SS Columbia (1880)

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SS Columbia Undated Photograph.png
Photograph of the SS Columbia under way.
Career (US)
Name: Columbia
Owner: Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company
Union Pacific Railroad Union Pacific Railroad
Operator: Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company
San Francisco and Portland Steamship Company San Francisco and Portland Steamship Company
Port of registry: United States Portland, Oregon, United States of America[2]
Route: San Francisco, California to Portland, Oregon via Astoria, Oregon[3]
Builder: Delaware River Iron Ship Building and Engine Works (Chester, PA)[4]
Yard number: 193[5]
Launched: 24 February 1880[6]
Completed: 1880
Maiden voyage: June 1880[7]
In service: 1880-1907
Out of service: 21 July 1907[6]
Fate: Sunk, 21 July 1907, Shelter Cove, California
Notes: Collided with the lumber schooner San Pedro
General characteristics
Tonnage: 2,721 tons
Length: 309 ft (94 m)
Beam: 38.5 ft (12 m)
Installed power: Four boilers, powering a single compound condensing engine
Propulsion: Single screw propulsion (One four bladed propeller)
Sail plan: Brigantine[8][9]
Capacity: 382

The first ship to use electric light bulbs, and the first use besides Edison's lab of electric light.[6] Columbia was equipped with four watertight bulkheads. It also featured eight metal lifeboats, one wooden lifeboat, one wooden workboat, five life rafts and 537 life preservers.

Columbia (steamship 1880) 02.jpg

SS Columbia (1880–1907) was a cargo/passenger steamship that was owned by the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company and later the Union Pacific Railroad. Columbia was constructed in 1880 by the John Roach & Sons shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania for the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company.[6] Columbia was the first ship to carry a dynamo to power electric lights instead of oil lamps and the first commercial use of electric light bulbs outside of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory.[6][10][11]Columbia was lost on 21 July 1907 after a collision with the lumber schooner San Pedro off Shelter Cove, California with the loss of 88 lives.[12]


After attending Thomas Edison's New Year's Eve lighting demonstration in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Henry Villard, president of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, became enthusiastic of Edison's work. Villard subsequently ordered an Edison Lighting System to be installed on his company's new passenger steamer, Columbia. Although met with hesitation by Edison himself, the project moved forward, making the installation onboard Columbia Edison's first commercial order for the light bulb.[13] Columbia would also be the first ship to utilize a dynamo. The success of Columbia's experimental dynamo system led to the system being retrofitted on to other vessels.[6]

The Edison dynamos of the SS Columbia as seen in May 1880.

Columbia was launched in February 1880 at the John Roach & Sons Delaware River Iron Ship Building and Engine Works in Chester, Pennsylvania.[6] Roach himself was reluctant to install the incandescent light bulbs onboard Columbia in fear of a possible fire breaking out.[7] In May 1880, Columbia sailed to New York City, where Edison's personnel installed the new lighting systems.[6] The light bulbs were carried aboard in a shopping basket by Francis R. Upton, a chief assistant of Edison.[7] Scientific American later published a large article describing the Edison lighting system aboard Columbia.[13] If a passenger wanted his or her light turned off, a steward had to be summoned, who would unlock a rosewood box outside the cabin and turn the light off. All the lights were placed in the main salons and staterooms only. The first lighting of the ship took place on May 2, 1880.[7] Columbia finished her sea trials and sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco, California loaded with 13 locomotives, 200 railroad cars and other railroad supplies.[6] While passing through the Straits of Magellan, the propeller shaft and rudder were checked using light bulbs attached to a tallow covered cable.[7]

The SS Columbia around 1880, under full sail in rough seas displaying all of her colors.

After arriving in San Francisco without incident,[7] the original carbon paper filament bulbs were replaced by a shipment of newer bamboo filament bulbs, sent by Edison himself. The chief engineers of Columbia sent a letter of satisfaction to Edison complimenting the superior performance of the light system, stating that none of the lights gave out after 415 hours and 45 minutes of constant use.[6] Columbia safely arrived in Portland on August 24, 1880. Despite this, insurance companies were reluctant at first to underwrite the brand new vessel.[7] When the paddle steamer Alaskan was sunk by a storm in 1889, Columbia carried its captain and crew to Astoria.[12]

The success of the Edison lighting systems onboard Columbia eventually convinced other shipping companies to install similar systems in their vessels, including the British Cunard Line.[14] The next year, Cunard's SS Servia became the first major ocean liner to be lit up by the incandescent light bulb.[15] In service, the Columbia was greatly appreciated for its reliability. In 1895, one observer stated:

Artwork of the SS Columbia in the late 1890s. The Union Pacific Railroad logo is sported on the ship's funnel.

