Second assistant lighthouse keeper Forrest S. Cowan was in love. It wasn’t easy considering he had spent the latter half of his 22 years growing up on Tatoosh Island, which sits a half mile off-shore from Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. He was lucky he had even found one girl to date, let alone marry. And that was only because a registered private nurse from Port Townsend, Ethel Mitton, volunteered to be sent out to tend to a weather bureau family stationed on Tatoosh, who had come down with diphtheria that threatened the whole island community.
At that time in 1908, the island population was less than 50 people, including wives and children of the men who staffed the Cape Flattery Lighthouse, wireless telegraph station, and weather bureau observatory. The Cowan family alone made up 10 of that number with head keeper John M. Cowan, his wife Mary, and their eight children of which Forrest was the eldest.
Forrest had just begun his lighthouse service as assistant to his father when he met Ethel. They continued courting for the next three years, albeit at a distance, after she had returned to Port Townsend when the emergency was over. But by February of 1911, they were officially engaged and very much looking forward to their future married life together.
Just three months earlier, George L. Talmadge of the wireless station had married his sweetheart, Minnie Gauthier, and brought her out to live with him on the island. There was also another wireless telegraph electrician, Walter R. Pope, who was dating one of the Cowan daughters at that time, so love was definitely in the air on Tatoosh Island.
On February 18, 1911, a group of four from the wireless station decided they wanted to go ashore to Neah Bay to do some visiting with friends. In the party were George and Minnie Talmadge; Ira Spoonemore, chief of the wireless station; and Robert M. Waddell, the cook.
Walter Pope later gave a full report of what happened that fateful day in his autobiographical book, My Hour Glass. He wrote that the surf was extremely rough and that both he and the captain from the tug Lorne tried to talk the group out of going, but they were determined and enlisted assistant Forrest Cowan to pilot their small surfboat out to the tug because “he’s not afraid.”
As they all boarded the boat, Walter Pope continued his eye-witness account. “The swells were rolling so high that, at times, the tip of the Lorne’s mast was completely lost to view. My heart was beating faster. I sensed disaster. It was difficult to leave a scene such as was spread before me, yet my intuition prompted me to do so. I ran as fast as I could up the long winding stone steps and on down past the lighthouse to the wireless station. I grabbed four long oars and a wooden bucket and hastened back to the beach.
“I had all the necessary equipment in place in a leaky whale boat just as the adventurers left the beach. I watched the first giant swell partly fill their boat. I watched Mrs. Talmadge as she bailed frantically. The next swell lifted the boat high into the air and it landed bottom up in the boiling surf.
“Up the beach came Captain Cowan, [assistant lighthouse keeper] Cliff Hermann, George Benson, and [assistant lighthouse keeper] Halley Hobbs as fast as they could run. Together we hauled the heavy whale boat down across the sandy beach and without hesitation we launched the leaky old craft.
“We strained on the oars with every ounce of our strength. We gained sufficient distance and speed to ride over the swells but the upturned boat was nowhere to be seen. Captain John was steering our boat. His own son was among those who had spilled into that raging sea, but he was as calm as the old lighthouse that he had attended to for 11 years. He stood erect in the stern of our boat, searching for a glimpse of our shipwrecked party.
“Finally, he yelled, ‘There they are! Pull boys! Pull hard!’ When half the distance to the upturned boat had been gained, Captain John yelled, ‘For God’s sake, pull harder! There’s only two of them left! They’re hanging to each end of the boat! Pull harder, boys, or we may be too late to save any of them!’
“We four oarsmen strained every muscle in our bodies in response to Captain John’s command. Our tiny craft raced through a sea of billowy, splashing swells. Standing erect in the stern and steering the boat with a long sweep oar, the Captain kept his gaze glued upon the remaining pair of helpless forms. As we reached them, they clung to the upturned vessel, semi-conscious, and hysterically moaning loudly, their fingers thrust into a crevice where the centerboard of their boat had once been.
“There was no outburst of grief from the Captain when his piercing gaze told him that his own son had been drowned, that the pair we had saved did not include his son, Forrest. His voice trembled and a torrent of tears ran down his cheeks, but he did not falter in his duty to manage our boat.
“Two of us rushed to the forward end of the sturdy old whale boat and I clenched my fingers around the wrist of my good friend Ira Spoonemore and lifted him bodily from his perilous position and placed him in the splashing water on the bottom of our boat. Halley Hobbs rescued George Talmadge from the other side.
“The swift current had moved us a mile further from the island. It continued to carry us still further away as we continued to search the surface of the rough water for some sign of the missing three. The tug Lorne had by now maneuvered itself into a position about a block distant.
“Talmadge and Spoonemore were hoisted aboard the tug while we began our return trip to the island. It was a hard pull against that strong current. The odds were very much against us.
“For the next full hour, we leaned against those oars, cutting the tops of the swells squarely to avoid being rolled into the trough as we descended from each high crest. As we floundered about beyond the breakers, we listened to Captain John, ‘We’ve got just one chance to land! We’ll wait here for the biggest swell that comes along. We’ll ride the face of that swell as far as it will take us. If we founder, it’ll be every man for himself!’
“We entered the narrowest part of the passage. We were dashing past those jagged rocks so close that they brushed the ends of our oars. Our speed seemed terrific as Captain John shouted his last order, ‘Away with the oars! All overboard!’ And the five of us leapt from the boat into the boiling, roiling, twisting sea.
“All members of the rescue party were good swimmers. As we neared the shore and rested our tired legs on the sandy bottom, still in water up to our waistlines, Captain John glanced into the expressionless face of his white-haired wife. She was standing bravely at the water’s edge, motionless. She did not see the face of her eldest son among the returning rescuers. Her eyes fixed on the struggling form of her husband, whose unfaltering courage and strength had directed the rescue party. He wrapped his arms around his wife and together they wept bitter tears over their loss. The search for the three missing islanders continued for weeks but none of the missing were ever found.”
On March 15, 1911, the newspapers reported that, “For their ‘prompt and courageous’ act in launching a boat under dangerous conditions to attempt the rescue of five persons thrown out of a swamped surfboat near Tatoosh Island, Washington, the Secretary of the Navy today officially commended five men.” All of the rescue party received medals for their heroism.
Following Forrest Cowan’s death, his next eldest brother, Shirley Cowan, became an assistant lighthouse keeper at Cape Flattery Lighthouse for at least the next 10 years, having taken Forrest’s place. From the rescue crew, Assistant keeper Clifford B. Hermann transferred to Destruction Island Light after the incident and Harold (Halley) B. Hobbs was promoted to second assistant, remaining on Tatoosh for another year. Walter Pope eventually courted and married Forrest’s fiancée, Ethel Mitton.
The cook, Robert M. Waddell, was 25 and unmarried in 1911 when he drowned. He was the eldest son of eight children and had served as a seaman on the USS Philadelphia before coming to Tatoosh. George L. Talmadge remarried four years later to Anna Oldman and had two children. He died at age 73. Chief Ira Spoonemore remained in the Navy at least for the next 20 years, advancing to the rank of lieutenant. He lived to the ripe old age of 83. Captain John M. Cowan remained at Cape Flattery until his retirement in 1932, having served there for 32 years as head keeper.
This story appeared in the
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