A holiday trip ended in tragedy for a Pendleton woman in 1921 when the steamer ship she was sailing on ran aground in dense fog on Blunts Reef off the northern California coast.
Ruth Hart, a telegraph operator for the O.-W. R. & N. Railroad in Pendleton, boarded the steamer Alaska in Portland on Aug. 5, 1921, en route to California for a month-long holiday. The following evening the steamer’s inexperienced crew lost its way in heavy fog off the northern California coast south of Eureka and, though they changed course several times, the steamer was allowed to travel too close to shore. The foghorn near Blunts Reef was heard, but couldn’t be located.
When the steamer crashed into the reef, the passengers flooded the decks in an attempt to secure a place on the ship’s lifeboats. But the green crew badly bungled the launch of the loaded boats and two were upset, throwing their passengers into the water. The ship sank in just 30 minutes. Captain Hovey was last seen on the bridge of the steamer with two wireless operators, one of whom bailed into the water just before the steamer went under.
The survivors, clinging to debris from the sunken steamer, floated for hours before the steamer Anyox, alerted by the S.O.S. calls from the Alaska, arrived at the crash site to begin rescue efforts, eventually picking up 166 of the more than 210 passengers and crew. Many of the survivors were covered in fuel oil from the steamer’s ruptured tanks. Residents of Eureka provided, food, clothing and baths for the rescued passengers, most of whom were transported to San Francisco the following evening. Fishing boats from nearby villages had the grim task of hauling the bodies of the dead ashore.
Though accounts of the accident varied, passengers and crew said the wreck would not have occurred if the steamer had not been traveling too fast along the treacherous coastline in an attempt to make up speed. The inexperienced deck crew also took much of the blame, one boatswain stating that only five of the 14 crew members were competent in their duties.
The dead washed ashore for days. On August 10, the body of a girl about 25 years of age wearing a wrist watch bearing the initials R.G.H. and a lapel pin with the letters O.R.T. (Order of Railway Telegraphers) was found. Ruth’s sister, Julia Metzler of La Grande, traveled to Eureka to identify her body and bring it home.
Ruth Hart was laid to rest August 15, 1921, next to her parents at Olney Cemetery in Pendleton.