Dan Pontbriand is a very determined man. Some people might even regard him as stubborn. He has a streak of curiosity within him that sometimes….. well, sometimes it just seems to consume him. Dan is also the Lake District Ranger stationed at Storm King Ranger Station on the shores of Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park. For 6 years, until recently, he was the Dive Officer of the Olympic National Park Dive Team established by the National Park Service to handle emergencies and other situations calling for the use of divers in the Park. Since he arrived at the lake almost 18 years ago, Dan has become fascinated with its history, both natural and mysterious, and has made numerous dives there to both satisfy his curiosity and prove points.
In April of 2001, Dan met another very determined man, who also was consumed with curiosity. His name was Bob Caso, and the difference between them was that Bob had been consumed with curiosity regarding the same mystery for almost 50 years. When they met, Bob was 77 years old, and had been a member of a team of divers that explored the lake back in the 1950's searching for the answer to a riddle that no one had yet been able to solve. Upon meeting Dan, Bob started telling him about such things as a mysterious disappearance, logging camp rumors, a missing vehicle, and orphaned children……all tied in somehow with the deep, cold waters of Lake Crescent.
Within minutes of meeting Bob Caso, Dan was hooked. His curiosity was piqued. Determination set in. His mind started to swirl with possibilities. It was now only a matter of time.
Russell and Blanch Warren had moved to Washington from Idaho in the mid 1920's in search of work in the then-thriving timber industry. Russell had been hired on at a logging camp near the Bogachiel River and together he and Blanch were building a future on a homestead there along with their two young boys, Frank and Charles. On July 3rd, 1929, Russell Warren drove his 1927 Chevrolet into the town of Port Angeles to pick up his wife, who had briefly been at a local hospital. After picking up Blanch, together the two of them did some grocery shopping for the family, made two months' payment on their car loan, and then made a major purchase – a new washing machine to make their life in the camp a bit easier. Before he had left the logging camp that morning, Russell Warren had told his boys that together the family would celebrate the 4th of July the next day at the famous Solduc Hot Springs. The entire family eagerly looked forward to the fun and festivities. After securing the newly purchased washing machine, the Warrens turned their car West and headed home toward their boys.
They never made it.....
THE FIRST SEARCH
The search for the missing couple commenced almost immediately, search teams combing the roadside and surrounding forest between Port Angeles and the Bogachiel River. The search continued for months with all avenues being explored and all clues, no matter how bizarre, being followed. Common sense, however, placed the emphasis of the search at the shores of deep, bone-chilling Lake Crescent. Unlike today, the highway paralleling the shore of the lake was a simple dirt road with very little guardrail. Six weeks would pass before the first tangible clue would be found. In mid-August, a local resident found broken glass and marks on a log in shallow water and on shore, causing searchers to concentrate their attention on a location then known as "Madrona Point" as the most likely location of the tragedy. A cap was found near shore that Russell Warren's oldest son, Frank, identified as belonging to his father. Sounding and dragging operations took place down to 100 feet with the only result being a visor recovered from a ledge at about 40 feet. Surface supplied diving equipment was obtained from Seattle, a diver dropping down to 78 feet in his search. He reported "scarring" on the bottom that to him clearly indicated the plunge of a car down the slope toward deeper water. A reward was posted for the recovery of the vehicle, but over the months and years it was never claimed.
In the absence of hard evidence, gross speculation made its ugly appearance. Those with nothing but fertile imaginations concocted bizarre stories as a means of getting their names in the papers. One woman claimed that she had seen "a white man and some Indians" come up to the back porch of the Warren homestead and "hold a drinking spree" on the day the couple disappeared. The story took an even stranger twist when supposedly a mysterious, hidden grave was found near the home. When excavated it proved to be simply where the family had planted and dug potatoes. Another suspected "gravesite" was found to hold the remains of a dead cow.
While all this was going on the two Warren boys endured the cruel taunts of their schoolmates and the pitying glances of those who believed their parents had simply abandoned them. The boys would eventually live out their lives not knowing the truth but apparently believing that in fact their parents had simply left for reasons they would never fully understand.
