Real Life 'Goonies'? A Mysterious Shipwreck Found Off The Oregon Coast : Short Wave For centuries, mysterious blocks of beeswax and Chinese porcelain have washed up on the Oregon coast, leading to legends of pirates, treasure, and a sunken Spanish galleon. It became known as the Beeswax Wreck, and it inspired centuries of treasure hunters—and maybe even Steven Spielberg, as he created The Goonies. Now, researchers have found nearly 330-year-old timbers from the ship in a hard-to-access cave. This is the story of how a team of volunteer archeologists are working to solve one of the most enduring mysteries of the Pacific Northwest, using old-school detective skills and one well-timed natural disaster.

Real Life 'Goonies'? A Mysterious Shipwreck Found Off the Oregon Coast

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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AARON SCOTT, HOST:

What if I told you that in a cave on the Oregon coast, there is a long-lost treasure from a Spanish galleon? I know, it sounds like I'm describing the plot of "Goonies."

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What are you doing?

JEFF COHEN: (As Chunk) Hey, Mike found a map.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) A map?

COHEN: (As Chunk) Hey, look, look, look - that says 1632. Is that a year or something?

SCOTT: But what if I told you that maybe, just maybe, Steven Spielberg was inspired by a true story when he set Goonies in the town of Astoria, Ore.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Look; Data, it's a map of our coastline.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) What's all that Spanish junk right there?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Ye, intruders, beware.

SCOTT: You see, there's a stretch of the coast in the Pacific Northwest that is so deadly it's known as the graveyard of the Pacific.

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SCOTT: It has claimed more than 2,000 shipwrecks. And a few of those wrecks remain so mysterious they've grown into legends.

SCOTT WILLIAMS: The first written record of this wreck was a fur trader in Astoria. And so Astoria, Ore., is founded in 1811, and in 1813, one of the fur traders there writes in his journal, the Indians from the south bring us blocks of beeswax to trade from the Spanish ship that wrecked many years ago, and its crew were all killed.

SCOTT: Scott Williams is the president of the Maritime Archaeological Society and an archaeologist for the state of Washington.

WILLIAMS: And there was so much beeswax found on the beach over, like, the next 200 years that it got that name, the beeswax wreck. And people began to wonder, you know, what kind of ship would be carrying so much beeswax and why? Where was it going? Where did it come from?

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SCOTT: The Nehalem, Tillamook and the Clatsop people also told settlers another story that got intertwined with the beeswax wreck. It was about a crew who rowed ashore from a ship, buried something and left.

WILLIAMS: So when those American settlers heard that story - you know, who buries things from a ship? Pirates.

SCOTT: So many treasure hunters have gone digging for what's called the Neahkahnie treasure over the centuries that Neahkahnie Mountain has been nicknamed the mountain of a thousand holes. In other words, maybe "Goonies" wasn't that far off after all.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) You guys, this map is old news. Everybody and their grandfather went looking for that when our parents were our age. I mean, I mean...

SCOTT: "Goonies," in turn, inspired a new generation of treasure hunters, including the Oregon fisherman Craig Andes. He spent years combing beaches and sharing what he finds with Scott and the Maritime Archaeological Society.

WILLIAMS: And so back in early 2020, Craig called me up and said he thought he'd found pieces of the actual shipwreck - timbers, wooden beams from the shipwreck. And he told me he'd found them in a cave on the coast, exposed at low tide. And honestly, I told him - I said, Craig, that just can't be. Wooden beams don't survive for 300 years in the tidal zone where they can be hit by waves and eaten by marine organisms.

SCOTT: But Craig sent photos and kept calling, and finally Scott relented.

WILLIAMS: I said, grab a couple of small pieces and mail them to me, and I'll send them off to get them identified. And if it's local wood, it's driftwood, forget it. If it's not local wood, if it's an Asian tropical hardwood, then we'll talk.

SCOTT: And sure enough, it came back as wood from a family of trees that grows in Asia and South America. So today on the show, the story of how a team of volunteer archaeologists are working to solve one of the most enduring mysteries of the Pacific Northwest using old-school detective skills and one well-timed natural disaster. I'm Aaron Scott, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science treasure chest from NPR.

