From Tillamook Bay on the Oregon Coast to Cape Scott Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, the harsh waters of the Pacific Northwest have claimed more than 2,000 vessels and over 700 lives.
The combination of high seas, shifting sand bars, and mighty rivers have given this area the name “Graveyard of the Pacific” – an infamous title for all mariners to dare to venture into these waters.
For years, these Pacific Northwest shipwrecks have inspired coastal legends, movies, and even TV shows that are set in the Pacific Northwest!
If you’re up for a blast to the past, keep reading to learn more about Pacific Ocean shipwrecks and their captivating stories of adventure and ultimate demise.
Just a quick note: All the images used are either our own, or public domain!
Why are there so many shipwrecks in the Pacific Northwest?
Due to unpredictable weather, periodic storms, and dense fog, Pacific Coast shipwrecks have received the grim moniker, the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”
Dangerous coastal landscapes along the Pacific Northwest, such as sheer drop cliffs (like these forbidden cliffs), tidal rips, moving sand bars, and rock reefs, create hazardous conditions for ships to navigate, causing many to wash ashore!
The rugged coast of the PNW has inspired Indigenous storytellers for centuries.
Many Salish myths and legends of the Pacific Northwest speak of preventing outsiders from arriving by the coast, thus confusing seafarers and causing them to lose control of their boats.
Since the first shipwreck recorded on the Pacific Coast in 1693, the unruly Pacific Ocean has claimed thousands of ships into its relentless grasp (with over 2,000 from the mouth of the Columbia River alone!).
What are the most dangerous areas for ships in the Pacific Northwest?
The Columbia Bar
The mouth of the Columbia River into the Pacific Ocean is known as the Columbia Bar, and it is one of the most dangerous areas for ships in the Pacific Northwest!
Many Oregon Coast shipwrecks occur at the Columbia Bar because of the rush of water that pours into the Pacific Ocean from the river (over one million cubic feet per second!).
The shifting sandbar also creates unpredictable conditions for even the most skilled sailors. One wrong move, and you’ll send your ship’s skeleton twisting and thrashing on the invisible sand bar, pounding against the unforgiving waves.
While Native Americans knew not to confront the forces of the Columbia Bar and instead lived inland or launched their canoes far from the river’s mouth, mariners faced the Graveyard of the Pacific and often met their end at its wild outlet.
At low tide in particular, Ripple Rock produces turbulent eddies that make it difficult for ships to navigate.
To protect themselves and their ships, people used the Inside Passage from British Columbia to Alaska instead to avoid the bad weather of the open ocean and visit isolated communities along the route.
Eventually, the Canadian government initiated a removal of the top of the mountain in a controlled explosion in 1958 to make the passage safer for vessels.
The Graveyard of the Pacific: 12 PNW Shipwrecks
1. United State Lightship Columbia
To keep vessels safe from the deathly Graveyard of the Pacific, the United States Lightship Columbia guided vessels across the Columbia River Bar!
The United States Lightship Columbia operated from 1892 to 1979 and was replaced by an automated navigational buoy that has since been retired.
By the way: This is an excellent first stop on your Oregon Coast road trip, driving from Astoria all the wya down to Brookings!
2. New Carissa
The New Carissa broke in two and the stern section remained beached for over nine years (though it was removed in 2008)!
Unfortunately, the ship’s wreckage caused ecological damage to the area due to a fuel spill, which was mitigated through burning the fuel with napalm.
Some parts of the ship burned for over 33 hours!
All parts of the New Carissa were eventually retrieved from the depths of the Pacific Ocean and beach, but not without sparking a debate in local residents and officials whether the remains should be excavated or not.
3. Peter Iredale
The Peter Iredale was a four-masted barque sailing vessel that ran ashore in 1906 as it journeyed to the Columbia River (no surprise there…Graveyard of the Pacific, right?!).
4. Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet
One of the most prominent Washington Coast marine tragedies to date is the loss of the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet.
The group of vessels were successful freight ships owned by private transportation companies that traveled along the West Coast.
The biggest threats to the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet were fires consuming the wooden hulls and collisions, and one by one the fleet dwindled until it no longer existed in 1930.
One of the most prominent losses was that of the Clallam where 54 lives were lost after the ship’s pumps and lifeboats failed as it was traveling toward Victoria, British Columbia.
5. Steamboats of the Oregon Coast
The Steamboats of the Oregon Coast were a small fleet of inland steamboats that ran along the West Coast through the Rogue River, Coquille River, Coos Bay, Umpqua River, Siuslaw Bay, Yaquina Bay, Siletz River, and Tillamook Bay.
The Steamboats of the Oregon Coast followed tons of historic routes in the 19th century until many ships in the fleet retired due to shipwreck, abandonment, and lack of use.
Many of the Steamboats of the Oregon Coast were beached near Bandon, Oregon, including the Myrtle, Telegraph, and Dora.
Of all the ships in the Steamboats of the Oregon Coast, the wreck of Mary D. Hume (largely still intact!) on the shores of Gold Beach, Oregon is most accessible to the public!