THE SECOND SEARCH
In the 1950s new possibilities of underwater search and recovery opened up with the advent of SCUBA. As a young navy sailor stationed in the area during World war II, Bob Caso had listened to the stories and heard all the rumors. Now, he and a team of friends believed that they had the necessary equipment to search the lake and solve the mystery. For months they plunged into the lake, combing the waters near the shoreline for clues that would help solve the big mystery some of them remembered from their childhood. Everything they found and every lead they followed proved to be a dead end, but still they persisted, diving to the depths they could on compressed air with the equipment then available. Gradually, as the months went by the team members either moved away, embarked on careers, or lost interest……everyone but Bob. Knowing that eventually the mystery would be solved as technology improved and the ability to dive deeper came; Bob wanted to continue to be part of the search. He turned from diving to archiving - painstakingly researching newspaper records, talking with those who had participated in the search in 1929, taking notes, and collecting any and all information that could help future searchers. Literally, Bob became the Warren's historian.
It was with this bundle of information, enthusiasm and a gleam in his eye that he approached District Ranger Dan Pontbriand in April, 2001.
THE THIRD SEARCH
With a similar gleam in his eye, Dan began searching immediately. Assembling a team of divers from within the Ranger staff in Olympic National Park, they began to scour the depths along the shoreline of the huge lake, looking for anything out of the ordinary. A problem had arisen – over the years as logging operations halted, Highway 101 was built and paved, and Olympic National Park was created – the names of various locations at the lake had been altered or completely changed. "Madrona Point" no longer showed on any available map. This situation forced the dive team to dive on and investigate every possible point of shoreline that a vehicle could have careened off of into the water. The trail had not only grown cold, it had significantly broadened.
The team expanded as a small group of volunteer civilian divers joined the Rangers in their quest. The father and son team, Bill and Joe Walker, devoted their weekends for months searching for clues, while others such as Jerome Ryan and myself contributed our deep-water skills whenever we could. The excitement of the team grew as first one, then another, old car from the right time period was discovered, only to have our hopes dashed as they proved to both be Ford Model A's.
Frustration forgotten, the team continued their search and in December, 2001, things started to happen. An old map pre-dating the park was discovered that indicated that "Meldrim Point" and "Madrona Point" were one and the same. To the team, it was like finding a treasure map! Having found a place of high probability to search, a chain of artifact discoveries was made that led in virtually a straight line from a slight curve in the road down into progressively deeper water. Recovered were such items as a black flower vase, a tire pump and a rusted car step. Most importantly, the lid to a late 1920's Norge washing machine was found that could possibly have been of the same make and model as that purchased by the Warrens on that last fateful shopping trip. The following month, still more evidence was recovered – the remains of a wooden grocery box and some Mason jars along with a still full bottle of White Ace shoe polish. Again, the recovery was in a direct line with the other artifacts leading down from the curve in the roadway. The trail was so hot it was screaming. Amidst all of the excitement, Dan happened to notice that the curve was located at a small point at which a lone Madrona tree was growing…….further proof, if any more was needed, that "Madrona Point" had finally been found. Over the years its name had been altered to "Meldrim Point", but locals and the Park Rangers now refer to it as "Ambulance Point".
Volunteer search and recovery experts, Gene and Sandy Ralston of the Innerspace Exploration Team Company, now provided their services as part of the search, scanning the bottom within the now narrowed search area with side-scan sonar. Their "towfish" emitted sound waves from two window ports on either side of the device as Gene slowly piloted their search vessel back and forth across the area leading downward from the point. At 188 feet an image of what appeared to be a washing machine came through clearly on the side scan and the stage was set for the advent of the next part of the team – the deep technical divers.
The day following the side-scan discovery of the washing machine, my partner, Jerome Ryan, and I were tasked with dropping down from the small flotilla of boats to the washing machine and then marking it with a line and buoy for possible recovery later. Following that, the plan then was for us to slowly drop down to 220 FFW in a search pattern looking for any signs of the missing car or additional wreckage. Each of us wore our beloved doubles with additional stage bottles carrying our decompression mixes beneath each arm, each filled with high percentages of oxygen to decrease our deco time. Our planned bottom time was 20 minutes, but with our decompression time we would be under the frigid waters (44 degrees!) of the lake for over an hour. Acting as tenders, a pair of Rangers assisted us with our gear, and with a nod to each other we strode off the stern of the NPS dive boat and sank quickly into the clear blue depths of the lake. As we dropped through a thermocline enroute to the bottom I could feel the cold on my face – a sensation much like touching dry ice.
