In February of 2008 a ship, once hidden beneath a 40 foot high dune, started to uncover from the heavy winter storms. The surf eroded away over 200 feet of the fore-dune on the North Spit of the Coos River in Coos County. The wooden hulled ship was quickly labeled the “Mystery Shipwreck” or as the “Phantom Ship. Imaginations ran wild as to the identity of the newly discovered historic treasure. "It must be a pirate ship", most assumed. "The ship was very very old," other believed. "What is its name? And where did it come from? How long has it been here? What happened to it?" And of course, "where is the treasure of gold!" Everybody wanted to know. Sand was being pulled away and exposing more and more of the Mystery Ship quicker than questions about the ship were being answered. Although some of the answers were pretty obvious, solving this mystery would involve serious detective work. Undaunted, Archaeologists from the BLM's Coos Bay District, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department, and the Coos County Maritime Museum teamed up for the task. They spent several weeks combing through historical photographs and newspaper articles, determined to discover the story of what the locals had dubbed “… the mystery shipwreck.” After determining that the wreck resembled the schooner, local archaeologists delved into its history, determining where and when it went down. "The facts added up", said Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Megan Harper. But it was a local man's photograph from 1947 that really convinced the agency, she said."It showed him and his brothers on the shipwreck with the words "George L." on the hull," Harper said. "Once we saw that, it was, 'Yep, that's the one."The “mystery shipwreck” was in fact the George L. Olson, a 1917 steam schooner. “Once we put a current picture of the shipwreck next to a historical photograph of the Olson, we were able to say ‘Yup, that’s it,’” said Steve Samuels, an archeologist with BLM’s Coos Bay District. “The position of the portholes, the unique bolt pattern on the bow … they are all an exact match.” With that, the ship’s story began to unfold... W.F. Stone Shipyards of Oakland, Calif., originally built the Olson for J.R. Hanify and Co. of San Francisco. The ship’s original name was the Ryder Hanify. At 223 feet long and nearly 44 feet wide, it was one of the largest wooden ships the Stone shipyard had built to date. The Olson worked as a lumber carrier in the Pacific Northwest for more than 20 years, hauling 1.4 million board-feet of timber at a time. The schooner sealed its fate on a seemingly peaceful day in June 1944 when it struck Coos Bay’s North Jetty and drifted aground on a nearby rock. Although the ship sustained no casualties, it was a total loss. Salvagers made use of the lumber cargo for the next several months, Five hundred thousand board feet of lumber recovered off of the ship was used to build the Baptist church in Charleston, Oregon. After the ship sat abandoned in the mudflats within the Coos Bay, local officials ordered the "Olsen eyesore" to be removed and taken away. In December 1944, the hulk of the Olson was towed to sea and was cut adrift with the intention it would beach on the North Spit. Buildup of the dune over the next several years buried the wreck.
Historical records indicate the ship surfaced for a short time in 1946 and 1960. The Olsen has been hidden from sight for over four decades, until 2008.
The reason behind the "mystery" of the ships identity comes from the fact that local news was not documented during that time frame. News worthy stories centered around what was going on with the war...World War II. Since there were no casualties, from the Olsen, the wreck was not considered big news, and the story fell through the cracks. The winter surf removed enough sand from the inside of the vessel that barrack lockers were revealed. Just imagine what life was like then. Was being a crewman on the Olsen a decent job? Did the owner of the locker have pictures of his sweetheart posted within? How shiny were his shoes? Were they required to keep their bed and room set to military standards?
The wreckage drew curious crowds, including about 3,000 visitors during a single weekend. Well over 15,000 people visited the shipwreck since it (re)appeared during the winter of 2008.
It was once believed that the remainder of the ship was still buried within the fore dune. Evidence later revealed there was no more ship to become exposed. The front bow section of the George L. Olsen was the only piece of the ship. Where was the rest? Did the ship break apart and the majority of it sink before coming ashore? In a sense, the Olsen is still the "Mystery Shipwreck".
When the season changed, spring and summer winds brought back the shifting sands once again, and the George L. Olsen went back into hiding. Today, one must really look hard to know where the Olsen lies...for it is completely buried once again.