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Alaska Shipwrecks

Maritime Ghosts of the Klondike

by Murray Lundberg

    For the thirty years following the purchase of Alaska, there was little ship traffic along the coast from southern ports. What little there was consisted of fishing boats, whalers and sealers, freight traffic to and from the scattered trading posts, and for a few weeks each summer, tourist cruises. The boats and ships operating on the Northern route were generally built in a substantial manner; it was a difficult market to serve, and mishaps could very well be fatal, in an economic sense if not a physical one. That situation would change virtually overnight in 1897.

    Stories about gold being found along the tributaries of the Yukon River had been reaching southern Canada and the United States for decades, but caused little excitement. When the grimy little steamer Excelsior reached San Francisco on July 14, 1897 (not the 15th as is usually reported), however, people took notice; on board were several men who were carrying huge quantities of gold from an unknown land called "Klondyke". By the time the Portland reached Seattle from Nome two days later, there were 5,000 people at the dock to meet her. The Post-Intelligencer announced that 68 of the men on board her were carrying a total of a ton of gold; uncharacteristically, they actually underestimated the cargo, which was close to two tons. Seattle went mad! North America was in the depths of yet another economic depression, and the thought of gold for the picking made normally sane people do crazy things. Every available ship was immediately chartered to go to the Klondyke (whereever that might be!), and as word spread along the West Coast, then across the country and around the world, everything that would float was patched up and put back into service. Ferry, schooner, barge, tug, passenger liner or tramp freighter, it mattered not - it was heading to Alaska.

    Conditions on most of the boats ranged from terrible to horrific. They were overcrowded, under-equipped and poorly manned. On some of them, horse and cattle stalls were built on the roofs of rough cabins, so that urine and feces from the animals would drip onto the men below in their bunks. Newspapers in Seattle, San Francisco and Victoria regularly reported that a ship was leaving for Alaska, so poorly loaded that it looked like it would roll over in the first swell. It is surprising that, under those conditions, there were relatively few accidents.

    Most of the vessels which took part in the Klondike Stampede have faded into obscurity. The Clara Nevada and Eliza Anderson, though, have both taken a place in West Coast maritime lore.

    The Clara Nevada had been condemned as unfit for service in 1897, but was quickly overhauled for Alaskan service. She did not even survive one round trip. The voyage north in January 1898 was beset with problems; as well as hitting another ship while leaving the dock, there were constant problems with the boilers, and at one point she even caught fire! But she somehow reached Skagway; most of her passengers got off, but some were already so discouraged by the whole "adventure" that they remained on board, and on February 6 they headed south. There is no proof yet of what exactly happened as the Clara Nevada passed through Berner Bay, about 30 miles south of Skagway. Witnesses reported "a flash, a burst of flames and all was over." Everybody on board, possibly 60 people, were killed in the explosion. Today, the wreck, lying in pieces in 25-40 feet of water, is a popular spot for divers.

The Clara Nevada

    The Eliza Anderson, a side-wheeler, had been sitting on a mudbank near Seattle, serving as a roadhouse and gambling hall when the Klondike madness struck. Within six weeks, though, she was on her shaky way to St.Michael, near the mouth of the Yukon River. She had no compass and a captain with little experience; at Comox, she rammed a sailing vessel, damaging one of her paddlewheels. She then ran out of coal in a storm north of Kodiak; after burning all available wood, including the furniture, a "mystery pilot," thought by some people to this day to have been the ghost of a fisherman who had been killed in the area, took the wheel and guided the vessel into a cove where 75 tons of coal were stored. She eventually reached Unalaska, in the Aleutian Islands, and announced her arrival by smashing into the dock and doing considerable damage to her hull. Most of her passengers left to find their own way to Dawson from there; those that did eventually reach the fabled City of Gold took just short of one year for the journey. Over the winter of 1897-1898, the Eliza was blown ashore and totally wrecked (with no loss of life, luckily).

    We are extremely fortunate that some of the vessels which worked the Northern coast have survived, due to the interest taken in them by, in most cases, dedicated teams of volunteers. At the Maritime Museum in Vancouver, the copper-sheathed schooner Thomas F. Bayard, which ran to Juneau and St. Michael in 1898, has been stabilized. In San Franciso, the 3-masted schooners Balclutha and C.A.Thayer, and the steam schooner Wapama, all of which worked in Alaska, have been preserved along with dozens of other boats of all sizes and types. Maritime museums play a vital role in ensuring that historic vessels such as these will be around so that future generations can marvel at the exploits of those men and women who risked everything to reach the Klondike.

Suggested Reading:

  • Berton, Pierre, Klondike, or The Klondike Fever. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1958)
  • Clausen, C.A., "The Klondike and Alaska," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, Volume XVI. (Northfield, MN, 1950)
  • Coates, Ken and Bill Morrison, The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her. (Don Mills, ON: Oxford, 1990)
  • Herron, Edward A., Dynamite Johnny O'Brien, Alaska's Sea Captain. (New York: Messner, ca. 1962)
  • Paterson, T.W., British Columbia Shipwrecks. (Langley, BC: Sunfire, 1976)

©2001-2009 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.

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