Many of our stories, thus far, have been about the crews, or the circumstances surrounding our ships, rather than the ships themselves. This entry will hopefully be the first of many, in which the triumph and tragedy of the ship itself can be seen. It's time to remind ourselves that, while the men and the journeys were significant, they are but paragraphs in the stories of our ships.
Mary D. Hume has recently come into the fold, as one of the many whaling ships, and perhaps the most famous, but her story is largely unknown in its entirety, and as I have a personal connection to her timbers (literally), I feel compelled to begin my series on the history of the ships themselves with her.
From the time I was a child, I've felt a deep connection to the sea, in no small part due to a thousand year heritage of seamanship and naval service. I had always been taught to respect the deep, as nothing built by man can truly withstand the unbridled fury of the ocean. We've gotten better at building ships, and newer ships can withstand a lot more; in time, however, the sea swallows all.
My first real experience with this was when I was a young boy of perhaps 7 or 8 years, when visiting my grandparents in southern Oregon. My grandfather and my uncle, knowing I was immensely fascinated by anything having to do with the sea, took me to a small town along the coast called Gold Beach. It is there, where the Rogue River dumps into the Pacific, that I first laid eyes, and hands, on Mary D. Hume.
Before I continue, let's step into the way-back machine, and rewind time to this very spot in 1881. Mary D. Hume is nearby, about a hundred feet away, although still under construction, the wrights' knees cradling her as they finish repairing the last of the damage from a severe flood that nearly destroyed her, before she's christened and put into the river for the first time. Gold Beach was called Ellensburg back then, and Robert Deniston Hume had built the ship after salvaging the steam engine from his first ship, the Veruna, in order to support his cannery operation, after moving from Astoria in 1876 after the deaths of his wife and children. Christened Mary Duncan Hume after (and by) his new bride, on her launch 21 January, 1881, this ship would be destined for a legacy that many ships can only dream of. As an example of her status as a record holder, her keel was cut from a single 140 foot tall tree, which still holds the record for the largest single piece of lumber floated down the Rogue River.
For the next eight years, Mary D. Hume shipped salmon and other goods between Ellensburg and San Francisco, making mister Hume one of the richest men in Oregon, and allowing him to found both Ellensburg and Wedderburn as cities. Mary served her owner well, but as tends to happen in business, she was sold in 1889 to the Pacific Steam Whaling Company.
This is where Mary D. Hume's fame and fortune were made. During her first voyage for the Pacific Steam Whaling Company from 1891 to 1892, she caught and slaughtered 37 whales, and amassed enough baleen, whale oil, and blubber to return to port for a payout of $400,000 (equivalent to just over $10.5 million in today's currency), one of the most valuable takes in whaling history.
Her second voyage as a whaler was long, arduous, far less profitable, and tragic. Despite setting yet another record, this time for the longest voyage ever undertaken by a whaling vessel, she gained far more infamy than glory. It isn't known, officially, how many men lost their lives during the six years between 1893 and 1899, but the number was sufficient for the Pacific Steam Whaling Company to sell her off, rather than see any more men lost aboard a cursed ship. Most of the losses were due to scurvy, hypothermia, or lunacy (official cause of death). The bodies of the dead were stored in ice in the ship's holds until the spring thaw, and were then transferred to Herschel Island, Canada to be buried.
Her glory days now behind her, Mary D. Hume was sold to the Northwest Fisheries Company as a cannery tender in Alaska towing fishing vessels into Bristol Bay. Sometime between 1900 and 1904, she went into dry dock to receive a new steam engine. Shortly afterward, in 1904, she was caught in ice in the Nushugak River and sank.
This would not be the end of her, as she was tough as nails. Shortly after sinking, she was salvaged and sent to Seattle Washington for extensive repairs and a refit from a steam schooner to a tug. From here records conflict a bit, but in either 1906 or 1908, she was purchased by the American Tug Boat Company out of Everett Washington.
American Tug leased her out in 1914, after fitting her with 10 halibut dories for a brief and rather unfortunate career as a fishing vessel. The venture lost the company quite a bit of money, and Mary D. was soon returned to ocean tugboat duty.
In 1939, when the Columbia River lightship was decommissioned, the steam engine was salvaged and fit into Mary D. Hume, and she was given a rather extensive superstructure makeover.
In 1954, she received a 600 horsepower diesel engine, and her superstructure was overhauled yet again, this time putting her into the configuration we can see in her wrecked hulk today.
In 1973 she was purchased by the Crowley Maritime Corporation, having been sold several times over the preceding 36 years, but always proudly serving in her role as a tug. She continued her service for Crowley, towing ships and barges up and down the Columbia River, until 1977. She was retired by Crowley and reconditioned prior to 1978, when she sailed under her own power into the port at Gold Beach, less than 200 feet from where she was built.
This marks the end of her record-setting 97 years of active commercial sea service in the Pacific. It is not, however, the end of her story.
In 1979, she was added to the Register of Historic Places, and plans were made to use her as a maritime museum. Unfortunately, it took 7 years to build a rig and sling large enough to haul her out of the water for repairs and conversion. On the day she was lifted from the water, the sling broke, and Mary D. Hume fell unceremoniously into several feet of thick mud. Despite several attempts and a long legal battle over who actually owned the wreck, she never managed to get free of the mud, and has remained in the same spot ever since.
Finally, in 1992, her position on the Register came into question and she came under review, but due to her fame it was decided that her wreck still held significance among the maritime community, and her status was renewed. However, after the legal battle over ownership, the Curry County Historical Society no longer has the funds necessary to salvage the wreck and make the necessary repairs to make her seaworthy.
Every year takes a little bit of Mary D. Hume, as her planks disintegrate and her metal fittings corrode. In only a few more decades, if we're lucky, there will be nothing left of her but the entries in the record books. Such is the way of the sea. Having said that, if you're ever in the vicinity of Gold Beach Oregon, you should stop by and pay her a visit. When the tide goes out, if you're particularly brave (or insane) you can sneak up close and do as I did as a child (who didn't know better) and place your hands on her aging timbers and remind her that she hasn't been forgotten.
For those of you who can't make the trip, I give you these pictures:
Mary D. Hume in her prime, with her little friend Irene pulling logs through Deception Pass in 1938.
As I saw her as a child (a little before I believe, since the dock was still there at the time this photo was taken)
As she is now
I may revisit some of our ships from time to time, whether we've finished with them or not, as a simple reminder that while they may no longer be in service (or even still extant in many cases), they served a place in history, and so long as our forum exists, they will not be forgotten.