The history of Inside Passage shipwrecks

Southeast Alaska is a land ruled by water.

Whether it was the behemoth glaciers carving out majestic mountain ranges, fathoms of seawater whittling down ancient bedrock floors, or steady rainforest showers becoming wild, winding rivers, all landscapes in Southeast Alaska are in one way or another shaped by this essential element. The hardy souls who make this land home depend on these waterways infinitely more than residents of the Lower 48. Many of the goods necessary for day-to-day survival arrive by barge, be they food, medicine or Amazon Prime packages. Much of the economic system depends heavily on what is brought in by or pulled out of the oceans that surround the state’s tiny communities.

On any given summer day, a cruise ship can seen making a voyage through the Lynn Canal, bringing hundreds of tourists who support Southeast Alaska’s economy. James P. Devereaux image

The sea and the rivers are Souteast Alaska’s highways, as only three towns–Skagway, Haines and Hyder–are connected to the outside world by road. All other cities in the region, including the state capital of Juneau, are only accessible by plane or boat. But those who live there come to look beyond the frustrations of fjord living and soon find appreciation in the luxuries of isolation and alternative travel. A trip up a well-frozen river in February on a snow machine or with a dog team is much easier than navigating a city expressway at rush hour. A hike on a glacier can is almost guaranteed to be free of speed traps and jaywalkers. I have yet to see a stoplight or a traffic jam moving from one town to the next by boat, but with such luxuries comes inherent risk. Not all ice stays strong, and not all boats stay afloat. When researching for a chapter of my book “Spirits of Southeast Alaska: History & Hauntings of Alaska’s Panhandle” on the sinking of the Princess Sophia, a passenger ship that slipped under the water in 1918 with all 353 souls aboard her, I came across many fascinating and tragic tales of those who lost everything on waters that seem to enjoy playing god.

It is almost certain that numerous shipwrecks occurred long before Europeans arrived in the Alaska panhandle. However, no Alaska Native shipwrecks have been found at the time of this writing (though numerous stories and legends within all the indigenous cultures of the Inside Passage include of them). The first documented Inside Passage wreck comes to us from the British naval officer and explorer George Vancouver. In August of 1792, his exploratory vessels Discoverer and Chatham grounded on sunken reefs at almost the same time in the Queen Charlotte Sound. Luckily, the crews were able to extricate themselves, and no lives were lost.

Explorer and British Naval officer George Vancouver. Wikipedia

Following Vancouver’s exploration, the lust for new trapping and trading land led many a fur trading vessel from the Russian American Company or the Hudsons Bay Company into the frigid waters to the hunt for pelts. During that time, the HBC was lucky enough to avoid any total losses of vessels, but the Russian fur traders were not so fortunate. In 1861 outside of a Kake village near Sitka, the Nikolai I struck a submerged reef. The crew would certainly all have perished were it not for the quick thinking of the Kake fisherman who brought them ashore and cared for them. There are many more documented, and certainly some undocumented, accounts of vessels foundering on the many dangerous reefs in the Inside Passage. To even go over every shipwreck from the 1870’s to the sinking of the Princess Sophia 1918 would be a book in itself. Nonetheless, there are several major maritime tragedies that every traveler to the Last Frontier should pay close heed to, as they are lessons in the fate of those who take on the dangers in these fickle northern waters.

The first fatal shipwreck recorded occurred aboard the steamer George S. Wright in January of 1873, almost 15 years before the Yukon Gold Rush. After loading goods in the port of Sitka, she returned to a rough winter ocean and foundered near Prince of Whales Island on a rock outcropping know as Devil’s Reef. She quickly broke up, and the rough seas carried the steamer debris up and down the Prince of Whales coast and throughout Queen Charlotte Sound. Though all 31 passengers were listed as casualties of the wreck, it is disturbingly noted in the Sacramento Daily Union’s March 19, 1873 paper that evidence of “rough habitation by white people” was found on the shore weeks following the wreck, indicating some poor unfortunates likely succumbed to their slow and torturous demise in the wilderness rather than quickly in the water. This nationally reported wreck would be the first in a series of Inside Passage maritime tragedies, as traffic up and down the waterway was destined to dramatically increase. For what was a then a mere trickle of traders, miners and navy vessels, would soon become a raging and undisciplined torrent of Stampeders.

When word of the gold-rich claims of the Klondike River reached a recession-weary western United States in the summer of 1897, a powder keg of enthusiasm was set off. Soon, much of the world turned its attention towards the northern frontier. The news of gold spread across the globe at a never-before-seen pace with the aid of the recent inventions of the telephone and telegraph, and because of a highly sensationalized press corps desperate need to relay good news. Hundreds of thousands of travelers scrambled as fast as they could by any means necessary to get to the boomtown of Dawson and her gold-laden streambeds. Particularly impacted by gold fever were the North American towns along the Pacific Coast. The first announcement that the now millionaire miners fresh from the Dawson claims were headed home to the United States as on the vessels Excelsior in San Francisco and Portland in Seattle set the West Coast ablaze. So frenzied was the fever pitch towards the north that even William D. Wood, Seattle’s then mayor, resigned his position and headed up north to strike it rich. Within a matter of days every vessel that could float, and some that could not, were headed north through the treacherous inside passage. Unfortunately for some, the will to be the first to the Klondike far exceeded the will to proceed with caution.

