On February 15, 1930, in dense fog, the SS Admiral Benson, inbound to Portland from San Francisco with 39 passengers and 65 crew aboard, runs aground on Peacock Spit at Cape Disappointment. Because the weather and seas are relatively calm and the ship appears undamaged, Captain Charles C. Graham (1887-1959) doesn't send a distress signal, but only requests assistance. The next day, surfboats from the Coast Guard Lifesaving Stations at Point Adams and Cape Disappointment will remove 34 of the passenger and nonessential crewmembers. At high tide, Captain Graham will attempt to refloat the vessel, but she remains hard aground. On February 17, as the weather deteriorates, Coast Guard surf boats will remove the remaining five passengers and most of the remaining crew. The next day, the storm will intensify. The last of the crewmembers will be brought ashore by breeches buoy. Captain Graham will stay aboard the Admiral Benson until February 23, 1930, when the storm will abate. Later he will plead guilty to negligence at an official hearing and have his Master Mariner license suspended for six months. Salvagers will remove most of the cargo and efforts to save the stranded vessel will be abandoned.
The ship, originally named the USS Tipton, was built by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation at Wilmington, Delaware, in 1918 for the U.S. Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation. In 1923, the ship was acquired by Baltimore & Carolina Steamship Company and called the Esther Weems. The ship was purchased in 1927 by the Pacific Steamship Company, doing business as the Admiral Line, and renamed the Admiral Benson. The 3,049-ton, steel-hulled vessel was 266.6 feet in length, had a 45-foot beam and a 22.5 foot draft. Homeported in San Francisco, the Admiral Benson ran between California ports and Portland, Oregon, hauling passengers and freight.
On Saturday, February 15, 1930, the intercoastal steamship Admiral Benson, commanded by Captain Charles Graham, was off the coast of Oregon inbound to Portland from San Francisco with 39 passengers and 65 crewmembers aboard. Weather and seas were relatively calm, but dense fog enveloped the entrance to the Columbia River. At 6:40 p.m., the vessel ran aground on the south end of Peacock Spit, a quarter mile west of the north jetty. It was a relatively gentle grounding and the Admiral Benson was undamaged and not in immediate danger. Captain Graham radioed the Coast Guard at Astoria requesting assistance in pulling the ship’s bow off the shoal.
The 188-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter Redwing (WAT-48), stationed at Astoria, was ordered to assist the Admiral Benson, but she had no steam up and was unable to get underway for several hours. The freighter SS Nevada responded to the call for assistance and stood by the stranded steamship until help arrived from the Coast Guard Lifesaving Stations at Point Adams and Cape Disappointment. By Sunday afternoon, February 16, Coast Guard surfmen in self-righting and self-bailing, 36-foot motor surfboats had removed 34 of the passengers and some of the nonessential crewmembers from the Admiral Benson. Captain Graham and the crew remaining onboard directed their efforts in attempting to refloat the liner, but she remained hard aground.
On Monday morning, February 17, the weather began to deteriorate and gale warnings were posted along the coast of Washington and Oregon. Strong southerly winds and rough seas prevailed in advance of the storm, driving the Admiral Benson farther onto the shoal. Several tugboats, including the powerful Canadian seagoing tug Salvage King, stood by to attempt to pull the Admiral Benson into deep water at high tide, but efforts to get towing hawsers aboard the liner proved fruitless in the face of the rising storm. At 9:05 a.m., the five remaining passengers and all crewmembers except the captain, three mates, and the radio operator were taken ashore. At noon, the decision was made to abandon efforts to pull the Admiral Benson off Peacock Spit until the storm passed. Captain Graham flooded the cargo holds in an effort to keep the heavy swells from pounding the hull against the sandbar.
On Tuesday morning, February 18, surfmen from the Cape Disappointment Lifesaving Station removed the remaining four crewmembers by breeches buoy at low tide. Captain Graham, however, was determined to stay aboard until all hope of saving the Admiral Benson had vanished. The highline rigging carrying the breeches buoy, running from the ship to shore, remained ready for emergency use by the Coast Guard.
Bad Weather Getting Worse
The gale continued to worsen over the next several days, with winds gusting from the south and southwest up to 60 mph. Captain Graham radioed the Coast Guard that riveting was starting to fail on the hull amidships and the ship showed signs of breaking up, but the Admiral Benson withstood the onslaught relatively intact. At each high tide, however, the wind and surf moved the liner further onto Peacock Spit. The stern of the Admiral Benson sank deep into the sand and her bow emerged from the water. By now, the likelihood of tugboats pulling the vessel off the shoal was nil.
Finally, on Sunday, February 23, 1930, Captain Graham abandoned his vigil and left the Admiral Benson by way of breeches buoy during a lull in the storm. After collecting his personal effects at the Cape Disappointment Lifesaving Station, he left for Portland, Oregon, to meet with Captains Frank X. Edthofer and John E. Wynn of the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service and report his version of the ship's grounding.
The inquest was held on Tuesday, February 25, 1930, at the U.S. Customs House, 220 NW 8th Avenue in downtown Portland. During the hearing, Captain Graham testified that it was only his second trip to Portland and that he hadn’t the experience to navigate the Admiral Benson across the Columbia River Bar under adverse weather conditions. He offered no explanation for the grounding other than misjudgment of the strong northerly ocean currents that carried the liner off course in the heavy fog. Captain Graham pleaded guilty to a charge of negligence and his Master Mariner license was suspended for a period of six months. During his suspension, he acted as port captain for the Pacific Steamship Company in Seattle. In 1931 he returned to sea as master of several of the Admiral Line steamships.
The Association of Marine Insurance Underwriters sent salvagers to Cape Disappointment to protect the liner from being pillaged. After the storm, the salvage crew, using the Coast Guard's highline rigging, ran gondolas to the wreck and removed all useable cargo, which was taken to Astoria. The difficult venture took two weeks to accomplish. The Pacific Steamship Company decided to abandon all efforts to refloat the Admiral Benson. Over time, scavengers removed all the salvageable equipment and furnishings and the hulk was left sitting upright at an oblique angle upon the shoal.
It took years for the vessel to break up. Some of the wreckage is still visible at extreme low tide.