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Sailing the Sternwheeler Will H. Isom

from Puget Sound to Dawson City, 1901

More about the Sternwheeler Will H. Isom


The Pittsburgh Post, December 15, 1901

    One of the most remarkable voyages ever attempted by a river towboat has been completed in safety. It braved the swells and monster waves of the Pacific ocean, running under its own power for 5,500 miles, and finally reached the Alaskan rivers. What makes this trip of special local interest is the fact that the steamer was built in Pittsburgh. She was just the ordinary tow boat such as every Pittsburger is familiar with, and draws not over three feet of water. Her hull is flat bottomed and intended for shallow water service only.

    It took nerve to run that steamer out into the sea. Pittsburg men were in charge of her and piloted her through her journey. The trip was begun near Seattle and lasted for 97 days. One of the crew of the boat was Clyde Seabrooks, a Beaver Falls boy. He has since arrived home from his perilous journey, and described his experiences in an interesting manner for "The Post." The steamer was the Will H. Isom. She was put together on the Pacific coast by James Rees' Sons, of Pittsburgh. She is what rivermen would call a fine-looking craft, thought somewhat odd to the seafaring people of the Pacific. Mr. Seabrooks said: "We went through the inside channel and had to dodge the icebergs and some times had to go considerably out of our way to get around them. The scenery on the trip is said to be the finest in the world. One can see land for almost the entire distance, but there were some very dangerous passages and narrow channels to make our way through.

    "We went through Blind Pass, which is only two miles long and but eight feet deep in high tide. The tug that was with us as a convoy had to go to Unimak Pass, which took her 15 hours, and she was drawing but 13 feet of water. The passes are through the Alaskan peninsula. After being again joined by the tug, the Isom started for St. Michaels, 750 miles further on. All kinds of chances had to be taken by the crew of the steamer, as it was foggy weather and the sun did not show itself for four or five days at a time. Under these conditions it became impossible to get the bearings and to add to the hardships of the crew the wind was blowing a gale.

    "During the rolling and tossing of the steamer soundings were taken at one point, where it was found that the boat was moving through but three fathoms of water. This was a dangerous moment and while running at a lively rate the crew could see ahead to where the ocean going steamer C. D. Lane had gone to pieces in a storm a short time before. The Lane was thrown on a reef and became a complete loss.

    "During the heavy storm, while the sea was washing over the decks and threatening to carry away the house and all upper works the convoy, which was towing a barge, broke her tow line. Before Isom could check her course she had run into the barge and for a time it was thought that all was lost. The house of the barge was smashed in great style and one would have thought Dewey had sent one of his famous 10-inch shells through her. The blow caused a leak in the steamer's deck and covered the sea with kindling wood. Fortunately the real damage was slight and the journey was continued. It was 24 hours after this that the Isom and her weary crew reached St. Michael.

    "There was a delay of three weeks in St. Michaels, where the steamer took on supplies and fitted for her run to Dawson. There were three flat-bottomed barges with her, each 160 feet long by 40 feet beam. Each barge had 800 tons of freight, consisting of provisions and machinery. The Isom was after then in more of her natural element. She had reached the Yukon river. This river which is 2,700 miles long, was to be well traveled by her, and the crew was eager to see what sort of a stream it was. The water was muddy during the trip and it was thought that the boat's boilers would have to be cleaned, but this was found to be unnecessary.

    "The trip up Yukon slowed the splendid qualities of the steamer. She went up with her tow, passing the rapids that almost stalled single boats there. Many difficult places for the older boats along the river were made with perfect ease, and along the route the appearance of the steamer caused great excitement and gossip. The Isom has condensing engines and ran noiselessly. She is also a fast steamer and with her powerful boilers, never lacked for steam; nor was her machinery out of order for a moment during the entire trip.

    "Aside from the collision with the barge, there was but one accident to mar the journey. This was the blowing up of the steam radiator, owing to the refusal of the governor of the boilers to work. This threw directly on the radiator 180 pounds of steam and sent that cast-iron affair through the roof of the cabin and wrecked some of the handsome finishings of the interior. The Isom is intended for the Yukon river traffic and it is expected she will make a record there next season when the water is low and other boats cannot run in the stream."

    Mr. Seabrook said the Isom cost $120,000 to build. She is 180 feet long and 38 feet wide She is equipped with six boilers, 42 inches by 28 feet; engines with 24½ inch cylinders and 10-foot stroke; 180 electric lights for her cabin and all over the boat; and a fine searchlight for her bow. Her cabin has accommodations for 150 passengers, and there is hot and cold water in each stateroom and bath rooms and every modern convenience. The cost of $120,000 added to the cost of her trip to Alaska, which Was $18,000 made her total cost delivered $138,000. Her cargo taken to the North will earn her $200,000, so that she will pay for herself on her initial trip. During the trip to Alaska the steamer burned 525 tons of coal and cords of wood.