Wrecker: Thomas P. H. Whitelaw and the Story of the Umatilla

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A true tale about one of the unluckiest cargo ships in history, and the man who did what others thought impossible.

The Umatilla was an all iron cargo steamer. Long and broad, her keel was laid down in 1883 as one of the most modern and advanced cargo ships in the Pacific Northwest. And at a cost of $350,000, she was also by far the most expensive vessel operated by the Oregon Improvement Company (OIC). Thus, when the Umatilla finally set sail for the Puget Sound in early 1884, she was loaded down with valuable cargo. She carried several train cars with glass bottles of muriatic acid, which were lashed to the deck. In her holds, she carried a large iron safe and several tons of wooden crates filled with dynamite. In hindsight, this choice of cargo, caustic acid lashed directly above crates of explosive, was perhaps not the wisest choice.


The Umatilla stuck on a reef. Source: Flickr
The Umatilla stuck on a reef. Source: Clallam County Historical Society

When the Umatilla hit rough seas hours after leaving port, her crew quickly realized how poor this decision was. As the ship rolled and pitched, bottles of the acid were thrown onto the deck and began to shatter. Fearing the worst, the captain ordered the bottles thrown overboard. The Umatilla's chief mate, Johnny O'Brien, supervised this procedure and personally threw most of the acid bottles overboard, but no sooner had the bottles gone over than the safe in the hold broke loose. As the ship bucked and rolled, the safe slid across the hold and slammed into the crates of dynamite. Again, O'Brien became the hero of the hour. Thinking on his feet, he took a few men and stripped the crew quarters of every mattress he could find, and then lashed them to the safe. All this extra padding succeeded in stopping the safe's dangerous slide, and also earned O'Brien the nickname 'Dynamite Johnny.'

The crew must surely have heaved a deep sigh of relief when they reached Seattle and unloaded what remained of their cargo. However, just because their ship was now free of its dangerous cargo didn’t mean that its crew was out of danger. Just days later the Umatilla left port and headed back south. She again ran into the remnants of the same storm that had so battered the ship just days before. This time, the ship and her crew were not as lucky as they had been on their last trip. The storm quickly battered the Umatilla and drove her towards the shore. There she encountered, forcefully, an unmarked reef which drove in her bow, tore gashes across her port side, and let the icy seawater rush in. Had it not been for the intervention of another passing steam, the Wellington, the Umatilla would surely have been smashed against the rocks. But thanks to the Wellington's intervention, the ship and her crew were successfully towed to the port of Esquimalt, British Columbia, where the Umatilla promptly sank, blocking the main channel.

Here began the OIC's legal troubles. The ship was insured by Lloyds of London for the full value of the hull. Had the Umatilla been shattered against the reef, Lloyds would have gladly paid out the policy and written off the ship as lost. But because the Wellington had rendered assistance, the Umatilla had been towed to a nearby port where it sunk and became a navigation hazard. It would have to be scrapped or refloated to clear the channel, and that would cost money. Worse yet, according to international naval law, the Wellington was due a hefty chunk of money for risking itself to render assistance. In total, the owners of the Wellington would receive $50,000 for her actions that stormy night. Lloyds was thus unwilling to pay out the full value of the ship, plus the Wellington's fee, plus the cost to clear the wreck from Esquimalt's channel. And of course, the OIC was unwilling to just give up on their brand-new ship, especially without their own compensation. These competing claims were destined for court, where each side was eventually awarded their just due.

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Whitelaw Steps In

In stepped the legendary ship wrecker Thomas P. H. Whitelaw. Whitelaw was a renowned shipwrecker, repairing and raising wrecked ships up and down the Pacific Coast. But the massive, heavy, iron hull of the Umatilla was another matter. Several local wreckers had already declared the job impossible. But Whitelaw, a self-taught polymath with a love of Greek literature, did not shy away from the impossible. Instead, he proposed a "grand bet" with the two ship owners. He would work to raise the ship for free. If he failed in refloating the Umatilla, his work would pave the way for a later salvage operation. But if he succeeded, Lloyds would pay him $60,000 for his services. It was an attractive offer for both Lloyds and the OIC, and if Whitelaw delivered on his promise, they would both save a hefty amount of money and get the ship back.

Umatilla under tow. Source:  The San Francisco Call, Nov 11, 1896
Drawing of Umatilla under tow. Source: The San Francisco Call, Nov 11, 1896

Thus began Whitelaw's five-month ordeal refloating the sunken Umatilla. Unlike today, shipwreckers of the 19th century relied on bulky diving suits, wooden boards, and crude air bladders to refloat a ship. The operation consisted of three stages. First, Whitelaw's men used 400,000 feet of lumber to build a second hull around the Umatilla. This enclosure not only helped to seal up future flooding, it also allowed the wreckers to sink two air-filled tanks on either side of the ship's hull. Covered in rocks, these tanks would stay on the seafloor until they were chained to the enclosure. Then the crew began phase three, raising the hull and pumping out the sea water. The operation that the crew spent five months preparing took less than 20 to finish. With the rocks removed, the air tanks floated, with the Umatilla, to the surface. There, steam pumps began to remove seawater at the impressive rate of 40 tons per minute. Whitelaw had won his bet, the $60,000, and the impressive moniker 'The Great Wrecker of the Pacific.' He was even given special recognition by the British Admiralty for quickly and efficiently clearing Esquimalt's channel.

But despite the plaudits, the raising of the Umatilla had been a difficult and dangerous affair. The storms which had sunk her in the first place repeatedly rolled over the worksite, lashing the workers with snow, rain, cold, and harsh winds. At times all work had to be stopped, for fear of a worker washing out to sea, or worse, a diver being dashed against the iron hull. Even when the sea calmed, sharks, barracuda, and other fish took up residence in the Umatilla's hull. But according to Whitelaw and his men, the worst of all were the octopi; aggressive and large, they repeatedly attack unwary divers.

Ultimately, two men of Whitelaw's crew would die trying to raise the Umatilla. But Whitelaw's ultimate monument was the Umatilla herself. She would finally be scrapped in 1946, having carried Jack London on one of his famous trips, serving in two World Wars, and finally, working its way into Japanese service.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.