During a major overhaul in July 1895, the original Edison generators were removed in favor of modern counterparts.[6] The dynamos were donated to the Smithsonian Institution and The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.[7] Three years later, the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company was taken over by the Union Pacific Railroad.

On January 30, 1898, the Columbia broke the speed record between San Francisco and Portland. Under the leadership of Captain Conway, she left her San Francisco dock at 10:09 A.M. on January 28 and began travelling on a relatively calm ocean at a fast pace. On January 30 at 1:25 A.M., the Columbia passed the Columbia River lightship, but was delayed for 12 minutes due to fog. After the fog lifted, the Columbia reached Astoria at 3:20 A.M. and arrived in Portland at 10:27 A.M. It had taken barely two days for Columbia to travel between Portland and San Francisco. Although the Columbia was delayed by one hour due to stopping a few times, she was able to shave one hour off the previous speed record.[16]

The Columbia colliding with the ferryboat Berkeley in San Francisco on October 3, 1900.

Following the sale of its steamship, the Oregon in 1899, the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company considered placing the Columbia and its fellow steamer, the State of California, into Alaskan service to Nome.[17] On October 3, 1900, the Columbia was steaming slowly towards its dock in San Francisco, while the ferryboat Berkeley was preparing to leave her slip. Captain Peter A. Doran of the Columbia and Captain "Jim" Blaker of the Berkeley mis-interpreted each other's signals, which led to the Columbia colliding with the Berkeley, destroying one of the ferry's lifeboats and badly damaging the Columbia's bow. Both ships were taken out of service to be repaired following this incident. Another screw steamer owned by the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, the George W. Elder, temporarily took over the Columbia's route.[18][19] On September 14, 1902, the Columbia ran aground near Astoria due to low tide. She was subsequently refloated at high tide and returned to Portland the following night.[20] In 1904, the Columbia and the George W. Elder transferred to a new Union Pacific subsidiary called the San Francisco and Portland Steamship Company.[21][22][19] By this time, the Columbia was considered to be an outdated vessel.

In 1905, the new company was plagued by two misfortunate events. The George W. Elder struck a rock in the Columbia River and sank. She was later refloated and purchased by the North Pacific Steamship Company after being abandoned by her owners.[19] The same year, the Columbia collided with a wood barge in the Columbia River, resulting in the ship being badly damaged. Although spared from a similar fate to the George W. Elder, she needed to be repaired in San Francisco.[23] On February 1, 1906, the Columbia collided with a log raft on the Columbia River in dense fog. Luckily, the Columbia was not damaged in the incident.[24] The fog however worsened enough to cause Captain Peter A. Doran to anchor the ship until the fog lifted.[25]

Columbia lying on her side at the Union Iron Works dock following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Columbia was undergoing a refit at the Union Iron Works dock, when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake occurred. The quake caused Columbia to knock off its supports, roll on her starboard side and hit the dock. The ship's large iron hull was damaged filling it partially full of water. It took two months to make the temporary repairs to the vessel. Unfortunately, the hydraulic drydock being used by the Columbia had taken irreparable damage from the liner's iron hull. The drydock had been of great use to the shipyard.[26] Columbia was sent to Hunter's Point for permanent repairs. Along the way, the crew abandoned ship after a steam pipe exploded. Columbia eventually made it to dry dock and repairs were finally done. During her absence, the Columbia was temporarily replaced by the steamer Costa Rica (also owned by the San Francisco and Portland Navigation Company[27]) and the steamer Barracouta, which was being leased from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.[14] Columbia was returned to service in January 1907. Soon after returning to service, the Columbia became trapped in an ice pack on the Columbia River for four days. When Columbia, became free of the ice, the ship appeared visibly unscathed.


