ETCETERA - SS Walla Walla founders! 1902 ship disaster revisted

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In the U.S. Naval tradition of naming vessels for cities, our own town was honored 120 years ago, according to information sent my way via Paul Franzmann, communications manager at Fort Walla Walla Museum.

J. Roach & Sons built steamship Walla Walla in 1881 under parent company Delaware River Iron Ship Building and Engine Works.

Worth more than $225,000, the S.S. Walla Walla was owned by Pacific Coast Steamship Co. and plied the West Coast with coal it hauled as a collier. In 1892, it was converted to a passenger ship.

It weighed 2,168 tons, was 310 feet long, 40 feet across its beam and rode the waves at 22 feet, with 2 inches of depth.

But it came to a sorry end while bound for Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, out of San Francisco.

At 4:10 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 2, 1902, the SS Walla Walla collided with an unidentified French bark while off the California coast. Except for those on watch, all crew and passengers were asleep.

"Looming up in the dusky haze, the iron sailing ship met the bow of the Walla Walla with a shuddering crash that immediately roused everyone aboard. It is possible that passengers in steerage may have been crushed during impact. A gaping hole was left in the bow and the steamer sank within 35 minutes," an account notes.

Capt. A.L. Hall and his crew managed to get many surviving passengers safely aboard lifeboats. Others leaped overboard to save themselves. Hall was found by a rescue boat as he clung to flotsam, unhurt but for bruises caused by falling timbers.

He and his first mate were saved, though the rest of the crew died.

"In its final moments, the Walla Walla's boilers exploded, scattering pieces of the unfortunate ship in every direction."

Later thought to be the Max, the French ship sailed away. "She was badly disabled with her bow stove in both above and below the waterline and her bowsprit torn away. Early reports suggested that of the 142 passengers and crew aboard, only 109 had been safely accounted for. The lifeboats then drifted for more than five hours."

Hall estimated as many as 50 perished. The New York Times reported in ensuing days that 42 died, although determining exact numbers was difficult. Apparently several passengers boarded just as the Walla Walla left port and others in second-class gave assumed names. The Times listed 92 survivors and 42 lost.

By the way, the Washington State Department of Transportation lists jumbo ferry Walla Walla in its current fleet. It's 440 feet long, 87 feet across its beam, has an 18-foot draft, can carry up to 2,000 passengers and 188 vehicles. It was built in Seattle in 1972 and tops out at 18 knots (a knot being one nautical mile per hour.) The WSDOT website says Walla Walla comes from the Walla Walla tribe and is from the Nez Perce for "place of many waters." For those who don't already know, the site also says our town, county and river are named after the tribe.

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Grant Hendley is enthusiastically immersed in not only the Chinese language but the culture and traditions of his hosts in Taiwan. The McLoughlin High School junior is Milton-Freewater Rotary Club's outbound youth exchange student. Grant left for Taiwan on Aug. 25 and is staying in Taoyuan City, in the country's northwest corner. He will return June 11.

"I have found out that learning only the language is very hard. Being here is a very big change from Milton," he said via e-mail.

He likes the convenience and close proximity of his school and library, each a 10-minute walk from his host family's home, which is also next door to a supermarket.

The family owns a plumbing hardware store, Grant said. Their 17-year-old daughter is a veteran Rotary Exchange student, after a stay in Belgium in 2009. "She shares her personal experiences with me so I don't get into trouble or so I don't get homesick. She's a great sister," he said.

The family also has younger twin daughters who play pranks on Grant, "all in good fun. They work very hard at school and get good grades and they love cartoons (like me).

Grant describes his host father as a hardworking man who loves to laugh and relax after a hard day's work. His host mother enjoys cooking and teaching Grant Chinese.

Grant will change to a new host family this month and said their home is a 30-minute drive into the countryside, "but I think I can definitely adjust to the new lifestyle."

The family of four includes two boys, ages 14 and 15. The host father is CEO of a food distributing company whose wife is a stay-at-home mom.

He will return to city living when he joins his third host family, a textile factory owner, stay-at-home mom with a young daughter and son.

"I love the country," Grant said of Taiwan. "The people are all very nice and they can all speak a fair amount of English, so it was kind of a smooth transition into the school because everyone wants to test their English on the exchange student."

He describes the food as "wild, amazing, extremely different but exceptionally good, from the chicken's foot to pig's blood mixed with rice and deep fried for a snack."

Grant said the environment is unlike anything he's experienced so far. The summer is extremely humid and slightly hot. "Imagine 85- to 90-degrees Fahrenheit with humidity around 90 and the UV protection in the atmosphere is very low so you can feel the sun literally beating down on you." The vegetation thrives from the wet, moist conditions.

When Grant e-mailed earlier in December, he said he hasn't suffered culture shock.

"I'm a very adaptable person and I think this new environment with the kindness of the people and their ability of English it was a rather easy change. Sure the food scared me at first but I got over it after eating it."

"My communication skills have dramatically skyrocketed since last month I have hit the understanding and speaking incline where everything is coming together and making more sense. He left the United States without any class teaching or speaking ability, but "now I can ask for almost anything, get almost anywhere and do almost anything I want."

Grant said he'd recommend the Rotary student exchange program "to anyone looking for looking for an experience that will change their life forever. You need to be flexible and outgoing and clever and quick-thinking. These are all essentials to being an exchange student."

The process has spurred Grant to think about what he's capable of.

"If you think about it, knowing two languages fairly well you can do many things. With knowing two languages when I get back it starts a hunger for more languages to give me more diversity and more job opportunities.

"Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn considering they have many characters and they have a much different grammar system then English so it's hard and I am taking Chinese head-on, in leaps and bounds.

"This has been the biggest and best decision of my life so far because it has started a domino effect in my mind that will help me set up the rest of my life. It has and will always be the turning point in my life. The base of my success goes to this program and the people who introduced it to me."

And to that end, Grant credits Rotary Club of Milton-Freewater for sponsoring him and Elena Pinna from Thiesi, Sardinia, last year's exchange student to Mac-Hi, for introducing him to the program. He is also grateful for the support of his parents, David and Cheryl Hendley of Milton-Freewater, Grant plans to continue developing his Chinese when he attends university. He would also like to go on a college exchange to an Arabic-speaking country.

Etcetera appears in daily and Sunday editions. Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at annieeveland@wwub.com or 526-8313.

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