Racing against a fiery death
Storekeepers, restaurateurs, bank tellers — everybody in town was clustered around the beach south of the harbor opening, watching a 7,985-ton passenger liner belching smoke and flames, and praying the 428 passengers and crew members would be able to get off the ship before the whole thing became engulfed.
They just barely made it.
“The last boat to leave contained Captain Cousins,” AP reporter E.J. Griffith wrote. “They pushed away choking in the smoke and blistered by the heat. When their boat came out of the smoke that hid the Congress the passengers lined along the rail of the (rescue boat) sent up cheer after cheer for the commander and his crew.”
A midnight race
When the fire first broke out in one of the aft holds of the Congress, nobody worried much about it, thinking it would soon be put out.
But before the crews could get to the source of the blaze, buried deep beneath stacked cargo, it had flared up to an uncontrollable level.
The crew tried starving the fire of oxygen, but the hold wasn’t airtight, so this only slowed it a little bit. They sent word to the bridge, and Captain Cousins was awakened to the news that his ship was in serious trouble.
The timing couldn’t have been much worse. The ship was 30 miles off the southern Oregon coast. The nearest port was Coos Bay, and it was half a day away. The Congress had a radio, but in those early days of wireless they couldn’t count on anyone picking up a distress call, especially not in such a remote part of the sea.
“All ahead full!”
Cousins immediately rang for full steam, pointed his ship at the mouth of Coos Bay, and had the radio operator start broadcasting distress calls. He also sent crew members out to wake the passengers and get them up on deck.
Into the inky blackness of the pre-dawn September morning the huge passenger liner surged, racing against time to reach Coos Bay before the growing blaze disabled the ship’s nine boilers. When that happened, there would be nothing further to do but to take to the lifeboats … and because of the heavy smoke on the leeward side of the ship, they’d only be able to use half of those.
Cousins was acutely aware that if the Congress didn’t make it to Coos Bay, at least some of the 428 people entrusted to his care would probably die.
Morning dragged on into early afternoon as the big ship roared through smooth and gentle seas at top speed, trailing a thick cloud of smoke. The Congress was one of the biggest liners on the West Coast, but it was far from the fastest; it topped out at just 15 knots. Would it be enough? They’d soon find out.
The fire reached the main wireless apparatus, silencing the frantic distress calls; the radio officer got the auxiliary unit out and kept transmitting. Every crew member who could be spared from other duties was below decks struggling to slow the spread of the fire, which had by this time taken the aft part of the ship and was inexorably working its way forward. Crew members started being overcome by the smoke; their mates dragged them up on deck to revive.
Then — just minutes before the fire reached the ship’s engines — the big liner reached its goal: An area of deep water just under a mile off the Coos Bay harbor entrance. Cousins ordered the anchor dropped, and looked up to see a small ship approaching.
It was the harbor dredge Colonel P.S. Michie, which had picked up one of the last few distress calls sent on the auxiliary wireless set. The Michie issued four whistle blasts to let the Congress know it was coming; the Congress tried to reply, but had only enough steam for two and a half toots. Smoke was billowing from its twin funnels, probably from the fire having reached the engine rooms, but the boiler pressure valves were open to prevent a steam explosion. The big, stove-hot ship was well and truly dead in the water.
“Reassured by the approaching Michie and the nearness of land, the passengers became calm,” AP reporter Griffith wrote. “Women and children were the first to enter the boats. One man was found hiding beneath the seat of a lifeboat as it was being lowered. A seaman roughly yanked him out.”
It’s hard to blame that cowardly guy for panicking, though. Even at the forward end of the ship, the decks were already too hot to stand on with bare feet, and for the first time tongues of flame were starting to emerge at the stern of the ship, shooting out of vents and portholes. Crew members who’d been fighting the fire were now focusing their energy on the evacuation, giving the raging fire a free hand, and it was clear that within a very few minutes the entire ship would be a 424-foot-long barbecue grill.
Because not all of the lifeboats could be used, the evacuation process took some time, and it was nearly dark by the time the last one was away. In the grand tradition of maritime disaster, that last boat contained the skipper, Cousins.
It got away just in time, before the fire below decks reached the bow of the ship and broke through the decks. In short order the whole ship was on fire.
Not a single person died in the fire. But one man almost did. He was one of the ship’s crew who had been fighting the blaze, and was brought to the Michie unconscious, not breathing, his lungs full of deadly fumes. A shipmate actually gave him an early kind of mouth-to-mouth, sucking the fumes out of his lungs (and nearly being overcome himself) and saving the man’s life.
A number of others were groggy from smoke inhalation, and many people had burns on their feet from the hot decks. But of the 175 crew members and 253 passengers, not a single one was missing or dead.
A reporter, probably working for the Marshfield newspaper, was there to describe the climactic scene:
“‘All are saved?’ was the cry that went up from the dock (when the Michie brought the survivors in),” he reported, in a story picked up in the Morning Oregonian the next day. “‘Yes, the last one,’ was the reply. Then there was cheering and more cheering. ... It was an occasion of a real thanksgiving.”
As for the Congress, the ship burned merrily and spectacularly offshore until about midnight, when one of its oil tanks ruptured in a fiery outburst; then things settled down. By the third day, the hull was cool enough to inspect, and salvors were surprised to find the engines and boilers all in serviceable condition and one of the fuel tanks still full of oil.
The vessel was soon rebuilt, rechristened the S.S. Nanking, and went on to have a long and successful career for the China Mail Steamship Company of New York and, later, the Pacific Steamship Company of Seattle. In 1942 it was requisitioned by the British Ministry of War Transport, and in 1946, after serving in convoys throughout World War II, it was loaded with surplus chemical ammunition from and scuttled in the deep subarctic sea north of Scotland’s Isle of Lewis.
(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, 15 Sep-19 Sep 1916; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; www.wrecksite.eu)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast, reading archives from this column, at offbeatoregon.com/itunes. To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.