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Yukon River Sternwheelers: the Columbian

by Murray Lundberg

Memorial to the victims of the explosion of the Yukon River Sternwheeler Columbian     The Columbian was lost in the worst accident in the Yukon River's history. On September 25, 1906, she was destroyed in an explosion at Eagle Rock when a crewman accidentally fired a gun into a load of explosives carried on the bow (some early reports said that a fire spread from the boiler to the powder). Six men were killed; Phil Murray, deckboy; Edward Morgan, fireman; Joe Welsh, mate; Lionel Cadogan Cowper, purser; John Woods, deckhand; and Carl Christianson, deckhand and coal trimmer (he shipped on as J. Smith). Welsh and Morgan were killed immediately, Woods, Murray and Christianson died before the Victorian arrived, and Cowper died several days later of his injuries). Also lost was her cargo of 150 tons of vegetables and meat, and 21 head of cattle.

    The disaster is described in "Fire on the Yukon" by Sam Holloway. A memorial to the victims was erected in what is now called the Pioneer Cemetery in Whitehorse by the employees of the British Yukon Navigation Company, which owned her. The photo to the right shows the memorial as it looks today - click on the photo to enlarge it. An interpretive panel is mounted at the Eagle Rock Rest Area just downriver from the site of the explosion.

    Below are miscellaneous facts about the Columbian extracted from a wide variety of sources, but primarily from the ooficial records of the British Yukon Navigation Company.

  • Canadian Shipping Registry #107091, registered at Victoria.

  • wooden sternwheeler; 146.5 feet long, with 33.4 foot beam and 4.7 foot hold. Gross tonnage 716.42, registered as 455.15 tons. One deck, carvel build, sharp head and square stern. Licenced for 175 passengers, 75 in first class, 100 in second class.

  • engine room was 35 feet long, housing 2 horizontal, high-pressure, surface-condensing engines built in 1898 by James Reese & Sons of Pittsburgh; the cylinders had 15 inch diameter and 72 inch stroke (Affleck says 60 inch stroke), developing 15 NHP.

  • 1898, built at Victoria by John Todd, for the Canadian Development Company.

  • Knutson and Affleck stated that, with the Victorian, she was operated on the Stikine River by the Canadian Development Company in 1898. Given her arrival time in St.Michael, that seems unlikely.

  • 1898, went to St.Michael under her own power, arriving July 15. There were 4 of the Moran steamers sitting at False Pass Bay when she passed.

  • August 20, 1898 (MacBride says Aug. 18), she was the first Canadian Development Company steamer to arrive at Dawson. On board were 2 prefabricated steel steamers for the North West Mounted Police, 1 to be based at Dawson, the other at Teslin.

  • operated on the upper river run by the Canadian Development Co.

  • William Ogilvie commented that the Canadian, Columbian and

    Victorian were all "rather heavily built, and too bluff in the model for the run, but they did wonderfully good service nevertheless, and running them taught every pilot on the upper river how to navigate it."

  • 1899 season crew: in command of Captain Shaver; Second Mate, Peter Dunn

  • June 1899, steam steering gear installed in the Canadian, Columbian and Victorian.

  • early June 1899, struck a rock 9 miles down the Fifty Mile River from Whitehorse; sunk in 20 minutes, in 9 feet of water. On June 16, the Canadian was alongside, helping to pump her out.

  • July 29, 1900, Second Mate Peter Dunn was drowned at Five Finger Rapids, "while the mate and two of the crew were putting out the cable through the rapids... By some accident the small boat was upset and the men thrown into the foaming rapids." The other men reached shore.

  • 1900, on the Whitehorse-Dawson run; for most of the season, medical inspections were required as boats arrived at Dawson. The Columbian arrived on July 13, 20, 28, August 6, 15 and 24. After August 24, the inspections were done at Log Cabin.

  • April 1, 1901, all 17 CDCo. steamers were bought by the British Yukon Navigation Company; this included 3 Stikine River boats, 4 lake boats, and 10 Yukon River steamers.

  • ca. July 16 1902, Commissioner J. H. Ross had a paralytic stroke while en route to Whitehorse; he was laid up in Whitehorse until August 20, then moved to hospital in Victoria.

  • 1902, tied up for last part of July and August due to a lack of cargo.

  • 1903 season crew: Master, F. B. Turner; pilot, Charles Bloomquist; mate, C. F. Dillon; purser, H. B. Berdoe; chief engineer, J. R. P. Gaudin; second engineer, Robert Ryder; steward, W.S.Brown.

  • 1903, refrigeration plant removed to increase its freight capacity by 75 tons.

  • 1903, caught in Dawson for the winter when navigation closed with no warning (they expect manageable ice to run for at least a week first). She wintered in the ice in front of the BYN docks, receiving "nominal damage" in the spring.

  • December 15 1903, the WP&YR applied to the Customs office at Whitehorse for a refund of the $65.28 paid for the annual Inspection Certificate of the Columbian; in late April, the fee had been eliminated.

  • 1904, brought to Whitehorse from Dawson, then not put into service until August 10.

  • 1904-05, wintered at Hootalinqua; diagram in Cohen, p.67 shows her anchored in the slough by 4 DM (deadmen), 150 feet from Dan Snure's store.

  • 1905, Canadian, Casca, Columbian and Victorian converted to burn coal from the Tantalus mine: Bonanza King is already on coal.

  • 1906 season crew: Master, J. O. Williams; pilot, H. C. Baughman; mate, Joe Welch; second mate, C.Smith; purser, A. D. Lewis; chief engineer, Frank J. Mavis; second engineer, A. Borrowman; steward, C. D. Phillips; deckboy, Phil Murray; Mr. Morgan, fireman.

  • September 25, 1906, destroyed in an explosion.

  • October 5, 1906, Star: "Photographer E. J. Hamacher returned Sunday evening on the steamer White Horse from a professional trip along the river. He obtained some excellent views of the wreck of the steamer Columbian near Eagle Rock."

  • her boiler was retubed and installed on the Casca in 1907.

Roster of Yukon/Alaska Sternwheelers

Northern Ships and Shipping