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
Rogers, freight clerk
Frank Whitney of Cripple Creek, Colorado
Pennington; http://canadianhistory.suite101.com/article.cfm/ship_tragedies_of_the_klondike_gold_rush; NY Times article of 2/18/1898; Seattle Post Intel obit 2/5/1895; familysearch; genforum