Historic Reenactment: Stories From Beyond The Gravestones

Picture yourself standing in an historic cemetery. The section has scattered gravestones, some imposing, some obscure, some unreadable. Several have Chinese names, and the inscriptions are in Chinese characters. A few have lines or paragraphs in Finnish. Although the cemetery map shows the section is completely occupied, there are many unmarked graves. All of the existing gravestones tell something of the individual occupying the space, some explicitly, others implicitly.

What about the unmarked graves? Have they no story to tell? Just as bits and pieces of costume will create the illusion of presence, research will reveal enough to piece together threads into a compelling tapestry, even if the cemetery records show only a burial date and location, under the name “unidentified man from the SS Iowa.” Various news items and historic documents recorded the names and positions of the captain and crew, as well as the details of the wreck of the ship. An active (or over-active?) imagination produced a monolog from the captain's point of view as he stood at the graves of two of his crew...one known, the other, unidentified. Here is his tale: I can tell you what was. I can share nothing of what is...of what is beyond. I am Captain Edgar Yates, master of the SS Iowa. Well, I was. You will forgive me. I dressed for the ocean, not for the port. Here lie two of my crew members, in unmarked graves, and it was my doing. This one was new to the ship, and I can't tell you his name. This one had been with us for several trips...a Welshman named Philip John Noel. When they found him, they identified him by the watch he carried. A good crewman, he was. I killed him...and the rest of the lads...and myself... The ship's log will give you the chronicle of doom... Oh. I had it with me, and I was never found. Ah, here it is...


SS IOWA Ship's Log – Captain Yates 7:45 pm. Saturday, January 11, 1936: Departed Weyerhaeurhauser pier at Longview, Washington outbound for San Francisco. Cargo: Cases canned salmon, cases wooden matches, wheat flour, cedar shingles, miscellaneous other hold cargo aft. Two million plus board feet milled lumber (6,900 long tons) stacked main deck aft.

11:56 pm.: Docked at Astoria to put ashore river pilot, Captain Stewart Winslow. Note: Received information gale-warning pennants had been displayed at Astoria for the past 36 hours. Weather conditions don't appear to be that severe. Ships have been entering and leaving the Columbia River without apparent difficulty throughout the day. Departed Astoria pier 12:15 a.m. Sunday January 12, 1936.

1:40 a.m., Sunday, January 12, 1936: Crossed over Columbia River Bar and entered the Pacific Ocean. Turned south-southwest bound for San Francisco. Heavy seas. Gale has strengthened to hurricane force. Strong northerly current. Little headway.

3:12 a.m.: Routine radio report of position to the U.S. Coast Guard Station Astoria. Heavy weather. May have misstated position.

3:45 a.m.: Sent distress call. Ship unmanageable and adrift near Peacock Spit, swept more than two miles off course. Helplessly adrift in three to four fathoms approximately three miles west of Cape Disappointment and 12 miles northwest of Astoria, Oregon. Frequent impact with spit in troughs. Captain has sustained a broken leg...


Captain Edgar Yates visits Greenwood Cemetery with Adeline Swenson

The Iowa was a newish, modern ship, 410 feet in length. She drew 22 feet in salt water, and displaced 8,800 tons. We had loaded the bulk of the cargo in the stern holds, with the lumber as deck cargo, saving forward space for additional goods to be picked up in San Francisco. We had done that before, even though it made the bow ride much higher. It had never caused problems...until that January morning. Winds between 39 and 54 miles per hour were not enough to stop ship traffic. I was a licensed bar pilot, and had made this crossing more than 200 times. I smiled at the flapping gale warning, and pushed on. Our one weakness had never been an issue. We were underpowered. We had a triple expansion steam engine, driving a single propeller. We could make 10 and a half knots top speed, which was adequate in quiet waters. It was a rough crossing. We had just cleared the bar, when the gale abruptly sharpened to hurricane force, with sustained winds of 80 mph out of the southwest. Fifty foot waves broke over the bow, and it was impossible to turn back. Those same seas would have rolled the ship over if we attempted to come about, and they caught us broadside. The combination of wind and current over-matched our power. We lost headway. We were blown relentlessly backward toward the shoals of Peacock Spit. We grounded fast on Peacock Spit, but we were three miles off-shore. The towering waves pounded us. They swept our lifeboats and the deck cargo overboard. They opened our seams, and ripped away large pieces of the hull. One of the lads ran for the forward mast, but... He may lie here, unknown but to God. Six others were unaccounted for as we sheltered in the pilothouse. The radioman pounded out distress messages, but they were cut off as the aerial was torn away. I knew from talks with the Coast Guard officers that it would take two hours or more to bring the cutter Onandaga's boilers up to pressure and get under way. They could not reach us before noon. I told the crewmen there was only one thing we could do. I recited the 23rd Psalm, and asked them to join me in the Lord's Prayer. We got as far as “hallowed be thy Name” when an enormous wave hit us. The Iowa shuddered, broke in two, and with the shriek of rending steel, the pilothouse, with all of us in it, was torn from the hull and tumbled across the spit and into deep water. Wave after wave threw the structure like a feather in the wind, and left it on Klipsan Beach, 12 miles north. There were only four crewmen found inside. In all, 10 of the crew were found. Not one was saved. What good does it do to lament, “If only...?” Thirty-three lives lost. I, their skipper, killed them. Here lies Philip John Noel, able seaman. And here...but that's from beyond. I can't tell you.


This monolog was presented at Greenwood Cemetery as part of the Heritage Museum's 2017 Talking Tombstones event. An interesting side note: After the presentation, two in the audience shared that they were descendants of two survivors of the wreck...not that they survived the wreck itself, though. It seems two of the crewmen were in a Portland bar, and lost track of the time. They caught a ride to Longview, but arrived after the Iowa had departed. They drove as fast as the 1930s roadways and automobiles would permit, and arrived in Astoria five minutes after the Iowa headed down river, outbound to disaster.

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