On 20 July 1907, Columbia departed San Francisco, California, with 251 passengers and crew for Portland, Oregon under the leadership of Captain Peter Doran.[12] When it became evening, Columbia became shrouded in fog about 12 miles (19 km) off Shelter Cove, but Captain Doran refused to slow the ship's speed.[12] Even though the whistle of the steam schooner San Pedro could be heard nearby, neither Doran nor First Officer Hendricksen of San Pedro reduced the speed of either vessel.[12] During this time, the rolling motion of the waves had caused many passengers to retire to their cabins due to seasickness. Fifteen minutes later, San Pedro was seen coming straight for Columbia. Doran finally ordered his ship to be put in full reverse, but it was too late. At 12:22 A.M. on 21 July 1907, San Pedro hit the starboard side of Columbia.[12] Doran shouted at the other ship, "What are you doing man?" and continued his ordered reverse thrust, but the impact damaged the bow of the wooden hulled San Pedro[28] and holed Columbia which started to list to starboard and sink by the bow.[12] Passenger William L. Smith of Vancouver, Washington described the impact as being "soft", while music teacher Otilla Liedelt of San Francisco reported the impact as being severe.

Columbia sinking, following the collision with the steam schooner San Pedro.

Captain Doran ordered the passengers to go to the lifeboats and the lifeboats be lowered.[12] Smith, concerned for the safety of his fellow passengers, began going from cabin to cabin and knocking on each door. Many passengers did not respond due to seasickness, while others hurriedly prepared themselves to abandon ship. Smith reported observing a small family holding hands in their cabin, rather than attempting to save themselves. As the ship was sinking, Liedelt noted that Captain Doran had tied the whistle cord down on the bridge, and waved his hands in a final salute.[12] After the bridge went underwater, the whistle died as well.[12] Columbia at this point had developed a very noticeable list to starboard, allowing Lifeboat Number Four to be launched without being lowered. Eight and a half minutes after the collision, the Columbia began her final plunge. The stern of the ship rose out of the water and the ship slipped below the waves bow first in a matter of seconds. Once the ship was completely underwater, a large explosion occurred, sending many people dragged under by the Columbia back to the surface. While many survivors believed the explosion to have been caused by one of Columbia's boilers, Chief Engineer Jackson believed otherwise. He later stated, "I am quite positive that the boilers did not explode. I would have known if one did, as I stood directly above them when the ship pitched head foremost into the sea." Another theory is that a massive release of trapped air from the sinking Columbia caused the explosion.

A recovered life raft and victim from the Columbia on board the steamer Roanoke.
San Pedro half sunk and listing to starboard following the disaster.

88 passengers and crew including all the children on board lost their lives during the sinking of Columbia. Due to the speed of the sinking, many lifeboats were unable to be launched. After the sinking, the lifeboats of Columbia and San Pedro launched a rescue effort assisted by the steamers Roanoke and the George W. Elder, one of Columbia's old running mates.[12] Although badly damaged and partially sunk with a noticeable list, the 390,000 ft (118,872 m) of Redwood being carried in the San Pedro's hull kept the steam schooner afloat. Close to 80 survivors were brought on board the San Pedro. Many were forced to hold on to one another so as not to be carried away by the lapping waves which lapped across the San Pedro's semi-submerged deck. Along with transporting the survivors of the Columbia, the George W. Elder also towed the damaged San Pedro to shore.[28]

Aftermath of the disaster[edit]

In the wake of the disaster, hull inspector John K. Bulger, who had inspected the hull of Columbia eight months earlier with hull inspector O.F. Bolles (coincidentally the first captain of the Columbia), testified that the ship was up to modern safety standards as Columbia carried four watertight bulkheads where law requires three watertight bulkheads in a ship of her size. Despite this, Bulger also testified should one of Columbia's compartments be punctured by a collision, the water would cascade over the ship's bulkheads, allowing the ship to sink. A similar flooding action would occur nearly five years later, during the sinking of the RMS Titanic.[29] Bulger later re-testified, claiming two flooded compartments onboard Columbia would lead to disaster rather than one compartment being flooded. Despite Bulger's reports, it is likely the bulkheads installed aboard Columbia did little to delay the inrush of water. In addition, an issue of the San Francisco Examiner explained:

Of the individuals involved in the Columbia sinking, Captain Doran of the Columbia and First Officer Hendrickson of the San Pedro were found to have the most responsibility for the collision. This led to Hendrickson's license being revoked for five years. In addition, Captain Magnus Hanson of the San Pedro was found to have given insufficient orders to his crew. He also did not come to the schooner's bridge when warned of the fog. Hanson's license was revoked for one year. Despite the errors made by both crews, the survivors and press gave praise to most of the crew members aboard Columbia and San Pedro for their courageous and lifesaving actions exhibited during the disaster.

