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Maxwelton mystery ship legend revived

Robin Clark, watershed program manager for the Whidbey Watershed Stewards, checks out an image on Geoff Tapert’s iPad. Tapert believes he has found evidence of two sunken ships in the Maxwelton watershed. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Robin Clark, watershed program manager for the Whidbey Watershed Stewards, checks out an image on Geoff Tapert’s iPad. Tapert believes he has found evidence of two sunken ships in the Maxwelton watershed.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Spanish explorers? An attack by Native Americans? Sunken ships? All in the Maxwelton watershed?

Many may write off such tales as bupkis, a persistent but small-town legend that is nothing more than the machination of a few over-active imaginations.

Yet, there are others who believe. Some claim to have found evidence. And one man even believes he knows where they are.

“I think I have found them,” said Geoff Tapert, a South Whidbey resident.

The owner of a small engineering firm, Tapert became increasingly intrigued with the legend while working on a property near the small pond along Maxwelton Road.

Doing additional research, his investigations eventually led him to a web search and an aerial Google Maps image that shows patches of grassland along the pond that differ in color from surrounding areas.

Tapert believes this may be the final resting spot to two ships.

But, like any good local legend, there are others who aren’t so sure. While Tapert was being interviewed for this story near the site, longtime Maxwelton resident Bill Steiner was working in his fields and stopped by to chat.

“Ships? Yeah. Right,” said Steiner, good-naturedly.

He taught history in South Whidbey schools for 28 years and his family has been working the land in the watershed for more than 60 years. In all that time, he never came across any physical evidence — just a few wild tales.

There are several versions of the legend, but generally the story is that a Spanish ship entered the watershed several hundred years ago. The crew was allegedly killed by Native Americans, some say the Snohomish, and the ship was left to rot away.

While the legend generally speaks of just one ship, Tapert says the image suggests there are actually two ships. He speculates that the second vessel is the remains of the Blue Wing, which was lost with another ship in the mid-1800s — also to Native Americans — in the southern areas of Puget Sound.

There are reports that Joseph Whidbey of Captain George Vancouver’s crew found a half-submerged shipwreck in the area in 1792 and remains of a boat were reported again in 1859 by Thomas Johns and Edward Oliver, the first white settlers of Deer Lagoon.

Robin Clark, the watershed program manager for the Whidbey Watershed Stewards, was also present during the interview with Tapert. She knows the area well and, although she’s familiar with the legend, she also has never stumbled across any sunken ships.

But that doesn’t mean a wreck site is impossible, she said.

“A ship would have been able to get in here,” Clark said.

Although it is largely dry land today, the watershed was once a much larger estuary and may well have been deep enough to accommodate an ocean-going sailing vessel. The area has since been choked with sediment due to the natural outlet being severely reduced through human manipulation.

“It could be 30 feet under (the ground),” Clark said.

There is also additional evidence, or tales, that the ship does indeed exist. Ann Linnea penned “A Journey Through the Maxwelton Watershed” and addressed the legend of the Spanish ship in detail.

She recounted reports of farmer Leon Burley telling others that he and his father had occasionally found pieces of an old ship and that he even put part of an ancient cleat and some chain in his barn.

She also noted that members of pioneering families have claimed to have played on an old wreck when they were children. But, some say these are just stories.

“There are others who say, ‘Nah, that was never true,’” Clark said.

Steiner is one of those people. He was also quoted in Linnea’s book as saying he had worked with Burley and never heard him talk about finding pieces of an old ship. Sea shells, rocks and the occasional arrowhead, but no ancient boats.

And even if the light-colored patches of grass Tapert points to aren’t the remains of dredged soil, he questions how a deep draft sailing vessel would have been able to access the estuary.

“This is called Useless Bay for a reason,” said Steiner, in reference to the area’s extreme tides.

However, as a former history teacher, he said he doesn’t want to stand in the way of an important find and is willing to allow Tapert to look at the site more closely.

Tapert said he wants to go as far as using ground penetrating radar and magnetic locators to verify his theory but says he lacks the necessary funding. He is hoping an organization such as a museum or institution of higher education will pick up the torch.

While he realizes that some may think he is “a little off,” Tapert is convinced he’s found the last resting place of the two lost ships and his enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened by non-believers.

“I think it’s pretty exciting,” he said.

As for Clark, well, only time and research would tell for sure.

“The jury is still out,” she said. “But it sure would be interesting to find a Spanish galleon in the muck of this pasture.”

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