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Originally published January 11, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified January 12, 2010 at 10:00 AM

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Buried treasure: Ship's skeleton emerges at Washaway Beach

What appears to be a buried shipwreck is being exposed by the rapid erosion at Washaway Beach south of Grayland on the Pacific Coast. Some think the remains could be part of the Canadian Exporter, a lumber-loaded freighter that broke in two in 1921.

Seattle Times staff reporter

GRAYLAND, Pacific County — For more than a century, the Pacific Ocean has clawed away at Washaway Beach, a 2-mile stretch of eroding coastline just south of Grayland.

With nature claiming so much, it seemed only fair that it offer something in return. Now it has — the buried wreckage of an old vessel revealing more of itself with every outgoing tide.

"Nobody knew it was there," said Michael Stovall, a Westport resident who first noticed a plank poking out of a short cliff wall in the last days of December. "Now it's poking its head out and giving everybody a little bit of excitement."

A year ago, this panoply of massive timbers, rusty metal rods and wooden rivets was hidden under 9 feet of tree-covered land one-half mile off Highway 105. Now, some of those trees are strewed over this once-buried treasure jutting out of the receding hillside.

As of Thursday, Vern Coverdale, a retired diesel mechanic in Westport, pegged the exposed wreckage at 125 feet long. "I stepped it off this morning," he said. "It's the lower bilge area, the ribs and main keel line, all big stuff."

But whose treasure is it? Good question.

According to maritime experts and others, the wreckage could be part of the Canadian Exporter, a freighter that broke in two in August 1921 while carrying 3 million board feet of lumber and 200 tons of general cargo, as noted in a contemporary issue of American Shipping magazine. If so, the remains could belong to whoever bought salvage rights, or to a private landowner, or to the state.

"As near as I can tell, it's on state land," said Pacific County Assessor Bruce Walker, who visited the site over the weekend.

If ownership cannot be determined, the wreckage could become a salvageable piece of history. But even as the Assessor's Office tries to sort that out, the worst fears of museum officials and maritime buffs are being realized as scavengers reap the sea's rewards on their terms, stripping the remains for usable or sellable scrap.

"Why not?" asked nearby resident Lesley Strange, an unemployed former Bering Sea fisherman who said he already had taken away some pieces. "Am I gonna let it go in the ocean and not be recovered at all?"

No stopping it

Believed to be the fastest-eroding beach on the Pacific Coast, Washaway Beach loses between 50 and 150 feet a year, depending on the location. The area is just north of where Willapa Bay meets the Pacific, about 10 miles south of Westport.

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A sandy, 2-mile spit that once held the town of North Cove is no more, breached by outflow from Willapa Bay. As that sand has collected and pushed northward, migrating currents have been pushed northward, exacerbating the ongoing carving away of the shoreline.

"The whole edge of the state is being eaten away," said Rex Martin, executive director of the Westport Maritime Museum, "It's inevitable."

Authorities advise beach walkers in the area to use caution, as tides have been known to move in quickly and high dunes can impede escape.

But even low-tide beachcombers accustomed to seeing the coastline change with every visit have found the emerging shipwreck a fascinating surprise, one recalling the area's often-treacherous history.

This infamous stretch of the Pacific has claimed dozens of ships, and the depressed communities dotting the highway today bear witness to an uneasy marriage with the sea, as driftwood and boats, or pieces of them, decorate drab lawns.

Noted in history book

According to a history of local shipwrecks first published in the 1950s, "Pacific Graveyard" by James A. Gibbs, the Canadian Exporter was on its way from Vancouver, B.C., to Portland, to load more lumber en route to Asia.

But the ship met with fog at the entrance to Willapa Harbor, then "drove up on the sands and defied all efforts to be backed off," Gibbs wrote. By the next morning, the crew had been rescued but the ship could not be saved. As swells against its hull applied pressure to its sagging bow, the whistle cord tightened, sounding a ghostly final blast as the ship broke apart.

Two Vancouver men bought the wreckage rights for salvage, but they abandoned efforts after a couple of months, failing to break even. They sold the rights to unspecified buyers.

The only people to make money? The lawyers, Gibbs said, as the shipping company battled for insurance payment in a dispute over what was to blame — weather or poor navigation.

The shifting beach eventually buried the wreckage, before the current erosion.

It was one shipwreck among many. "That area going into Willapa Harbor was pretty treacherous," said Dann Sears, director and curator of the Aberdeen Museum of History. "They weren't the most pleasant places to get into. You had to be a good pilot to know where you were going."

According to Gibbs' book, roughly two dozen ships fell victim to the shoals of Willapa Harbor between 1851 and 1951.

Now, the Westport museum's Martin said, as the coast continues to erode and with help unavailable from any government agency, "we're eventually going to see all these ships, one way or another."

A week and a half ago at Washaway Beach, only a bit of the keel protruded from the hillside. "It was in the wall," said nearby resident Pam Perry, who often walks the beach with a friend. "We said, 'That's definitely attached to something heavy, there.' "

High tides further pulled back the veil, exposing the apparent remains of a ship whose memory had been hinted at a decade earlier. In February 1999, the Pacific burped up huge, 20- and 40-foot timbers along the Willapa Bay coast — timbers that echoed the description of those aboard the Canadian Exporter.

Identifying marks matched up with those among the Exporter's cargo manifest, said Barb Aue, editor of Westport's South Beach Bulletin, who reported the original story. As a result, "there was speculation that ... maybe the sands had shifted and given up some of its cargo."

Though the latest remains no doubt would interest the state's Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, the agency doesn't have the authority to excavate. Martin doesn't think the Westport museum does, either, at least not until ownership is established.

"You would really have to dig at it with a backhoe," he said. "... It's not something anybody should go down and start picking at."

Strange, the former fisherman, wasn't waiting. "I'm sure the Westport shipyard would like some of these beams," he said, adding that he'd already salvaged some of the metal rods.

"It should be saved for history," said a disgusted passer-by.

Saving it would be nice, Strange nodded. "But a guy's gotta make a paycheck somehow."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

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