One crew member who did not receive praise by most survivors was Third Officer Hawse of the Columbia. Hawse was reported to have shown aggressive and indifferent behavior towards injured survivors. He reportedly threatened to throw numerous survivors in his lifeboat overboard. Hawse later stated to the press, that he felt most of the men in the disaster refused to help many of the distressed women. He stated, "I would have shot them if I had a .45." Hawse even blamed Captain Hanson of the San Pedro for denying many survivors from boarding his vessel, which Hawse claimed led to the loss of many lives. Many survivors denied the truthfulness of Hawse's statement, regarding Hanson. Rumors began to spread about Hawse possibly having a morphine addiction. While at the U.S. Marine Hospital, Doctor S.B. Foster reported Hawse had requested the drug on three separate occasions. Hawse was arrested on July 29, 1907, while taking up residence in Second Officer Agerup's home in San Francisco. Hawse was reported to have shown signs of paranoia while being escorted to the Mission Street police station. He was subsequently admitted to the Central Emergency Hospital's dentention ward.

After the sinking, the San Francisco and Portland Steamship Company leased the vessel City of Panama to fill the void left by Columbia. On August 8, 1907, the City of Panama was involved in a collision with the grounded steam schooner Alliance near the junction of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Due to the hull of Alliance being made of wood, the City of Panama received only minimal damage. The second officer of the City of Panama, Richard Agerup, had been on Columbia's bridge the night she sank. The sinking of Columbia, combined with the earlier losses of the Valencia, the Clallam and the City of Rio de Janeiro helped to extinguished public confidence in shipping lines and steamboat inspectors. Despite the severity of Columbia's sinking, some lessons were not learned from the tragedy. On August 29, 1929, over 22 years after the Columbia sank, the passenger steamer San Juan collided with the oil tanker S.C.T. Dodd in dense fog at night. San Juan sank in 3 minutes, killing 77 people. The sinking of the San Juan largely paralleled that of the Columbia. Furthermore, both the Columbia and the San Juan were of a similar design, built in the same shipyard, served similar routes and were both outdated iron hulled steamers. The San Pedro was repaired following the sinking and continued serving along the California coastline until being sold to foreign owners in 1920.[30] She sank that same year.[31] The Punta Gorda Light was established in response to the sinking. Rusting debris from Columbia including a boiler and bulkhead are still visible near the northern section of the Lost Coast Hiking Trail.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Deumling, Dietrich (1972-05). The roles of the railroad in the development of the Grande Ronde Valley (masters thesis). Flagstaff, Arizona: Northern Arizona University. OCLC 4383986.
  2. ^ Ringwalt, John Luther (1888). "Development of Transportation Systems in the United States: Comprising a Comprehensive Description of the Leading Features of Advancement, from the Colonial Era to the Present Time, in Water Channels, Roads, Turnpikes, Canals, Railways, Vessels, Vehicles, Cars and Locomotives". Reprint. p. 290. Retrieved 8 September 2013. 
  3. ^ "San Francisco Call, Volume 102, Number 30". Re-printed (San Francisco, California). California Digital Newspaper Collection. 30 June 1907. p. 49. Retrieved 17 August 2013. 
  4. ^ Colton, Tim (4 August 2010). "The Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding & Engine Works, Chester PA". Original. Shipbuilding History: Construction records of U.S. and Canadian shipbuilders and boatbuilders. Retrieved 8 September 2013. 
  5. ^ "The Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding & Engine Works, Chester PA". Original. Shipbuilding History. Retrieved 7 October 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Jehl, Francis Menlo Park reminiscences : written in Edison's restored Menlo Park laboratory, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Whitefish, Mass, Kessinger Publishing, 1 July 2002, page 564
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h "First "Electric" Ship Came Here". Uploaded digitally. Washington State Library (digital). 13 May 2011 (digitally). Retrieved 18 August 2013. 
