In the chilly pre-dawn hours of March 14th, 1886, the passengers of the ocean liner Oregon slept soundly amid the luxurious trappings of what was the Concord SST of it’s day. With the age of sail fading into maritime history, the steam ship Oregon and the other sleek “greyhounds of the Atlantic” battled each other for the famous Blue Riband, the trophy awarded for the fastest crossing, making a journey in six days that took the Mayflower nearly three months.
With an eye to economy - especially given the lavish furnishings of the ship’s interior and the massive power plants needed to claim first place - the builders had saved money in two seemingly sensible ways. Steel was available for shipbuilding at the time the Oregon’s keel was laid in 1881, but iron was chosen instead. Furthermore, the builders did not opt for double-hull construction, which in addition to increasing cost would have added weight, slowing the greyhound. Despite these fateful decisions, she was a sight to behold. ”A Broadway block moving through the water” in the words of one reporter.
The Oregon was not only fast, she was one of the first ships to be decked out with electrical lighting - still a novelty in those days. The electric plant itself has an interesting bit of background story. Her plant had broken down in June of 1884, and she sat in dock awaiting repairs by her electrical subcontractor, the Edison Electric Light company, run by Thomas Edison himself. Coincidentally, as Edison was trying to find someone to fix the ships wiring, a young engineer named Nikola Tesla had approached him looking for work. Edison gave Tesla the job, and he had the ship up and running after a single long night’s work! As some of you may know, subsequently, Edison and Tesla parted ways in a very public feud, but in those early days they both were a part of the Oregon’s history.
In any case, the Oregon was steaming along on her well trodden path from Liverpool to New York City that chilly March night, making a good 18 knots westward and passing by those famous Long Island beaches which were about 5 miles to the north. The air was clear and the seas were flat, and suddenly the watch crew saw a brief flash of white light off the port bow.
In the days before radar and radio, it was crucial to know when ships were close to each other, especially for giants like the Oregon, which took quite a long time to respond to helm commands. Many ships sailing in the busy bight leading into New York harbor have met similar fates due to a collision at sea, despite centuries of experience and protocols designed to avoid such tragedies.
It is not entirely clear what exactly happened that dawn to cause the loss of the Oregon, but it seems that a wooden schooner (suspected of being the Charles H. Morse but never confirmed) collided with the great steam ship and mortally wounded her by plunging through her soft iron hull. The schooner itself quickly faded back into the waters and was never seen again. Unfortunately, the hull was broached at the junction of two adjacent watertight compartments, and the pumps - while they were working - couldn’t keep the ship afloat.
Over the next eight hours, every single passenger and crew member of the Oregon was safely transferred to a lifeboat or to one of the rescuing ships that had assembled around the liner. At around 12:30, she slipped beneath the flat sea and settled on the bottom where I found her today.
We set out from Freeport on the dive boat M/V Tempest, under the command of Captain Tom McCarthy, along with the crew of Captain Pat Rooney, Andy Favata and Jeff Pagano. The skies were overcast and the seas were slightly choppy, but it was a great day to go diving. The Tempest is a terrific boat - Tom and his seasoned crew always make sure to get us to our destination safely and comfortably!
When we arrived on the site, we saw that we weren’t the only ones who had this idea. Hank Garvin, captain of the dive boat Garloo (with whom I was diving last weekend) was already tied up to the massive engines of the wreck in the midship, along with another dive boat, the Fish On. The Oregon is big enough to share, so we dropped a shot line onto the bow of the wreck, and Pat and Jeff splashed in to the water to set the hook, mooring us in place over our home for the next few hours.
As usual, I made my first dive with my massive underwater camera gear. Normally, this is the main reason that I dive, but today wasn’t so great for photography. First of all, the overcast skies and the relatively deep dive site (125 feet to the sand) made for a very dark wreck. Although I usually enjoy playing with strobes and high ISO settings to bring out detail from those shadows, I really didn’t have enough bottom time to make this game worthwhile. I still haven’t done my technical training, which means that I am limited to dives without a staged decompression obligation. What this means, for any non-divers reading this blog (hi, mom!), is that even breathing a gas mixture with slightly less nitrogen than air, I had only about 15 minutes on the bottom before I had to head back up the line. Therefore, the photos weren’t very good (that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!).
One of the reasons that the Oregon is a popular wreck is the possibility of finding artifacts. This was a fully laden ocean liner with 896 souls on board, with all of their valuable carry-on articles. Even though the wreck has been a hot spot for artifact hunters for decades, every season the shifting sands, the collapsing hull and the winter storms stir the pot yet again, and kick out another fascinating knick-knack for the sharp-eyed diver. And that’s exactly what happened to a diver named Doug Buck today. Doug found something that in 1886 would only have been handled by the lowest man on the crew’s chain of command, but in 2013 was a source of envy for every other diver on the Tempest. Doug found a fully intact chamber pot, emblazoned with the Cunard logo and everything! Truly a wonderful find.
Inspired, but lacking Doug’s skill, experience and training (which allowed for much longer dives), I decided to do something that I had hardly ever done before. I decided to leave the camera and take along a mesh goodie bag to try my luck for the second dive. Unfortunately, the area near our anchor point on the bow of the wreck was pretty well scoured for artifacts, so I didn’t find a chamber pot of my own. But I didn’t come up empty handed either - I picked up a few large scallops that were hiding under some hull plates. Captain Pat was kind enough to serve as our sushi chef, and showed me how to slice the delicious adductor muscle into hors d’oeuvres, which were shared among the passengers and crew of the Tempest. You can’t do THAT with a chamber pot!
I learned on this trip that it is possible to enjoy diving without a camera in your hands. I plan on returning to this wreck, maybe with the ability to stay a bit longer. And soon, to the delight of my wife, I will be filling our little Manhattan apartment with the splendid furnishings of that late, great Cunard liner, that greyhound of the seas, the Oregon!