Sunday, August 2, 2015

Picnic Point Mystery Revisited

Several months ago we posted Joe Baar’s query about a mystery hull at Picnic Point. Since that time Joe has pulled together information from a number of sources to provide this likely solution to the mystery.

A lot of information has come in recently about the hulk beached north of Picnic Point. This vessel’s final name was MV PACIFIC QUEEN, official number 257731. Eight ships of this kind were built as “Auxiliary Rescue and Salvage” vessels (ARS) during 1942 and 1943. Three of these wooden vessels were originally authorized for construction under Lend-Lease contracts with Great Britain as “British Auxiliary Rescue and Salvage” ships (BARS) to help stem the rate of merchant ship losses due to U-Boat attacks in the North Atlantic. Other methods for preventing such losses proved successful more rapidly than the rescue and salvage vessels could be put into service, so all these lend-lease agreements were cancelled before any of the ships were completed. Anticipating a need in the Pacific Theatre, the U.S. Navy continued construction begun under lend-lease and obtained authorization for five more vessels of a similar design.

NOAA Chart showing location of the hulk.
Using tabular information collected from Silverstone’s US Warships of World War II, the U.S. Bureau of Customs’ Merchant Vessels of the United States, and on the internet, I was able to organize data about the eight ARS vessels to give what I believe is a definitive answer about the true origin of the hulk on Franzen Beach. My findings are summarized here.

Two ships were lost in 1945 due to accidents. Of the remaining six ships, three are positively identified in multiple published sources as having been sold into mercantile service after 1946. A fourth ship was transferred to the government of Denmark in 1947. Of the remaining two ships, only one was constructed with twin screws (two propellers). That ship was USS WEIGHT, ARS-35, ex-PLYMOUTH SALVOR, BARS-7. This exercise specifically rules out USS ANCHOR, ARS-13, as the original identity of MV PACIFIC QUEEN.

Pacific Queen after her rebuild by Puget Sound Boat Building Corporation in 1949.
 Courtesy Tacoma Public Library.

A number of rumors about this vessel have circulated since 1949, and need to be put to rest. First, the Tacoma News Tribune reported on 5/15/49 that the newly rebuilt ship was “formerly an Army tug,” which is only partly true in the generic sense that a salvage vessel can be used as a tug; and there is no record that any of these eight vessels ever operated under the auspices of the U.S. Army. Second, at least two otherwise reliable sources – Merchant Vessels of the United States and the Marine Digest contain information that this ship was built in Stockton, California, by Colberg Boat Works, but every source agrees that all three of Colberg’s ARS vessels were built to the single-screw design, and this hull definitely incorporates struts for twin screws. Finally, this vessel was never a minesweeper even though it has a wooden hull, whose heavy construction shows its suitability for a much different mission: ocean salvage.

The U.S. Treasury Department assigns official numbers only to yachts and merchant vessels, not to U.S. naval vessels, but documentation required to register the vessel and obtain an official number as a merchant vessel in 1947, ’48 or ’49 should link that number to the builder’s “Master Carpenter’s Certificate”, which will provide absolute proof of this hulk’s identity. Both Merchant Vessels of the United States and a photo of the vessel’s official number and net tonnage carved into her main beam, kindly sent to me by Karl Elder, have identified the hulk high on Franzen Beach as MV PACIFIC QUEEN. In addition, one of Karl’s relatives has recently measured the hulk at 173’-0’, which matches the length given in Merchant Vessels.

Photo, Everett Daily Herald. Date unknown.
Thanks to Karl Elder for supplying us with this image.

Whichever ARS finally became MV PACIFIC QUEEN, Kyle Stubbs and Karl Elder have both provided a wealth of information about the mercantile history of this ship. Karl is the grandson of Arvid Franzen, the final owner of PACIFIC QUEEN. Kyle has fleshed out some of the tabular information I’ve put together above. He reports the vessel was sold to Puget Sound Boat Building of Tacoma and they rebuilt her in 1947-49 as a refrigerated cargo ship. By 1950 Merchant Vessels shows ownership as Pacific Queen Fisheries of Tacoma, and one of the salvors, Dave Updike, informed the Marine Digest via Doug Egan that MV PACIFIC QUEEN remained in the Bristol Bay fishery as a fish packer and processor under this ownership. Thanks to Karl Elder for passing me his extract about this from the Marine Digest dated 2/14/1976.

On 9/17/1957 MV PACIFIC QUEEN sank at Tacoma’s Old Town Dock in about 30 feet of water as the result of a gasoline explosion and fire originating under the afterdeck. According to the Marine Digest, one crew member was killed in the conflagration. During 1958 the wreck was raised by Dave Updike and Jim Vallentyne, floated and towed to Lake Union in Seattle for removal of heavy internal items and the steel superstructure down to the main deck.

Photo,Todd Stahlecker, 8/1/2012.

Information about the sinking appears in Susan Hodges’ Cases and Materials on Marine Insurance Law (Cavendish, London: 1999). Two cases and appeals came before the United States Ninth District Court and all the issues raised were not fully litigated until late 1962. In Pacific Queen Fisheries v. Symes and in Pacific Queen Fisheries v. Atlas Assurance Company, the cases are summarized as follows:

PACIFIC QUEEN was a large refrigerated wooden hulled vessel which was engaged in freezing and transporting salmon catches from Alaska to ports in Puget Sound, Washington State. Unknown to the insurers, because PACIFIC QUEEN supplied fuel to the small fishing vessels operating with her, her [gasoline] carrying capacity had been enlarged from 3,000 gallons to 8,000 gallons. During the currency of the policy underwritten by the defendants, PACIFIC QUEEN suffered a violent explosion caused by the ignition of [this gasoline] and became a constructive total loss. The insurers refused to indemnify the owners for the loss. They contended [among other things] that (a) she was unseaworthy, and (b) she had been sailing in contravention of the Tanker Act.

The United States Court of Appeal [sic] upheld the District Court and ruled that PACIFIC QUEEN had been sent to sea unseaworthy with the privity of her owners; furthermore, as the owners had not exercised due diligence, the loss was not covered by the Inchmaree Clause. However, the Court specifically refrained from ruling the adventure illegal, as [this] was not the controlling issue of the case. It was not the Court’s wish to set a precedent until all the ramifications of the issue had been considered.

At the Coast Guard’s and Seattle Fire Department’s requests the salvors towed MV PACIFIC QUEEN’s light hulk from Lake Union and beached it north of Picnic Point at the burning grounds of Franzen Beach. Karl Elder reports he was 11 years old at the time and watched the tug labor to ground the wreck securely for hours before and after the high tide. This activity left a large prop-wash depression in the beach, which Karl says took several years to fill in. His story continues, “My grampa blew the hole in the port side to anchor the Queen. He paid Updike or Vallentyne $1 to get a receipt.” And finally, “My grampa told me he didn't burn it because they pushed it in too close to the hillside and he didn't want to set the woods on fire.” This is a beautifully clear and concise explanation why the hulk is still visible for us to ponder.

I am deeply grateful to Karl and Kyle for participating in this discussion.    
-- Joe Baar     

Photos of the derelict vessel accompany a webposting and my be viewed here. Note, that some details in the article, including the date of beaching, are incorrect.