  8. ^ "Brigantine (noun)". Dictionary. Merriam Webster. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  9. ^ Jacobsen, Antonio (1880, 18 February 2012). "SS Columbia - Antonio Jacobsen". Archive. The Athenaeum. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  10. ^ Promoting Edison's Lamp Lighting A Revolution, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., accessed November 24, 2013
  11. ^ Kid, Ray E., Lighting the Steamship Columbia with Edison's First Commercial Light Plant, June 11, 1936, 5 pages, accessed November 24, 2013
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Dalton, Anthony A long, dangerous coastline : shipwreck tales from Alaska to California Heritage House Publishing Company, 1 Feb 2011 - 128 pages
  13. ^ a b "Lighting A Revolution: 19th Century Promotion". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 23 July 2013. 
  14. ^ a b "Columbia (steamer)". Database. Magellan - The Ships Navigator. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  15. ^ Frame, Chris. "Servia". Original. Chris' Cunard Page. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  16. ^ "Fast Trip of the Columbia - San Francisco Call, Volume 83, Number 62". Archive. California Digital Newspaper Collection. 31 January 1898. p. 2. Retrieved 22 August 2013. 
  17. ^ "May run to Cape Nome - San Francisco Call, Volume 86, Number 161". Archive. California Digital Newspaper Collection. 8 November 1899. p. 9. Retrieved 22 August 2013. 
  18. ^ "Berkeley and Columbia Come Together Off Ferry Slip - San Francisco Call, Volume 87, Number 125". Archive. California Digital Newspaper Collection. 3 October 1900. p. 5. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  19. ^ a b c Grover, David H. (31 March 2008). "The George W. Elder Defied the Skeptics". Bay Ledger News Zone. Retrieved 23 July 2013. 
  20. ^ "Steamer Columbia Aground - Los Angeles Herald, Volume XXIX, Number 347". Archive. California Digital Newspaper Collection. 15 September 1902. p. 2. Retrieved 22 August 2013. 
  21. ^ United States. District Court (Utah), Southern Pacific Company, United States, United States. Supreme Court (1915 (Digitized in 2009)). Records and briefs brought under the Act to protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints and monopolies, of 1890 in the District Court of the United States for the District of Utah and the Supreme Court of the United States, Volume 5, Issues 2-6. p. 2089. 
  22. ^ Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company (1899). Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, to the Stockholders, Volume 3. p. 24. 
  23. ^ "Steamer Columbia Runs Into A Barge - San Francisco Call, Volume 98, Number 57". Archive. California Digital Newspaper Collection. 27 July 1905. p. 6. Retrieved 22 August 2013. 
  24. ^ "Columbia Is Safe - San Francisco Call, Volume 99, Number 64". Archive. California Digital Newspaper Collection. 2 February 1906. p. 2. Retrieved 22 August 2013. 
  25. ^ "Hits Raft of Piles - San Francisco Call, Volume 99, Number 66". Archive. California Digital Newspaper Collection. 4 February 1906. p. 54. Retrieved 22 August 2013. 
  26. ^ "Pier 70: History". Pier 70 San Francisco - Historic Shipyard at Potrero Point ( Retrieved 21 August 2013. 
  27. ^ "Advertisement for the Columbia and Costa Rica - San Francisco Call, Volume 100, Number 162". Archive. California Digital Newspaper Collection. 9 November 1906. p. 14. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  28. ^ a b Emery Escola Collection (1907). "George W. Elder and the San Pablo". Photo Archives. Kelley House Museum. Retrieved 17 August 2013. 
  29. ^ "Titanic: How can a disastrous ship be celebrated?". Original. BBC News. 31 May 2011. Retrieved 29 July 2013. 
  30. ^ Hillman, Raymond W. (20 July 2007). "Fog-bound tragedy remembered". Original. Times-Standard. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  31. ^ "The Ships". Original. Mendocino Coast Model Railroad and Historical Society. pp. "S". Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  32. ^ Hult, Tim (19–21 May 2009). "Lost Coast Trail - Northern Section - Climber.Org Trip Report". Climber.Org. Retrieved 22 July 2013. 

External links[edit]

Additional reading[edit]

  • Belyk, Robert C. Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast. New York: Wiley, 2001. ISBN 0-471-38420-8

Coordinates: 39°57′29.43″N 124°11′2.26″W / 39.9581750°N 124.1839611°W / 39.9581750; -124.1839611