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Oregon

Oregon Guion Pride
Cunard Tragedy

By Michael Salvarezza and Christopher Weaver
Image: Courtesy National Archives
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East Coast Diving | Shipwreck Corner | Shipwreck Gallery

Shipwreck diving is one of the most interesting and exciting adventures available to  scuba divers. Exploring the remains of sunken vessels from the past, offers the diver an opportunity to dive into history. Each shipwreck has a story to tell. Usually, these tales are filled with both heroics and tragedy, human triumph in the face of adversity or human failure resulting in the loss of life. Many times, mystery surrounds the wreck as divers and historians attempt to piece together the events that allowed the vessel to be taken by the sea. The northeast coast of the United States is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of these shipwrecks. Vessels from every period of American history can be found in the shadowy, often uninviting waters of this stretch of ocean. Divers can explore wrecks of the Civil War era in as little as 35 feet of water or descend 260 feet to the remains of modern day luxury liners.  One of the most popular and prettiest of these shipwrecks is that of the luxury liner Oregon. She sank in 130 feet of water and lies 21 miles south off the coast of Long Island, New York.

In the late 19th century, the only means of travel across the world’s oceans was via steamship. Of course, weeks were often required to cross the Atlantic and many of the vessels were uncomfortable, slow and not very stable in the often rough waters. For those who were able to afford them, the lavish luxury liners were viewed as the preferred method of transport. In 1881, the steamer Oregon was built for the Guion Line of steamships in Glasgow, Scotland. She was a large ship, measuring 518 feet in length with a 54 foot beam and displaced 7500 tons. Having a three cylinder engine that generated 12,000 horsepower and nine 18-foot boilers which consumed 240 tons of coal each day to generate steam, the Oregon was one of the biggest ships of her time.

Two large smokestacks and four masts fully rigged for sailing made her also one of the fastest ships of her time. She could reach speeds of almost 19 knots. In fact, on her maiden voyage from England to New Jersey on October 7, 1883, the Oregon claimed the coveted Blue-Ribbon award with a record setting Trans-Atlantic crossing of 6 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes. She held this record for two years. 

The Oregon had accommodations available for 340 first class, 92 second class and 1110 steerage class passengers. Her interior was furnished with many elaborate and costly accouterments. She was even equipped with watertight compartments to make her safer than most of her competitors. The Oregon was truly the pride of the Guion Line. 

One year later, however, Stephen Guion went bankrupt and the Oregon was sold for 616,000 British pounds. The Guion Line’s loss was the Cunard Line’s gain. 

On March 6, 1886, the Oregon left Liverpool, England for New York. Eight days later, on March 14 at 4:30 am, the Oregon was struck on her port side by a three masted schooner while only five miles off Fire Island, New York. After the collision, the two vessels drifted apart and the schooner soon foundered and sank with all hands on board. Passengers on the Oregon reported hearing the cries of the schooner’s crew as she sank in the darkness of early morning. The true identity of the schooner which struck the Oregon remains one of the enduring mysteries of this tragedy, although it is widely believed that the Charles H. Morse (often misidentified as the Charles R. Morse), which was reported missing that same night, was the culprit. The remains of this vessel and her crew of nine have never been located. 

Although the Oregon had suffered considerable damage from the collision, she managed to remain afloat for eight hours. Luckily, there was enough time to rescue all 1700 passengers and crew and no loss of life occurred during this incident. In fact, passengers aboard the sinking ship were actually served coffee and tea and had plenty of time to dress properly for the 32 degree weather. Three vessels responded to the Oregon’s distress signals. The Fannie A. Gorham, a schooner, the Phantom, a pilot boat, and the Fuda, a German Steamship, all assisted in transferring the passengers to safety. One hero, Officer Huston, was credited with saving the lives of three children who had fallen into the icy water. Huston plunged into the waters and rescued the terrified youngsters who had fallen while being transferred to a lifeboat. In fact, three dogs, a terrier, bull and skye were also saved from the sinking! 

After the collision, Captain Cottlier recognized that the largest watertight compartment had been breached and, accordingly, he directed the ship in the direction of land in an attempt to ground her at Fire Island. Unfortunately, the boilers flooded soon after and her progress was stopped. When the ship finally began to slip beneath the waves, the Captain was the last to leave his vessel. 