The earlier mentioned SS Princess Sophia circa 1912, six years before meeting her demise in the Lynn Canal more than 10 years after the Yukon Gold Rush ended. Wikipedia

Anything said regarding the madness that ensued for those trying to secure transportation in the days to come was an understatement. Port town prices on everything that could possibly be useful in the Klondike skyrocketed. Horses that couldn’t be given away weeks before the frenzy were selling for 10 times or more the normal price of a prize animal. Any sizable dog that was left outdoors and not securely tied up was suddenly in danger of ending up on a sled team in the Yukon. Even bicycles–claimed by some sneering salesmen to be the best way over the mountains–were quickly snatched up by the gold-hungry urban denizens for a sky-high price. Of course, before the prospecting hopefuls and their overpriced teams made it to the rugged mountains of the north, they had to travel 1,000 miles by water.

To satisfy this new demand for marine transportation en masse, every aging steamer, fishing vessel, scow or barn door that could pretend to float for a few days was given a new commission and put to sea. All were loaded to the gills with men, goods and animals bound for the ports of Skagway and Dyea located at the northern terminus of the Inside Passage. Many of the vessel captains had never been as far as these northern ports, and knowledge of the sometimes-treacherous seas ahead was tenuous at best. This voyage was often the end of the line to some unlucky miners before the true hardships for most even began.

As the masses made their way up and down the sea route to the north, little attention was paid to safety. Speed was everything. The faster a captain moved up and down the Inside Passage, the faster he could do it all over again. Though the hazards of the waterway were becoming more and more familiar with each voyage, extreme weather conditions–like heavy fog that could drape the coast for days at a time or howling winds that battered the seas–left even the most experienced navigator relying on inaccurate charts and faltering courage much of the time. It was these conditions that met the Clara Nevada on a frigid February evening in 1898.

The Clara Nevada before her wreck in 1898. National Underwater and Marine Agency

The ship was bound for Seattle from Skagway laden with miners carrying what would today be worth almost $20 million in gold. Less than 20 miles south of Skagway, at a location know known as Eldred Rock, witnesses reported seeing a green flash of light followed by a raging inferno. Investigators later determined that the Clara Nevada exploded into flames as a result of illegal dynamite stored in the hull of the vessel. The gaping hole quickly let seawater pour into the doomed ship, rendering her unnavigable. Within moments she slipped below the surface, taking her secrets with her. It was initially reported that all aboard perished except a mangy dog, but history has added a wrinkle of intrigue to the story. In the 1900 census, the name of the ship’s captain, C.H. Lewis, clearly appears, and newspaper records indicate he ran another expedition north. In addition, Paddy McDonald, the fireman aboard the Clara Nevada and a notorious rogue, was found to have participated in the gold rush in Nome. Only one body of the 30 sailors, and as many as 100 passengers, were recovered. What was never recovered, despite numerous salvage attempts, was the gold. Eldred Rock can easily be pointed out today, as it is now the location of a famed lighthouse, proudly jutting its century old face into the bay just south of the town of Haines.

On August 14, 1901, the steamer Islander departed Skagway bound for Victoria, British Colombia. She steamed at full capacity with more than 100 passengers and 60 crewmembers, as well as a reported 6 million dollars in gold bullion. Early the next morning, just south of Juneau, she fatally struck rocks or an iceberg that put an enormous hole in the front of the vessel. The captain attempted to bring her ashore at nearby Douglas Island but was unsuccessful. This led passengers rushing to the lifeboats. Many were overloaded and hastily put into the rough seas. One lifeboat, full of women and children, was put into the water only to be overrun by panicked passengers jumping from the sinking ship. About fifteen minutes after she struck, the Islander slipped below the sea. Several lifeboats too close to the ship were sucked down with her beneath the waves as well, never to return. One unfortunate woman was climbing into a lifeboat when the suction from an intake pipe ripped her away from her husband, sending her to the belly of the ship and to an icy grave along with at least 40 other souls. Despite numerous salvage attempts and several court cases over salvage rights, most of the gold was never recovered.

This photo of the author has nothing to do with Southeast Alaska shipwrecks, but he wanted to show off his new boat on the Mississippi River. Katie Devereaux image

The most profound maritime tragedy by far was the earlier-mentioned Princess Sophia. While would love to tell you about it ,and the fate of the 353 or more souls who perished aboard her after she met her demise on a rock one foggy evening, the story already exists elsewhere. If you would like to read an in depth and extraordinarily well-written account of the tragedy, I would recommend “The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her” by the talented Ken Coates.

But better yet, if you would like a rich historical perspective on the sinking served with a deliciously frightening and true ghost story (no bias, of course), read my chapter on the Princess Sophia in The “Spirits of Southeast Alaska: The History & Hauntings of Alaska’s Panhandle,” available on Amazon or at a bookstore near you.