March 19, 1896, was probably the best, luckiest, and all-around most wonderful day of William Begg’s long and happy life.
But it sure didn’t look that way at the time. In fact, as he struggled for life’s breath in the surging breakers on the seaward side of his wrecked sailing ship — against which he’d just been dashed by a nasty wave, severely injuring him — it surely looked like the worst.
William Begg was a regular able-bodied seaman, 19 years old. Six months earlier, he’d shipped out before the mast on the British square-rigged sailing ship Glenmorag, homeported in Glasgow. Begg was one of those deepwater sailors who, in those dark days just before steam took over, were among the least respected members of society, working a tough and dangerous job for hardly any pay, subject to the predations of shanghaiing boardinghouse operators, scheming skippers, and brutal “bucko mates.”
It was a tough life and a thankless one, and the more imaginative sailors dreamed of getting out of the business and settling down with a nice girl in a quiet community where they could maybe do some farming or keep a store.
The Glenmorag was a big, stout, iron-hulled ship, 255 feet long and displacing 1,567 tons, still fairly new. She had been built in 1876, one of the last clipper ships ever built. She had left New York in August of the previous year, on a cruise that basically involved sailing from the East Coast to the West Coast via Australia — around the world. Her crew was looking forward to a little shore time in Astoria, whither she was bound. Of course, they would have to watch out for the shanghaiers there; Astoria was probably the most notorious port in the world in 1896. But at least they’d have dry land under their feet.
Or so they thought. Because when they arrived off the Columbia River Bar, they found the river mouth blanketed with a thick fog, and the wind had died to nothing.
Over the course of the day, the becalmed ship drifted relentlessly northeast on the prevailing current as the canvas luffed helplessly on the yardarms. This, of course, was not an unfamiliar situation for a sailing-ship crew. One just had to wait for the wind to pick up, that was all.
The problem was, because of the fog, they didn’t know where they were. If they had, they would have dropped an anchor; but they did not figure it out until it was far too late.
“From Captain (Archibald) Currie it is learned that the first indications of danger was the cry of “Breaker on port bow!” from the man on the lookout,” the reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle writes. “He (Currie) immediately attempted to wear around and almost succeeded when she struck and swung around, broadside on, with her head to the southward.”
Things immediately started happening. The wind might have been still, but the seas weren’t, remember, this was mid-March, in the north Pacific. The ocean swells, piled up into great breakers by the nearby beach, started pounding into the stranded, helpless hulk.
And the fog was so dense, no one had any idea where they were, whether they were stranded on a ship-eating rocky reef that would drown every man of them or a gentle and forgiving sandy beach.
As it turned out, it was a beach — specifically, Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula. There was no danger, the sailors could have sat tight and waited for low tide and then walked or waded ashore. But Currie didn’t know that, so he immediately gave the order to abandon ship.
The sailors piled into the lifeboats and down they went into the sea, one on the landward side and one on the seaward side; but remember, the ship was in breakers. One of these breakers immediately seized the seaward lifeboat, picked it up and smashed it into the side of the Glenmorag.
For a moment the air was filled with screams and the water with blood. The sailors, clinging as best they could to the shattered lifeboat — which still floated, thanks to its air compartments — worked their way around the ship and let the breakers carry them toward the beach. They found that two men had been killed outright, crushed against the Glenmorag’s iron hull, and four more — including William Begg — received injuries ranging from minor to severe.
Fortunately for the injured men, the waves quickly drove them almost straight onto the shore. The sailors found themselves on a broad sandy beach, a few miles north of Ilwaco on the Washington side of the river. They were able to find a local resident in a house nearby, and soon the alarm was out in the community and the exhausted, dripping sailors were being welcomed into warm firelit homes and plied with hot drinks.
As for Begg, his injuries were severe, and he needed more than a cup of cocoa. So he was taken to nearby Ocean Park and set up in the Taylor Hotel, where the hotel owner’s daughter, Maude, undertook to nurse him back to health.
And that was how William Begg met Maude Taylor, the love of his life. By the time he was back on his feet, it was clear that he had found a new home, and his seafaring days were over.
He and Maude were married a few months later. Begg built a home for them there on the peninsula, and the two of them settled into a long and happy life there, joined later by two daughters.
“Visiting their home is like stepping into the past,” writes historian James Gibbs Jr. in his book (published in 1950). “Such items as the dinner bell and kitchenware salvaged from the galley of the Glenmorag are still in use.”
All attempts to refloat the Glenmorag failed, and eventually it was salvaged as best it could be and left to bury itself in the sand like the Peter Iredale, a few miles south.
“When I was here in the early to mid-‘50s, part of the Glenmorag was still visible on the beach north of Bay Avenue,” recalled William and Maude’s great-grandson, Phil Allen, in an interview with Cate Gable of the Chinook Observer. “So we’d drive out there at low tide. And great-grandpa Begg would go to whatever was sticking out of the sand and he’d pace it off and say, ‘Dig here.’ Then I’d dig and we’d find the bow and the same thing again and we’d find the stern.”
It’s hard not to picture the pleasure William Begg must have taken in those excursions with young relatives — and to wonder how often he paused to think about the unexpected turn his life had taken on that foggy, terrifying afternoon, when the unluckiest day of his life had suddenly turned into the best thing that ever happened to him.
(Sources: Gable, Cate. “Coming Home: Part 1,” Chinook Observer (Long Beach, Wash.), 06 Mar 2012; Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; “Braving the Bar: Shipwrecks,” Flux Magazine, June 2011; “Wreck of the British Ship Glenmorag,” San Francisco Chronicle, 23 Mar 1896)
— Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.