life-Saving Steamer Snohomish,” Scientific American, Vol. 100, No. 10 (March 6, 1909), p. 187.

[2]  “United States Life-Saving Steamer Snohomish,” Scientific American, Vol. 100, No. 10 (March 6, 1909), p. 187. United States Commission on Valencia Disaster, Wreck of the steamer Valencia. Report to the President, of the federal commission of investigation, April 14, 1906 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906); “Official Report on Valencia Disaster.” The Sunday Oregonian, April, 15, 1906; “Is Equipped for Life Saving Duty,” San Francisco Call, Volume 105, Number 111, March 21, 1909 p. 43; Daryl C. McClary, “The Wreck of the SS Valencia (1906), posted July 29, 2005, https://www.historylink.org/File/7382

[3] United States Commission on Valencia Disaster, Wreck of the steamer Valencia. Report to the President, of the federal commission of investigation, April 14, 1906 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906);  “United States Life-Saving Steamer Snohomish,” Scientific American, Vol. 100, No. 10 (March 6, 1909), p. 187. Report of the Secretary of Commerce and Labor and Reports of Bureaus (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906), p. 296;  “Official Report on Valencia Disaster.” The Sunday Oregonian, April, 15, 1906; Daryl C. McClary, “The Wreck of the SS Valencia (1906), posted July 29, 2005, https://www.historylink.org/File/7382

[4]  In 1878, the Department of the Treasury established the United States Life-Saving Service, charged by Congress (20 Stat. 163) to render assistance to sailors, passengers, and cargo of distressed vessels off the shores of the United States. Earlier, the Federal Government established unmanned life-saving stations along the eastern seaboard in 1848, following the rise of private efforts to save shipwrecked mariners and passengers via shore-based rescue and lifeboat stations. For a history of the pre-1878 life-saving efforts see Dennis R. Means, “A Heavy Sea Running: The Formation of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1846–1878,” Prologue, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Winter 1987).

[5]  For a brief histories of the United States Revenue-Cutter Service see United States Revenue-Cutter Service (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915) and United States Coast Guard (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919)

[6]  “United States Life-Saving Steamer Snohomish,” Scientific American, Vol. 100, No. 10 (March 6, 1909), p. 187..

[7] Annual Report of the United States Revenue Cutter-Service for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1912, Treasury Department Document No. 2669 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913), p. 68; “United States Life-Saving Steamer Snohomish,” Scientific American, Vol. 100, No. 10 (March 6, 1909), p. 187; “Is Equipped for Life Saving Duty,” San Francisco Call, Volume 105, Number 111, March 21, 1909 p. 43; Scientific American, Vol. 100, No. 2 (January 9, 1909), p. 19.

[8]  “United States Life-Saving Steamer Snohomish,” Scientific American, Vol. 100, No. 10 (March 6, 1909), p. 187.

[9]  “United States Life-Saving Steamer Snohomish,” Scientific American, Vol. 100, No. 10 (March 6, 1909), pp. 187, 188.

[10]  “Is Equipped for Life Saving Duty,” San Francisco Call, Volume 105, Number 111, March 21, 1909 p. 43. Information about the officers can be found in Register of Officers and Vessels of the Revenue-Cutter Service of the United States July 1, 1908 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908).

[11]  “Is Equipped for Life Saving Duty,” San Francisco Call, Volume 105, Number 111, March 21, 1909 p. 43.

[12]  Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1907 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908), p. 17; Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1908 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909), p. 284; Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1910 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911), p. 23.

[13]  (https://www.pacificarea.uscg.mil/Portals/8/District_13/lib/doc/factsheet/station_neah_bay.pdf?ver=2017-06-15-151551-767) and (https://media.defense.gov/2017/Jul/04/2001772862/-1/-1/0/NEAHBAY.PDF)

[14]  The log books of the Snohomish for June 1913-October 1934 are in custody of the National Archives and Records Administration and are described at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/6037627

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