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The Oregon Shipwreck  New York's Wreck Valley    pg 1  pg 2  pg 3

Historical and current New York and New Jersey Shipwreck Information and images for scuba divers and fisherman.
 
The Oregon Shipwreck                                               Oregon Shipwreck video
By Capt. Dan Berg

Originally, the Oregon was built for Stephen Guion by John Elders Fairfield & Company of Glasgow, Scotland in 1881.  It has been said that Stephen Guion , founder of the Guion Line, was nearly obsessed with operating a line of the fastest transatlantic steamers so that the coveted Blue Riband award could be won for the United States for the first time.  He named the ships he had built after various states.

 Mr. Guion first tried to win the award with two ships designed to run by water-tube boilers.  The Dakota and the Montana were both unsuccessful attempts as their designs were not worthy of their mission.  Eventually, both vessels became wrecked off of the Welsh Coast.

 Although Mr. Guion was suffering financial burdens, he was still determined to win the Blue Riband for his country.  His next two ships were the Arizona and the Alaska.  Stephen Guion had finally done it.  On her maiden voyage the Arizona averaging 17 knots across the Atlantic won the award so much sought after.  And right behind the glorious winning of the Arizona, the Alaska was launched onto her maiden voyage.  This huge vessel which grossed 7,142 tons became another record holder for the Guion line.  Stephen Guion had now won the Blue Riband award for the second time.

 

 His next vessel to be built was the Oregon.  By this time Stephen Guion was a well respected designer, but his line of ships were in great financial turmoil.  His costly experiments because of his determination to design ships with great speed were taking their toll.  The Oregon was not only the pride of his line, but his last hope for financial salvage.

 This fine vessel was 518 feet long, had a beam of 54 feet and displaced over 7,000 tons, making her one of the largest ships of her day.  The Oregon was powered by a three cylinder engine which put out upwards of 12,000 horsepower and made her capable of running at nearly 19 knots.  Steam was generated by 9 boilers each almost 18 feet long.  She consumed almost 240 tons of coal each day.  Although she was a modern liner for her time , the Oregon was just emerging from the time of sailing ships.  Her modified clipper designed hull carried two enormous smoke stacks and was also fitted with four masts fully rigged for sail.  Her interior was designed and fitted with the most elaborate and costly material of her time.  She had accommodations for 340 first class, 92 second class, and 1,110 steerage class passengers.  She was also equipped with watertight compartments and lighted completely by electricity.  The grand salon of the Oregon was of stunning elegance running 65 feet long by 50 feet wide and decorated with ornate woodwork made out of virgin timber from the state of Oregon.  On her maiden voyage, October 7, 1883, the vessel made a record trans-Atlantic crossing and claimed the coveted Blue Riband award.  The Oregon left Queenstown and arrived in Sandy Hook just seven days, eight hours and 33 minutes later, averaging  almost 18 knots.

 

 In 1884, the Guion steam ship line was forced into bankruptcy.  Stephen Guion sold the Oregon to his competitor the Cunard Line for 616,000 pounds.

 On March 6, 1886, the Oregon departed Liverpool and steamed for New York.  At 4:30 AM, March 14th,  on a clear Sunday morning, the Oregon was jolted on her port side while running at full steam only five miles off Fire Island, NY.  Although there were many conflicting reports of exactly what caused the accident, it has been accepted to have been a collision with the three masted schooner Charles R. Moss of Maine which was reported missing that night. 

 John Hopkins, a passenger from Brooklyn on board the Oregon told the New York Times reporters the following story. " I was the only passenger up.  I had been sick all through the voyage and could not sleep.  I was taking some toast and tea, when I heard a crash and felt a shock that shook the Oregon from end to end".  Then he heard shouting coming from the bow section where he found crewmen looking over the port rail.  As soon as he looked he knew what all the excitement had been about.  There was a hole so large that you could drive a horse and wagon through.  Another passenger, Mrs. Hurst, reported seeing a red light and a sail through her cabin porthole.  The next event she reported was hearing a steward banging on all of the passengers doors advising them to hurry up on deck. 

 The unknown schooner was damaged so badly that it sank immediately leaving no time for rescue operations.  Passengers on the Oregon report hearing the desperate cries of those aboard the doomed schooner of which no one was saved. 

 Captain Philip Cottier was in his quarters at the time of the accident while Chief Officer Mathews was in charge.  The Captain immediately had rockets of distress sent up.  Although the compartments of the Oregon were watertight, the schooner struck the largest compartment of the ship just below the dining salon.  There was just too much water inside the vessel for her to stay afloat, although she managed for eight hours.  The pumps on board the Oregon were worked to full capacity, but didn't stand a chance against the gushing water of the Atlantic.  Meanwhile, Officer John Huston, along with the help of second officer John Hood, attempted to plug the gaping hole in the Oregon's side with a make shift canvas collision mat.  At first the canvas seemed to work, but it eventually weakened and gave in to the tremendous force of the sea.  Officer Huston has also been credited with saving at least three lives, two of which were children who fell into the sea while being transferred to lifeboats.  "Huston plunged into the water at once and saved them".

