What happened to the J.C. Cousins' crew?
It was early afternoon on a sunny October day in 1883, and a group of Astorians were standing on the shore watching a small, trim schooner sailing toward them.
They’d been watching it all day, and by now they were a little worried. The boat was the J.C. Cousins, one of the two pilot boats based out of Astoria. On the morning of the day before it had cast off from the dock and sailed out to sea to await incoming ships — to offer them its professional assistance in crossing the Columbia River bar, the treacherous “graveyard of ships.”
But now the Cousins was behaving rather strangely, and the onlookers were starting to wonder if something was wrong.
The J.C. Cousins was a 66-foot schooner that had been built in San Francisco as a pleasure yacht for a wealthy citizen in 1863. Its lines were gorgeous, and it was trimmed generously with expensive hardwoods, and its chandlery was all top-notch.
But within a few months of taking delivery, the yacht’s owner was forced to give it up — whether he had to sell for financial reasons, or whether the loss had to do with the Civil War, isn’t clear. So the gorgeous, luxurious yacht ended up functioning as a pilot boat.
Eventually, in 1881, it was sold to a group of skippers to use in piloting merchant ships through the treacherous bar on the Columbia.
It was two years after that, on October 6, 1883, that the J.C. Cousins cast off from the dock in Astoria for its ill-starred final cruise.
At first everything appeared normal. The J.C. Cousins’ crew rigged the sails for a close reach and stood out onto the bar, making for the open sea. Soon afterward, the little schooner was seen anchored off Peacock Spit, watching for incoming ships in need of guidance through the channel.
But late that afternoon, things had started to look just a little bit odd. The crew of the tugboat Mary Taylor, coming across the bar, saw the J.C. Cousins on the move, sails trimmed for a close reach seaward across the southwest wind. That, in itself, wasn’t too unusual, although it wasn’t clear why it was on the move; there were no ships in sight.
But what really made the situation strange was, for no apparent reason, the boat was sailing through the breakers at the edge of the channel instead of the clear water a few dozen yards away in the middle.
The Mary Taylor’s skipper watched as the J.C. Cousins cleared the breakers and set out to sea. Then, when it was a few miles offshore, it tacked around and started sailing back toward the bar again. When it got there, it once again came about and headed back out toward the sea.
It continued doing this, alternating close reaches out to sea and back toward land, until darkness came and it was lost to sight.
The next morning found the Cousins still on the move. It looked as if it had been sailing around all night long.
Their concern growing, a small group of locals watched from shore as the Cousins continued its strange wanderings. Then, around 1 p.m., the Cousins turned back landward, and this time, made no attempt to come about.
Churning through the surf with its sails still rigged and full of the wind, the sleek schooner piled hard onto the beach and tilted over onto its side.
The onlookers ran to help, but couldn’t get near the wreck until several hours later at low tide. In the meantime, nothing had moved on the deck of the J.C. Cousins. The ship looked lifeless.
When they finally reached the schooner, they found it empty and deserted. Both lifeboats were gone, and the paperwork was all missing from the wheelhouse — suggesting that the vessel had been deliberately abandoned.
There was no sign of the crew on board the ship, and none of them were ever heard from again.
Local mariners and other amateur investigators started coming up with theories right away. The one that got the most attention was the theory that one of the crew members, a Mr. Zeiber — whom nobody in town really knew — had been hired by the J.C. Cousins’ competitors as a rat to murder the other crew members and wreck the ship. This theory gained currency later when mariners returning to Astoria from ports of call in East Asia claimed to have seen Zeiber there, alive and well.
If this was the plan, though, it didn’t work very well. The J.C. Cousins was insured — no one with a lick of sense would run a pilot-boat service on the Columbia River Bar without insurance — and the boat’s owners had replaced the Cousins with a big sloop within a matter of days.
According to author Gibbs’ book, there were also quite a few of what you might call “X-theories” making the rounds in waterfront watering holes as well. Perhaps a sea monster got the men. Maybe there was a mutiny and they all killed each other.
“One demented old beachcomber told how a great ghost ship had borne down upon the Cousins and frightened the crew so badly that they took to the boat for fear of being rammed,” Gibbs writes.
Gibbs, taking perhaps a little literary license with the story, quotes the doddering fellow at some length:
“He would shake his bony finger at them (those who doubted his story).
‘It is real, I tell ye,’ he would frown. ‘A ship of the dead that sails the sea, with a ghostly crew. In the tempest she appears, and before the gale or agin’ the gale. She sails without a rag of canvas and without a helmsman at the wheel.’”
So, yes, there was that theory too.
What, then, really happened? Gibbs’ guess is as good as any. He suggests that the boat strayed into shallow waters and grounded on the sand. Desperate to get away from the ship before the breakers could sweep its decks clean, pin it to the sandy bottom and pound it to pieces (the usual script in such situations), they piled into a lifeboat, which was then swamped before it could reach shore and all aboard were drowned.
The schooner then drifted into deeper water and, its sails trimmed just right, sailed off to sea without a crew.
It certainly possible, and it fits the evidence. But what are the odds that the sails would be trimmed just right so the boat would sail back and forth in the same spot for 12 to 24 hours instead of being blown, as flotsam usually was, downwind onto the coast north of the river?
As with any ghost-ship story, there’s just no way we will ever know what really happened.
(Sources: Gibbs, James A. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; Wright, E.W. Lewis and Dryden’s Maritime History of the Pacific Northwest. Chicago: Lewis and Dryden, 1895; , 09 Oct 1883)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He also produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p. To contact him or suggest a topic, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-357-2222.