6. SS Pacific
After spotting a light nearby and thinking it was the Cape Flattery Lighthouse, the captain of the SS Pacific turned the steamboat west but instead crashed into the host of the light–the Orpheus, a sailing ship.
Only two survived of 275 passengers, making it the most catastrophic West Coast disaster at the time.
7. SS Valencia
One of the worst shipwreck disasters in Canada was the SS Valencia, which killed over 100 people, including all the women and children aboard.
The 1,598-ton steamer became a coastal passenger liner along the U.S. West Coast and was wrecked off Cape Beale on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia in 1906.
Some argue the sinking of the SS Valencia was the worst maritime disaster in the Graveyard of the Pacific as the vessel struck a reef and was violently driven into the rocks by the waves.
Due to improperly manned lifeboats, none survived.
The popular West Coast Trail (now a backpacking route) was made as a result of this shipwreck, as a way for shipwrecked survivors to find a way along the coast and call for more help and rescue.
Make a trip out to see the area: Plan a 1-week Vancouver Island road trip!
8. Sechelt the Steamboat
There were only two witnesses to the tragic sinking of Sechelt the Steamboat in 1911: Henry Charles and his wife Anna Charles, people of the First Nations living on Beacher Bay Reserve.
After a long struggle against the winds and wild waves in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, all aboard Sechelt the Steamboat were lost (24 passengers and crew).
Sechelt the Steamboat sunk 80 yards into the depths of the Pacific Ocean southwest of South Bedford Island!
Formerly known as the Hattie Hansen, Sechelt the Steamboat operated along a route between Lake Washington, the Puget Sound (or Salish Sea), and the Strait of Georgia until its sinking near Race Rocks Lighthouse.
The Lupatia was a British bark vessel that was bound for Portland from Japan.
After losing their captain early in the voyage, the shipmates were left to make their way north to the mouth of the Columbia River.
Strong winds, heavy fog, and turbulent waters caused the Lupatia to crash into Tillamook Rock (near the incredible Crescent Beach) where construction workers were working on a lighthouse!
Just 18 days too late after the Lupatia crashed into Tillamook Rock, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse (no longer in use) lit for the first time on January 21, 1881.
The Lupatia’s only survivor was the ship’s dog.
Did you know: Tillamook Rock Lighthouse is considered one of the most haunted places in Oregon?
10. J. Marhoffer
In 1910, after catching fire off the coast of Newport in Depot Bay, parts of the J. Marhoffer eventually grounded at what is now known as Boiler Bay.
Boiler Bay (then known as Brigg’s Landing) was named after the discarded boiler from the J. Marhoffer that washed ashore!
You can see the boiler from the J. Marhoffer at low tide in Boiler Bay!
11. Emily Reed
On an unusually cloudy day, the sailing vessel, the Emily Reed, ran aground on the shores of Rockaway Beach in 1908.
With over 2,000 tons of coal loaded onto the Emily Reed, the ship nearly broke apart when it hit the shore!
Remains of the Emily Reed are occasionally seen after storms in the sand off the coast of Oregon.
12. Santo Cristo de Burgos
The Spanish ship, the Santo Cristo de Burgos, is the earliest known shipwrecks along the coast of Oregon!
In 1693, the Santo Cristo de Burgos, loaded with cargo of beeswax, met its end near Nehalem, Oregon.
The Spanish galleon wreck was recorded in Native history and the story of its survivors passed orally through generations in the Pacific Northwest.
This 17th-century shipwreck inspired Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film, The Goonies, where a group of kids follow a pirate map to the wreck.
Read more about The Goonies and other movies set in the Pacific Northwest!
13. SS Laurel
On June 16th, 1929, the SS Laurel started to cross the Columbia River Bar. One of the steering engines failed, throwing the ship onto Peacock Spit and pinning it onto the sand. The ship slit in two pieces, killing one 19-year-old seaman and sparing the other 32 on board.
Crew members scrambled to the side of the shop that was still floating, as they waited for the nearby Redwing to save them with their lifeboats. All men aboard were rescued, except for Captain Johnson and Seaman Smith, who refused to leave the ship.
14. The SS Iowa
On January 11, 1936, the freighter boat SS Iowa started its fairly short trip from Longview, WA to Astoria, OR, packed with matches, salmon, cedar shingles, and millions of feet of lumber.
While Captain Edgar L. Yates was licensed to navigate the Columba River Bar, he couldn’t predict the gale-force winds headed his way. The hurricane-force winds reach up to 73 miles per hour, forcing the ship into dangerous territory on its voyage.
SS Iowa sent out a distress signal to the U.S. Coast Guard, but when they arrived for rescue, they had lost contact with the ship. Arriving, the spotted waves thrashed at the boat, and lumber and lifeboats spilled out in all directions. No one on board survived.
Did we miss any of your favorite shipwrecks in Oregon or Washington? Share your Graveyard of the Pacific stories below!