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SCOTT: Let's begin this tale of the mysterious beeswax wreck with maybe the most obvious question - what's so special about beeswax?

WILLIAMS: OK. So the reason the beeswax was so notable was two things. One, there are no native honeybees in Oregon. The other thing that was so notable was it was in big blocks, like hundred-pound blocks, 50-pound blocks, with symbols carved into it, letters and numbers and symbols. So that had people really intrigued. And the fact that there was literally tons of it - what kind of ship would be carrying tons of beeswax?

SCOTT: People also found thousands of shards of Chinese porcelain on the beach, along with other things like a brass elephant. It all led to speculation that maybe it was a Dutch trader or a Chinese junk or maybe a Spanish galleon. Plus, there was the ship itself.

WILLIAMS: You could see the wrecked ship up until the 1890s. There was a portion of the wreck in the ocean at the mouth of the Nehalem River that was only exposed at extreme low tide.

SCOTT: By the time Scott got involved in 2006, historians had narrowed down that the beeswax likely came from a Spanish galleon because the carvings in the wax turned out to be Spanish shipping symbols. The Spanish Empire, after all, spent centuries shipping boatloads of wax and candles from Manila in the Philippines to Mexico for Catholic masses in the New World, along with silk, porcelain, spices and all sorts of other goods. To make the dangerous half-year voyage, the Spanish built what they called Manila galleons. The ships were so big each one required the wood from more than 2,000 trees.

WILLIAMS: Most of the times when a ship wrecked, the Spanish knew about it. There were survivors, or they found the wreckage, or the ship was captured by Dutch or English pirates. And so, yeah, just in that 250-year period, only four went missing without a trace while they were sailing to Mexico.

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SCOTT: So to solve the beeswax mystery, they had to figure out which of the four ships got blown off course and sank along the Oregon coast. The first clue was the porcelain, which was dated to the late 1600s. That ruled out two galleons that went missing in the 1500s. Then the third missing galleon, from 1693, was said to have burned in the Western Pacific.

WILLIAMS: So we started our initial research with the idea that the ship was the 1705 galleon, the San Francisco Xavier. How would we find it? And the historical accounts talked about a wreck at the mouth of the river and wreckage on the spit.

SCOTT: That is, the sandbar at the mouth of the river. But rock jetties were built in the early 1900s that filled the area with more sand, burying the wreck. So the search might have been like finding a grain of sand on the beach, if not for a fortuitous natural disaster.

WILLIAMS: So we had this great idea that in January of 1700, a giant earthquake strikes the Pacific Northwest. That's a known fact. It dropped the coast three to five feet, and it created a giant tsunami, and it eroded that spit back and down so that five years later, when the San Francisco Xavier runs aground, it's going to run aground in what today is either dry beach or closer to shore. And then we assumed that the sand built back up and covered the wreckage. And so that explained why there was some wreckage on the spit, some wreckage at the river mouth.

SCOTT: They partnered with a geologist named Curt Peterson, and they set out mapping the spit with ground-penetrating radar to find where the beach was after the tsunami. The thought was they could then survey along that stretch of beach with a powerful metal detector that would pick up on any buried canons and anchors.

WILLIAMS: And after a couple days in the field and being able to map where the tsunami was, how much it had eroded, Curt was really the first person to say, your ship wrecked prior to the tsunami because some of the shipwreck artifacts, like the porcelain, were found in the tsunami deposit on the spit. And we said, Curt, that's impossible. The only potential galleon that that could be would be the Santo Cristo de Burgos, and the historians say it burned in the western Pacific. And Cur essentially said, I don't care what the historians wrote. I'm telling you what the geology says. Your ship wrecked before the tsunami.

SCOTT: (Laughter).

So they started looking into the origins of this account that the Santo Cristo de Burgos wrecked in the western Pacific. And it all went back to this one historian who told an incredible tale - supposedly, the ship burned at sea, and some of the crew escaped on an open boat.

WILLIAMS: And after much hardship, they made their way back to the Philippines. But during that voyage, they had to resort to cannibalism. So only two guys made it back to the Philippines. One was crazy, and one was put on trial in Manila by the Catholic church for cannibalism.

