Clara Nevada

On this day, February 4, 1898 the Clara Nevada was docked in Skagway and no one knew that the following day, February 5 would hold disaster. Several people were preparing to take the boat to Juneau, little did they know it would be the last time they would see their loved ones and feel the ground beneath their feet.
The Nevada was formerly the Hassler of the United States Revenue Service and was built at Camden, N. J., in 1872. As a pioneer iron steamer, the Hassler had both advantages and disadvantages. Her innovative steeple compound engine made the ship economical to operate during survey work. Roomy enough for 30 or 40 people, the ship usually proved a comfortable place to live and work.

Unfortunately defects in the iron hull worsened over time. The Coast Survey spent significant sums of money annually to keep the ship afloat. The amount of maintenance, however, proved insufficient. By the early 1880s, Hassler Captain Henry Nichols cautioned his superiors that due to inadequate maintenance, the ship was beginning to show her age. In October 1892, during a voyage from Alaska to San Francisco, one iron plate from above the waterline cracked outright and at least one other warped severely during a major storm. Later inspection revealed that the cracked plate had rusted through and the wood bracing behind it had rotted. Observers in the engine room noted that the ship flexed enough to alter the distance between the main steam pipe and the inside hatch of the engine room by 1 inch. Although repairs were made, the working of the ship and creaking of the bulkheads continued during subsequent storms. By the fall of 1893, Hassler Captain Giles Harker described the ship as being on “her last legs” but capable of a few more years of service “barring accident.” The Coast Survey officially decommissioned the Hassler on May 25, 1895. In August, the vessel sold to the McGuire Brothers, a dubious pair whose nefarious reputation helped to create the legend of the Clara Nevada. They paid $15,700, or 25% of the ship’s original cost. The McGuire’s insisted on secrecy regarding the sale, requiring that the announcement of the transfer take place via mail rather than telegraph so they could “take possession without publicity.” The Hassler was quickly overhauled for Alaskan service and renamed the Clara Nevada.

On January 26 1898, the 26 year old Hassler/Clara Nevada departed Seattle for the first time under the management of her new owners.
The voyage north was beset with problems. The Clara Nevada hit another ship while leaving the dock, and there were constant problems with the boilers, and at one point she even caught fire. Somehow she reached Skagway and most of her passengers got off, but some were already so discouraged by the whole “adventure” that they remained on board, and on February 5 they headed south with an unknown number of passengers between 25 and 150 by various reports. There is no proof yet of what exactly happened to the Clara Nevada. It is thought that in order to maintain control in the high wind and sharp following seas, the steamer would have had to maintain a reasonable level of forward progress with her steam engine. This made the force of the collision on Eldred Rock especially great—and could have led to the overturning of lamps, fireboxes, and stoves, which would account for the reported fire. Impaled on the rock, the helpless vessel became subject to the strong waves and winds that swept the stern first toward the west and then 180 degrees to the south. Catastrophic hull failure occurred, with the brittle bottom giving way amidships and hull plating probably pulling away from the degraded frames. Sinking would have been almost immediate.
Witnesses reported “a flash, a burst of flames and all was over.” Everybody on board was killed in the explosion. Today, the wreck, lying in pieces in 25-40 feet of water, is a popular spot for divers.
Here is a very partial list of the passengers:

Robert Bruce Banks, a woodcutter – see earlier blog
Jesse Theo Wilkins, from Alabama
George Foster Beck, ship’s purser (the only body recovered)
Kelly, also reported as being the Captain of the ship
C.H. Lewis, Captain of the ship
Al Noyes
Rogers, freight clerk
Frank Whitney of Cripple Creek, Colorado

Pennington;; NY Times article of 2/18/1898; Seattle Post Intel obit 2/5/1895; familysearch; genforum



11 Replies to “Clara Nevada”

  1. Did they ever come up with a list of the crew on board? One of my great-great Uncles, H.M. Benton, is said to have been one of the crew.

  2. Curiously, no, my list is above, and compiled from random sources such as family websites etc, that think their relatives were onboard. What was your uncle’s full name, date and place of birth? I might be able to find some info on him if I had that.

    1. “H. M. Benton was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1836. He came to California by sea in 1859, around the Horn in a sailing vessel. He sailed for 3 years between San Francisco and China and Japan, then came to the Columbia River and was employed by the O. S. N. Co. to run their steamers, until 1869, when he settled in the Ahtanam Valley, Yakima, County, which was then without towns except the small settlement of Moxie, the county seat, opposite the present Yakima City. He was elected auditor in 1872, to succeed C. P. Cook, the first auditor of the county, and served 5 years. He was first clerk of the district court, when 1 clerk was allowed for each court, and deputy clerk when only one was allowed in a district. There being no county buildings, he carried the county records about with him, until the district court was established. Judge J. R. Lewis organized the first court, and first Sunday school, in what was known as Schanno’s Hall, the only public room in the county. The first grand jury met in a small schoolroom outside the limits of the town. Previously justice had been loosely administered. James Cathrell was justice, in a ease of assault, and there not being a sufficient number of men for a jury, put the sheriff on the panel. The man was bound over to appear at the next term of court at Colville–Yakima being, it was believed, joined to Stevens County for judicial purposes, whereas it belonged to Walla Walla. Such was pioneer law. Benton married, in 1869, Mary A. Allen, a native of Oregon. They had 2 children, the eldest of whom was the first white native of Ahtanam Valley.”

      The above is a direct quote from the Early Settlers of Washington State. I think the book has been in the public domain for some time. His daughter, Mrs. C.C. Reynolds, mentioned his death in an article on the History of the Yakima Valley that was published later. I have never tracked down his full name. He is mentioned a lot in the histories of Yakima County. (He and Mary Allen had been divorced for some time before he was killed, of course THAT wasn’t mentioned in the articles, LOL.)

  3. While setting out flags for Memorial Day, May 28, 2011, we found this marker.
    Albert Boenicker
    Perished on the Clara Nevada Lynn Canal, Alaska
    31 yeras, 4 months, 20 days
    Erected by the Woodmen of the World
    I hope this may help some one in the future. This marker is located in Riverview Cemetery, Albany Oregon. Kathy

  4. My Great Great Grandfather was Charles H. Lewis, Captain of the Clara Nevada. We had been told that he died in the wreck, but there is also the speculation that he survived. I would love to get more information from other families that might have details.

    There’s a wonderful new book called “The Clara Nevada: Gold, Greed, Murder and Alaska’s Inside Passage” by Steven C. Levi that I’m just starting.

  5. My great great grandfather William Gill boarded the Utopia out of Seattle on January 26, 1898 on his way to Skagway, Alaska. He is listed in the Seattle post-intelligencer, page 6, image 6 on the passenger list. In The San Juan Islander., May 05, 1898, Image 2, the article is titled “WM. GILL LOST”. My great grandmother Amanda Gill wrote a letter to Mr. Charles A. Phelps, at his electric light plant in Skagway, looking for her husband after he did not return home. He had paid for passage aboard the Clara Nevada which set off from Skagway on February 5, 1898. I found two articles in my grandmother Gill’s 100+ year old bible . William was her father-in-law. I have heard this story from my mother for most of my life. It was only recently that I was able to solve the mystery by researching about my ancestors.

  6. Correction: Hassler’s Captain Giles Harker should be Hassler’s Captain Giles Harber. He went on to become a Rear Admiral.

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