 

 The eight hours that the Oregon stayed afloat was enough time for all 845 passengers and crew to be rescued by the vessels Fannie A. Gorhan, Fulda and the pilot boat , Phantom.  There was even enough time for the crew to serve the passengers hot tea and toast,  and for the passengers to be sent to retrieve warmer clothing from their cabins.  However, their way to the cabins was obstructed by watertight doors.  It is reported that the passengers remained calm throughout the ordeal. 

 As is the custom, Captain Cottier was the last to leave his ship before she plunged bow first to the ocean floor leaving all four masts still sticking up above the waters surface.  The Captain commented to reporters that "I never expected to see such an affair go off so easily.  Not a soul on board the Oregon was lost."

 A hearing was conducted by the Liverpool Board of Inquiry to find who was at fault for this tragedy at sea. Although Captain Cottier was known to be a fine commander and navigator with more experience than any other skipper in the Cunard Line, he was held responsible for the accident and relieved from any future duty.

 On March 14, 1986, I joined a group of divers lead by Captain Steve Bielenda aboard the R.V. Wahoo. We participated in a 100th anniversary commemorative dive on this magnificent shipwreck. Despite the cold weather everyone participated, and each was given a copper wall plaque to document the historic dive.

 Divers who want to experience the grandeur of the Oregon first hand can utilize a number of charter boats running out of either Captree Boat Basin, Freeport or even charters as far as the Jersey coast. Trips from Long Island to the wreck average about three hours. Boats steaming from Jersey take a bit longer. New York's prime dive season starts in May and runs through September. During this time, divers will want to wear a full wet suit, hood, boots and gloves, especially while descending on an offshore wreck. For the more hardy dry suited divers, our season is extended from April straight through November, weather permitting. Equipment needed would be the same as for any cold water deep wreck dive. Depth gauge, bottom timer, dive computers, two dive knives, lights, tether line and an adequate air supply. Many divers choose to mount double tank systems, while others add a pony bottle to their single tank. Once in the water divers will find that the visibility at this site is usually excellent. Average horizontal visibility is around 40 feet. Bear in mind that this is only an average, actual visibility ranges, from two feet to over 90 feet, depending on weather and wind. By the time divers descend to the wreck they will already have witnessed the huge array of aquatic life in the area. Everything from schooling bait fish, bergals, black fish, angler fish, ling and shark can be found around the Oregon. Once on the bottom navigation around the wreck could be a little tricky for a new comer. The wreck's fallen twisted hull plates look remarkably similar. It is wise to stay within sight of the anchor line or to use a tether line. By taking these simple precautions finding the way back to the charter boats anchor for ascent and a safety decompression hang is made easy. As a diver visits the wreck more frequently he will learn of certain landmarks or road signs that allow for more freedom in exploration. For example, we use her engine, boilers, winches, masts and other distinctive debris, and know where each is in relation to the other in order to find our way around. This knowledge comes only from multiple dives but divers new to the Oregon can get a good understanding of how this wreck rests by studying a sketch done by Captain Steve Bielenda. This sketch, which took several years of mapping to complete, is the most descriptive comprehensive record in existence of the Oregon's final resting place. Much can be learned that will enhance a dive by those who familiarize themselves with her layout.

 Today, the Oregon lies in 125 to 130 feet of water 21 miles South East of Fire Island Inlet, an area known as Wreck Valley. Her bow is resting on its starboard side on a clean sand bottom. Her steel hull plates have given way to the elements of time and collapsed, leaving only her engine standing upright. In the stern divers can see her huge propeller half buried in the sand. Although much of the wreck is low lying some of her hull plates have fallen into tent like structures that allow experienced divers to penetrate her. Divers have brought up all kinds of artifacts including portholes, bottles, ornate chandeliers, clay pipes, silverware and fine china stamped with the Cunard or Guion steamship crest. Many artifacts are still waiting to be found. On almost every dive portholes can be found. The only problem is more often than not they are facing down with no access from underneath. My dive partner Rick Schwarz and I were looking for lobsters on one dive, when he spotted the edge of a white rim just above the sand. Rick carefully fanned away until he had uncovered an intact Chamber Pot, or as we call them Thunder Bowls. Chamber Pots are one of the rarest forms of china found on the wreck, and are considered a prized find. One good location for artifacts is around the boilers. Don't be to concerned however if the charter boats anchor is not in this area, prized artifacts have been recovered from bow to stern. The only secret to finding treasure is persistence and a little luck. The Oregon is also well known for the abundance of lobsters that have made her their home, some as large as 20 pounds. One way to find these tasty crustaceans is to look for their antennas sticking out from under hull plates or between ribs. The next trick is to catch them. One swift thrust landing your hand on the lobsters body, just behind the claws, will do the trick. Next, just wiggle him out and insert him tail first into a mesh bag. Putting the lobster in tail first will help prevent him from escaping. Lobsters swim backwards, so once you let go the bug swims deeper into the bag and not out of it.

 It seems that the Oregon did not die when she sank over 100 years ago, she has continued her life as one of the East coast's finest shipwrecks. The Oregon has everything a diver could want, good visibility, fish, lobsters, artifacts and a fascinating history.

 

Fred Belise made this Rosary from glass beads recovered from the Oregon Shipwreck.

 

         

   

Shipwreck in a bottle (see how it was built)

    

 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 

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