SCOTT: But when they went digging in the Spanish archives, they couldn't find any records of such a sensational trial. Then they looked at archives in the Philippines, and they discovered that the historian got the anecdote from a book of short stories, which, as our fact-checker will tell you, does not count as a primary-source document. Finally, a graduate student further narrowed down the dates of the Chinese porcelain to a style popular in the late 1600s.

WILLIAMS: That was another clue that, OK, we are looking at the Santo Cristo de Burgos of 1693, rather than the San Francisco Xavier of 1705. So those pieces all started to come together at the same time.

SCOTT: And that brings us to the timbers that the fisherman, Craig Andes, discovered. You see, historians don't actually know that much about how these Manila galleons were constructed and what kind of trees were used. So the timbers Craig found in the cave could help fill out the picture. But it wasn't as simple as walking across the beach and picking up some logs. The cave was only accessible by scrambling across slippery rocks at the lowest of tides.

WILLIAMS: It's in a rocky area close to the cliff, so it's not like you could just pull a boat up. So now we're thinking, OK, do we swim this timber out? Do we float it out somehow? And you have a very narrow time frame to work in because you have to be getting back out of the area before the tide comes up. So throw into that, you know, if there's any kind of surf that day, it makes it even more dangerous - or fog. So we started planning a recovery but realized we didn't have the resources.

SCOTT: So Scott and the Maritime Archaeological Society recruited some partners, including a professional archaeology company, National Geographic and the local police and fire departments. It took more than a year to get permits, line up rescue crews on land and at sea and to wait for the right low tide. Finally, in mid-June, the morning arrived, and a small team made the journey over barnacle-encrusted rocks to the cave, like some modern-day "Goonies."

WILLIAMS: And that big beam, that 300-pound beam, we wound up getting it out of the cave, strapping life jackets around it, enough to float it, carrying it into the shallow water and, you know, pushing it out to where the rescue swimmers were. They were able to grab it, swim it out to the jet skis and strap it on to one of the rescue sleds and take it into the beach.

SCOTT: They took the beam to the Columbia River Maritime Museum to be analyzed.

WILLIAMS: You can look at it and say, OK, this is probably part of the lower hull of the ship 'cause it's so massive. And, you know, honestly, just that - to be able to touch it and go, wow, nobody's seen this for 320-something years, and now we got it.

SCOTT: But the search isn't over. Scott thinks the skeleton of the ship is still out there.

WILLIAMS: Finding it's going to be the hard part. The Maritime Archaeological Society, we're still searching offshore, hoping that the lower hull that has the anchors and the cannons in it might be far enough offshore that it's not in the surf zone and is not under, you know, 10 feet of sand, kind of thing.

SCOTT: So still more to do.

WILLIAMS: Still more to come.

SCOTT: I'm curious. I mean, this project led you to create the Maritime Archaeological Society. I'd love to know about the other big searches or mysteries that keep you up at night. Is this the big dream, or there are others?

WILLIAMS: I'm really interested in that Neahkahnie treasure story because, you know, it's clear from the Indian histories that a ship anchored, a crew rowed ashore and buried something on Neahkahnie Mountain. And besides that story, there are these carved rocks that have symbols and letters and numbers on them. And that's the other thing that's driven this treasure hunt 'cause, you know, who leaves marked rocks on a mountain? Pirates - to tell where their treasure is.

SCOTT: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: I don't think it's pirates, but something was going on on Neahkahnie Mountain. And I would love to know what.

SCOTT: Well, Scott Williams, it has been a joy to talk to you about shipwrecks and mysteries.

WILLIAMS: Thanks, Aaron. It's been fun.

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SCOTT: This episode was produced by navigator Berly McCoy, edited by first mate Gabriel Spitzer and captain Gisele Grayson, who is also our senior supervising editor, and fact-checked by watch leader Rachel Carlson. Our chief engineer is Gilly Moon. Admirals Beth Donovan and Anya Grundmann are our senior director and our senior vice president of programming. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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SCOTT: I can't believe we got through that without an argh (ph).

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