By Douglas Scott
In 1961, Grays Harbor was experiencing the beginning of the end of the timber industry’s economic boom. In just a few short years, mills would close and mill-workers would be out of a job, but for now, life was good in Grays Harbor County. The city of Ocean Shores had recently started to be built as a luxury “California-Style” community on the Washington Coast. Hollywood Stars, such as Pat Boone, were investing in the region and were greeted by thousands of fans when arriving at the Bowerman Field Airport.
That wasn’t the only thing Hollywood about Grays Harbor in 1961. Up in the deep gorges of the Wynoochee River, the people of Tinseltown were filming a movie.
Earlier in 1961, a movie called “The Ring of Fire” was set in Washington State, but was being filmed in Oregon. Starring David Janssen (The Fugitive TV show) and Frank Gorshin (who played the Riddler in the original Batman), the plot of the movie was silly, centering on a police chase from Tacoma to Shelton and then through the woods of the Pacific Northwest during a wildfire. This disaster film ends with the couple fleeing the city on a train, only to have their train get stuck on a wooden bridge over a deep gorge.
Instead of using cheesy special effects, the producers of the film wanted it to look at real as possible. In an earlier scene in the movie, they burned an actual mill in Oregon, so size and scale was where their focus was at. Not able to locate a suitable place in Oregon, the studio discovered an old section of rail over the Wynoochee River, abandoned for the better part of a decade.
Built in 1939 by the Simpson Timber Company, an old two-tier high wooden railway trestle was purchased for the movie and then promptly destroyed. The bridge needed rails added but within a few days, it was ready for movie magic.
They placed a train on the bridge and started rolling. In the climatic final scene of the movie, the train and bridge are burnt from the impending destructive forest fire. As the bridge collapses, explosives were detonated, causing a gigantic fireball as the train tumbles down into the deep gorge below.
After the filming had been completed, it was discovered that the gorge was too deep to take the train cars out of the river. The passenger cars were cut in half and left sitting on the banks of the river. The engine landed directly in the water, where it was left to sit and rust with the rest of the wreckage. The movie was largely forgotten about, never amounting to any real profit or popularity, despite its real destruction of areas for effect.
All but forgotten, the old bridge location and train wreck faded from memory, aside from a few locals. It remained a local secret until the popularity of geocaching came about.
Geocaching, defined as the recreational activity of hunting for and finding a hidden object by means of GPS coordinates posted on a website, turned this long- forgotten train wreck into the ultimate contest. Because of geocaching, a steep, somewhat dangerous path leads down to the train wreck, letting visitors stand next to and possibly climb on the train cars from the movie. (The geocaching instructions to the site can be found here.) The engine’s wheels can be seen in the late summer months, when the water level of the Wynoochee River is low enough to expose them sticking out of the slow-moving water.
The path to the train wreck is tough to find. Please be aware that this area is not suitable for children or those not used to exploring steep ravines using ropes. Some do visit the site by kayak, which is recommended; that is, if you can manage to navigate the waters of the Wynoochee.
This area is remote, which is why the engine and train cars were left there. It isn’t the prettiest place to visit, but seeing train cars purposely wrecked for the sake of a movie, right here in our own backyard is quite unique.
“The Ring of Fire” may not have been a success at the box office, but it did capture and in some ways symbolize, the logging history of the region perfectly. With the crashing of the train and bridge in 1961, the region’s economy soon started winding down, slowly smoldering along the Wynoochee River before being discovered and made popular by tourism.
Click here for directions to the Train Wreck.