“I never expected to see such an affair go off so easily,” was his comment to reporters afterwards. 

The Oregon settled to the bottom upright with her masts protruding from the surface. Questions abounded regarding the incident. Although shipwrecks were fairly common in the late 1800s, the sinking of the Oregon received special attention. Why was the ship’s commanding officer below decks when the Oregon was in sight of land? Why weren’t night glasses, used to scan the horizon, not being used by those on watch? 

John Hopkins, a passenger aboard the Oregon, gave this account to the New York Times: 

“I was the only passenger up. I had been sick all through the voyage and could not sleep. I was taking some toast and tea when I heard a crash and felt a shock that shook the Oregon from end to end. A frightful crash and clatter as of the falling of an immense mass of iron plates came from the port side.”  

Another passenger reported to the Times that the night was calm and clear and that he had seen the lights on an oncoming ship for half an hour prior to the collision. Yet another passenger, Mrs. Hurst, reported seeing a red light prior to the accident and this contradicted the report given by the Captain, who had been sleeping at the time of the crash but who testified that the schooner had a white light. The color of the lights is important because it would indicate which vessel had the right of way but the mystery was never solved. A Board of Inquiry in Liverpool later concluded that no blame could be assigned to the officers of the Oregon but the Cunard Line, which could no longer claim to have never lost a vessel at sea, dismissed Captain Cottlier.

Divers were dispatched to survey the damage shortly after the sinking and to assess the possibility of salvage. The divers reported scratches running the length of the vessel, evidence of the collision with another ship. They also reported that the Oregon had been broken in two, between hatches 2 and 3. Salvage, they concluded, was not possible. 

Over 100 years later, the wreck of the Oregon is one of the Northeast’s premier dive destinations. She lies in 125-130 feet of water, but her sides have given way and only her engine is still standing upright. The wreck, which has yielded many beautiful artifacts over the years, including fine china stamped with the Cunard Label or Guion Crest, ornate chandeliers and portholes, is also home to a wide variety of interesting marine life. Large Frilled Anemones are found covering the wreck. Ocean Pout, often found only on deep water wrecks, inhabit many of the various nooks and crannies of the wreckage. Red Hake, Blackfish, Stone Crabs and Lobsters as large as 20 pounds can also be seen on this spectacular wreck.

Ship Specifications

Date Sunk: 
Date Commissioned: 
Length: 
Beam: 
Draft:  
Displacement: 
Type of vessel: 
Hull Construction: 
Top Speed: 
Engine: 
Depth of Water:  
Condition:  
Bottom Orientation:  
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Location:  
Loran C Position: 
Latitude/Longitude: 
Notes:  
March 14, 1886
1881 Glasgow, Scotland
518 feet
54 feet

7,142 gross tons
Luxury Liner
Steel
19 knots
(1) 3 Cylinder
130 feet
Broken-up
Lying upright
Advanced
21 miles SE of Fire Island Inlet, NY
26543.3 - 43692.9
40 30' 49.36" (N) / 072 50' 24.37"

Divers who visit this wreck must contend with long boat rides, occasionally rough seas and unpredictable conditions underwater. The waters in this area and at this depth are often cold, with temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s even at the height of summer. Visibility can range from mere inches to more than 100 feet, with an average from 25 to 30 feet. Strong currents are possible as well. The dive season generally runs from April to November and there are a number of dive boats which operate in this area and visit the Oregon on a regular basis. Shipwreck diving in this part of the world requires special training and equipment. It is highly recommended that divers interested in this activity be Advanced Open Water Certified with special training in Shipwreck and Deep Water diving. Many divers wear dry suits year round and dive with such diverse equipment as redundant tanks and regulators, special gas mixtures such as Nitrox, wreck penetration reels, lift bags and other safety devices. Despite the dangers, however, this is a wreck that with the proper equipment and training, can be safely enjoyed by most divers. 

The Oregon, once the fastest of the world’s luxury liner steamships, now rests quietly beneath the waves of the Atlantic. She is a relic from another time. If you have the experience and training, take the opportunity to visit the remains of this once grand lady of the seas. Check with the local dive operators for schedules and availability. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget.

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Last update on: August 12, 2007

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