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The Yukon River sternwheeler Columbian disaster, 1906

Northern Ships and Shipping

Highlights of History from The Whitehorse Star

GRIM DEATH STALKS - the sternwheeler Columbia disaster, 1906
WAS TERRIBLE ACCIDENT. Three Tons of Powder Explode On Steamer Columbian and Five Men are Dead as Result - Others May Die

    Five men dead and two hovering on the threshold of death are the sad features in connection with the wrecking of the White Pass steamer Columbian by the explosion of three tons of black powder aboard which occurred on the Yukon river at Eagle Rock about twenty miles above Tantalus Tuesday evening [September 25] shortly after 6 o'clock. Of the five men killed the bodies of two are supposed to be in the river. The other three are lying in the morgue at this place. Following the explosion the steamer, by the heroic efforts of Captain J. 0. Williams, was run to the shore where she burned to the water's edge. Her cargo, consisting of 150 tons principally potatoes, apples and other vegetables, hams, bacon and twenty-one head of live cattle, was a total loss.

    The most frightful accident in the history of Yukon navigation occurred Tuesday everning at 6:20 o'clock when, without a sceond's warning, three tons of powder, stored on the forward deck of the steamer Columbian exploded when that steamer was near Eagle Rock, five miles below the mouth of the Little Salmon river and 20 miles above Tantalus enroute from Whitehorse to Dawson. In less then five minutes after the explosion occurred the entire boat was a seething mass of flames.

    Captain J. O. Williams was at the wheel at the time of the explosion and although the wire connecting the pilot house and engine room was broken by the explosion, he put the wheel hard over and steered the steamer for the bank. She stuck bow on, swung off and again struck with her wheel which rolled up sufficiently far to hold her but not until a rope was made fast did Captain Williams leave his position at the wheel.

    Two member of the crew never reached the shore, Mate Joe Welsh and fireman Edward Morgan. Welsh was seen to fall into the river and Morgan is supposed to have gone the same way. Three deckhands, John Woods, Carl Christianson and Phil Murray, although rescued from the flames, have all since died from their injuries.

    Purser L. C. Cowper and E. E. Winstanley, the latter a Dawson miner, a young man who is said to have been working his way down, were both very badly burned, the former being said to be beyond recovery. Cowper's injuries are on the body extending from the hips to the shoulders. His face is also badly burned.

    A portion of the uninjured members of the crew did what they could for their injured shipmates, after reaching the shore, while others constructed a raft and floated down the river to Tantalus to wire the sad news of the accident to Whitehorse. Shortly after the news came here Wednesday morning the steamer Dawson reached port and was at once dispatched by Supt. Scharchmidt to the scene of the accident, he going in person and taking with him Drs. Cade, Pare and Miss Tollan, nurse at the General hospital.

    In the meantime the steamer Victorian came along, taking the bodies of Wood, Christianson and Murray (they had all died within a few hours after reaching shore) aboard, also the injured, bringing them on up the river. The Dawson was met near Big Salmon when the dead and injured were transferred to the faster boat which reached here at 12:30 this morning.

Cause Of the Explosion

    The exact cause of the explosion of the powder is unknown but it supposed to have been ignited from fire which dropped from the furnace into the ship's hold and crept forward along the woodwork over which the powder was stored.

List of Dead

    Joseph Welsh, age 41 years, from Victoria; unmarried. Was forward on lower deck when explosion took place and, though not instantly killed, the flesh it is said, was literally torn from his face. Later he fell or jumped into the water. The body has not been recovered. Fireman Edward Morgan; mother resides in Victoria. Deckhand John Woods, from Hardwick, England; age 25. Deckhand Carl Christianson, shipped as J. Smith; from Sweden. Deckboy Phil Murray, age 19; his father, Frank Murray, is pilot on the Bonanza King; home in Seattle.

Steamer Columbian

    The Columbian was built at Victoria by the Canadian Development Company in the spring of 1898 and taken to Dawson by way of St. Michael. She was a sister ship of the Victorian and the Canadian.

    The cargo was consigned to various Dawson dealers of whom the heaviest individual losers will be Barton Bros, who lost 21 head of cattle.

    An inquest on the bodies now at the morgue here will probably be held tomorrow.