Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Shipwrecks, Goonies and Kelly Clarkson: A WSDOT story

By DeAnna Dailey

Our co-worker Scott Williams has a knack for saying, “No, thank you” when opportunity knocks. A couple weeks ago, that’s what he said when a production assistant on the Kelly Clarkson Show asked if they could fly him out to Los Angeles to talk about his shipwreck project on the show. There was almost no notice, and it was just for a 5-minute appearance, so Scott didn’t think it was doable. Fortunately, his wife talked him into changing his mind.

Scott Williams (right), our Cultural Resources Program Manager and president of the Maritime Archeological Society, sits next to Alyssa Milano and Macklemore on the set of the Kelly Clarkson Show to talk about a shipwreck he helped identify.

“Bee” sure it’s the right ship

It all started when Scott, an archeologist and historian and our Cultural Resources Program Manager, got interested in a particular shipwreck along the Oregon coast. There are a lot of shipwrecks along the Oregon coast, but very few date so far back and have such a long oral and written history. This particular ship was a Manila galleon, and it would have been sailing between the Spanish-occupied Philippines and Acapulco, Mexico in 1693. We know that it wrecked off the coast of Oregon because many years later, in 1813, a fur trader in Astoria wrote in his journal that the local Clatsop people brought large blocks of beeswax to trade. There are no native honeybees in Oregon – and the beeswax squares had recognizable European letters and numbers carved into them. The locals said the beeswax and other goods had been washing up on shore since a shipwreck a couple generations before. Many other visitors throughout the 1800s included the same beeswax sightings and details in their journals.

Scott made it his personal mission to see if the ship could be found and recovered. There was no chance that a wooden ship would still be intact after a few hundred years on the bottom of the ocean, he figured, but there was some hope that enough could be found to identify the ship and confirm that it was one of the missing Manila galleons. He spent about 15 years researching and walking the beaches and making friends with the local beachcombers. One beachcomber in particular, Craig Andes, had found a variety of interesting potential ship parts washed up on the shore over the years, but when he called Scott up to say that he’d found some large wooden beams that had to be from the missing galleon in a sea cave at low tide, Scott didn’t believe him.

Scott Williams spent much of the past 15 years walking the Oregon coast working on discovering and identifying a shipwreck.

“No, thank you,” Scott said, when the beachcomber said he should come down right away to take a look. Not only was Scott extremely skeptical that any wooden part of the ship would be preserved for several hundred years in the tidal zone, but it was early 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic.

“All you have to do is look at old wooden pilings around here to see how long wood lasts in saltwater,” he explained of not making the trip. “And most of those old pilings are only a few decades old, not centuries.”

But Craig didn’t give up, calling Scott every week or two for almost the next year.

When saying “Yes” pays off

Scott finally gave in and told him to send a couple small pieces of the wood to the US Forest Service to analyze. If they found the wood was Douglas Fir or another local wood, that would confirm  the pieces were from a more recent, locally-built ship while the Phillippines-built Spanish galleons would have been made out of tropical hardwoods. So, imagine Scott’s surprise when he opened the Forest Service analysis a few weeks later and saw the words “Tropical Hardwood.”

The wood beams recovered from the cave that were part of the wrecked Spanish ship

Now convinced that the beams were worth looking into further, the question became how to get to them. The beams were buried under rubble in a sea cave only accessible at the lowest tides. Craig had been visiting it for years and only recently started to see some wood peeking through the rubble. In fact, this is what had preserved the beams for so long – they had washed up close to shore and then been buried in a massive landslide. New tides and waves had moved away enough of the rubble to expose the wood. With the help of another maritime archeologist, National Geographic agreed to fund the recovery in fall of 2021 – but they’d have to wait until low tides returned during summer 2022 to access the cave.

The part of the cliffside where the beams from the shipwreck were found on the Oregon coast

How does Kelly Clarkson fit into this?

Fast forward to early summer 2022 and the successful recovery of the beam, which confirmed that this was part of the missing Manila galleon, named the Santo Cristo de Burgos. National Geographic and a local Oregon newspaper broke the story together, which was then picked up by all the major news networks. Soon a writer was asking if this shipwreck could be the same one that inspired the iconic 1985 movie The Goonies about a search for a lost ship and treasure. And that brings us back to Kelly Clarkson who, as it happens, is a huge fan of The Goonies.

For the record, Scott isn’t totally convinced this is the same wreck that prompted the Goonies storyline, but once his wife talked some sense into him, he was happy to pop down to LA to talk with Kelly about it a little. He also got to spend a couple minutes on stage with Alyssa Milano and Macklemore – the other two guests on the show that day.

“I’m very lucky to have a job like WSDOT, where I told my boss on a Friday ‘I’m going to have to be out of the office on Monday and Tuesday to be on television’ and I have the freedom to do that,” he said.

After initially saying no, Scott Williams agreed to be on the Kelly Clarkson show
where he shared the story of finding a Spanish shipwreck.

So, what was it like being a TV star?

Being on the show itself is about how you might imagine it. Staff handled Scott’s wardrobe and makeup and he got about five minutes to chat with Alyssa Milano, Macklemore and Kelly Clarkson before the tape started rolling. Then he got about 90 seconds to talk about the shipwreck – with no chance for second takes – and then was guided off the stage. With that, his 15 minutes, or rather 90 seconds, of fame was complete.

Back at the office later that week, he resumed his regular duties as our Cultural Resources Program Manager. You might be surprised to learn that we have archeologists and historians on staff. In fact, we have nine of them throughout the agency, and they are involved in the early planning stages of all new construction and renovation. They help ensure our projects don’t affect culturally or historically significant locations, or, if it’s unavoidable, they work with relevant parties (such as local tribes) to figure out how to mitigate the impact.

Funny enough, 15 years ago when this Cultural Resources position first came open, Scott worked at a different state agency. His then-boss suggested he apply for the position at WSDOT and true to form, Scott’s answer was “No, thank you.” He thought he had no desire to work on transportation projects. But several months later when the position was still open and his boss nudged him again, he was talked into applying.

“And it’s gone very well,” he says, with his usual good humor.

Preserving history

While Scott works on a wide variety of projects, he’s been focusing a lot recently on the work to remove barriers that keep fish from swimming upstream. The barrier removals often require reconstruction that has potential to impact culturally sensitive spaces. For example, a recent fish passage project initially included removing a large live cedar tree. But it was determined that the tree showed signs of historic harvesting activity commonly practiced by the local Stillaguamish tribe. Historically and still-today, the Stillaguamish and others harvest long strips of cedar bark – without harming the tree – to use for basketry, clothing and other items. This particular tree was thriving while showing evidence of historical harvest, which designates it as a culturally sensitive tree.

With the help of Jason Cooper, one of our archaeologists, the new culvert was redesigned to accomplish everyone’s goals; barriers to fish were removed, and the historic tree was preserved.

Scott worked with fellow archeologist Jason Cooper to redesign a culvert project when it was determined that this tree showed signs of historic harvesting commonly practiced by the local Stillaguamish tribe.

This is an example of why Scott and his team are involved very early in the planning process – so preservation can be baked into each project from the start. The Cultural Resources team works closely with tribes in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and also works with municipalities across the state to preserve things like historic bridges and landmarks, archeologically and anthropologically sensitive sites and spaces or things of cultural significance.

We are very glad that Scott said yes to this role (eventually!), and that his skepticism led him to a fantastic piece of citizen science identifying this historic ship.