We were dropping down next to a thin yellow nylon line that was attached to the "cage" made of copper tubing that Gene Ralston had used to mark the location of the washing machine based on his side-scan readings. The "cage" was supposed to be within 10 feet of the artifact, so as we plummeted down our eyes were fixed directly below us. Visibility that day was at least 70 feet, but at the depth to which we were descending that would still based on the quality and quantity of our light beams. As we approached 170 FFW something caught the corner of my eye and I looked out toward the side of the massive rocky underwater slope. A rectangular shape that could only have been man-made was lying buttressed up against the slope at a steep angle. I paused briefly and swung my light in that direction while, unaware of the situation, Jerome continued down. Within two slight kicks I was within clear sight of the object and it became obvious that this was the goal that hundreds of people had been seeking for over 72 years – a 1927 Chevrolet lay before me in clearly recognizable condition. After all the photographs we had seen of '27 Chevys there was absolutely no doubt in my mind.
With a loud "Woo-Hoo!" into my regulator, I flashed my light at Jerome, who had paused to determine my location. Within seconds he was by my side and "high fives" were exchanged several times. He tied the buoy line to the front bumper of the car and sent it up. Upon seeing it bob to the surface, our teammates in the boats simply thought that we had found the washing machine and that another piece had been placed into the puzzle. They had no idea that down below we had found (As Dan would say later to the television news cameras) the "Holy Grail".
The car was lying on its left side, with its nose facing slightly down slope. It was at an angle with its roof facing down and the parts facing the surface had numerous stones on them, probably the result of tumbling down the steep underwater slope all of those long years ago. We believe that this is why the car itself had not been readily noticeable on the side-scan (although once we were able to state with certainty where it was Gene was able to dimly pick out the shape on his screen). Placing one of my computers within the body of the car, we recorded its depth as 171 FFW, and then Jerome and I circled the car slowly, attempting to log its features in our memory so that we could adequately brief those at the surface. When our computers showed that we were approaching the end of our bottom time, we began our long ascent. We were absolutely DYING to tell our teammates on the surface about the discovery, but our deco obligation kept us from rushing to do so.
46 minutes later we broke the surface and I yelled out to the boats, "We found the car!!!!" Every boat horn in the small "fleet" blared and I could swear that I saw Bob Caso leaping up and down in his excitement. The only bad thing about the moment was that neither Dan nor Bob could have been there at the moment of discovery.
Since then, descendents of the Warrens have traveled to Lake Crescent and have met with members of the dive team. It appears that the family has decided to leave the car and whatever remains it might contain in the lake, believing it to be a "beautiful, fitting resting place". The National Park Service has begun the procedures necessary to have the location declared a gravesite and a private memorial is currently being planned. As each of us on the team met the Grandchildren and Great Grandchildren of the people who had been missing for so long you could almost feel the emotion within each and every one of us and read the mixture of both joy and sorrow within the eyes of the family members. As several members of the family sought the right words to use in thanking the team, Ranger Dan Pontbriand summed it up for all of us….."You're most welcome. It's been a labor of love."
Team Members (in alphabetical order):
Bob Caso: Historian
Rob Edwards: Diver, Clallam County Search and Rescue
Mark Heilberg: Diver and Helicopter Pilot, US Coast Guard
Dan Messaros: Dive Officer, National Park Service
Dan Pontbriand: Team Leader and Diver, National Park Service
Gene Ralston: Side Scan Sonar Expert, Innerspace Exploration Team
Sandy Ralston: Side Scan Sonar Expert, Innerspace Exploration Team
John Rawlings: Technical Diver, Advanced Diver Magazine
Jerome Ryan: Technical Diver
Paul Seylor: Diver, National Park Service
Bill Walker: Diver
Joe Walker: Diver
Author's note: Since this article was written numerous additional dives have been made on the wreckage by members of the dive team. At the request of the Warren family several artifacts have been recovered.
On July 3rd of 2002, members of the family and the dive team held a memorial service for the long lost couple on the shores of Lake Crescent adjacent to the dive site. It was an incredibly moving day.
For future reading: a few years later the team returned for a "memorial" dive on a subsequent Memorial Day, and an astonishing discovery was made. What happened that day and the continuing story of the Warrens will appear in a future article that will appear here on Newsvine.