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Tuesday, November 04, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Whaling ship may be bridge's mystery vessel
By Natalie Singer
It was an early April morning 80 years ago when a hungry fire leapt across the deck of an oil-soaked whaling vessel and sent it to its doom.
Now, with a little help from a diver whose salvage of a sunken Navy warplane landed him in federal court nearly 20 years ago, researchers think they've found the Fresno lodged in the muck beneath Lake Washington.
The boat, located just north of the Highway 520 bridge, is one of three mystery objects that the state Department of Transportation is investigating because they might be in the way of future anchor cables for a replacement bridge.
Divers descended nearly 200 feet two weeks ago to collect data on the wrecks, which include the 160-foot vessel and two smaller barges. Researchers said yesterday that clues indicate the boat is the Fresno, a 1,244-ton schooner built in Maine in 1874 that carried whaling supplies from Seattle to Alaska and brought whale oil back to Seattle.
"We're pretty sure it's the Fresno, based on the stuff we've found," said Dick Sylwester, a geophysicist with the Redmond office of Golder Associates, a consulting firm heading up the project.
Archaeologists and investigators matched measurements and physical details of the wreck to old pictures and maritime records, but the key to their positive identification of the Fresno was a history of the vessel provided by Matt McCauley, a diver and historian.
McCauley was at the center of a Lake Washington controversy in 1984 when, at age 19, he salvaged the hulk of a single-engine Helldiver Navy bomber from World War II. With a friend, McCauley pulled the remains of the plane from the lake and deposited them in the driveway of his Mercer Island home. The Navy sued, but McCauley won.
According to an article he wrote, now published on historylink.org, the Fresno was brought into Lake Washington in 1922 and "laid up" at the wharf in Meydenbauer Bay in Bellevue, where whaling ships were kept during the off-season. There, embedded in the mud "as if in quicksand," the Fresno was equipped with a steam donkey, steam winches and other machinery for a wharf-side support role.
In the early morning of April 4, 1923, a fire broke out in the vessel's hold, according to McCauley's history, which he compiled from old articles and marine digests. It took a tug and three whaling steamers to wrest the boat from the burning wharf, but by then it was a complete loss.
Still, the story of the Fresno was not over. A wrecking and scrap firm inspected the wreck and its equipment a couple of days later and decided to purchase the hulk. The price was $1, and the company agreed to remove the boat from the bay within 30 days. But a few days after the sale, the buyer, Nieder & Marcus, backed out because the Fresno had settled to the bottom.
Eighty years later, the state's investigation into the three decaying vessels has garnered much attention, with history buffs from around the Puget Sound region trying to guess the identity of the ghost ships. Researchers still aren't sure what the two barges are. One, on which divers found an old nameplate, could be a craft called the Forest II, out of Aberdeen, said Robin McClintock, an archaeologist with CH2M Hill, the engineering firm working on the project. Not much was found aboard either barge except some gravel and beer bottles.
A final report is expected within a couple of weeks, but the state already has the answer to its most critical concern: None of the sunken objects contained oil tanks or any dangerous materials that might pollute the lake if the wrecks were moved. It will be months before transportation planners might know which, if any, of the wrecks would need to be moved to make way for a $1.5 billion-to-$3.4 billion rebuild of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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