Ships Lost at Sea

I was re-reading the book “Dynamite Johnny O’Brien” by Herron and found this passage:

“The hazards of the trips to Alaska were suddenly intensified as ships ran ashore or simply disappeared forevere with no trace of t hem or their passengers.  The Clara Nevada was one, and to the growing list of lost ships that he kept in his cabin, Johnny added during that dread year of 1898 the names of the Whitelaw, the Alfred J. Beach, the Momo, the Stikine Chief, Eliza Anderson, the Brixham, and eight others.”

Some of these I have never heard of, let alone the names of the people that went down with them.

First Tourist, William H. Seward

Today is Seward’s Day and the state and local offices are closed to honor the man who fought, and nearly died to acquire the great land of Alaska. During the Civil War, when funds were scarce and Russia, too, was nearly broke from funding their wars, a great real estate deal presented itself. Although the negotiations took years to complete, the man who had the vision was U.S. Secretary of State, Wiliam H. Seward. Working for President Lincoln, he nearly suffered assasination on the same night that Booth shot Lincoln. Another member of the successionist movement pushed his way into Seward’s home, attacking his family and stabbing Seward several times in the face and neck. Miraculously surviving, Seward was not deterred from his task, and in 1867 not only saw the purchase of Alaska, but he also decided to go see the property.

In June of 1869, after retiring, Seward began his vacation to Alaska with a railroad trip across the country on the – then barely one-month-old – transcontinental railroad. He saw buffalo and Indian camps and visited Brigham Young in Salt Lake City. He then visited Sacramento and San Francisco.

Seward boarded the steamship “Active” as a guest of Ben Holladay (a California businessman) to visit the Chilkats up Lynn Canal. The ship visited Seattle and Victoria B.C. and then arrived in Sitka near the end of July. When they got to Klukwan or the port we now know as Haines, by coincidence, there was a U.S. government survey team also in the area to view a rare total eclipse of the sun. The party had timed its visit with the Chilkats to coincide with the eclipse. The Chilkats referred to tourists as “Boston Men” and assumed that Seward was the “Great Tyee” of the Boston Men. Obviously there had been men from Boston who had visited earlier but they were doing business presumably and were not casual tourists as the Seward party was in 1869.

When Seward returned to Washington D.C. he praised Alaska and said it was impossible to exaggerate Alaska’s physical treasures such as its rivers and its wildlife and noted that its untapped mineral and forest resources will make Alaska a “shipyard for the supply of all nations.” How prophetic!

Princess Kathleen part two

Gordon Newell wrote this very interesting narrative of the sinking of the Cruise Ship Princess Kathleen in 1952:
“Death of a Princess
The loss of the S.S. Princess Kathleen on September 7, 1952 was the most recent and best-remembered disaster to a large cruise ship in Pacific Northwest waters. It occurred in the waters of a notorious ships’ graveyard north of Juneau, not far from where the Island went down in 1901 , the Union Steamship Company’s Cutch in 1900 and the Princess Sophia that slipped off Vanderbilt reef in 1918, carrying all 343 persons aboard to their deaths.
It was three o’clock in the morning when the Kathleen, steaming at normal cruising speed through the light rain, struck almost without warning on the rocky shore. The first officer, who had charge of the watch, was unable to explain why the ship was a mile and a half off course.
The SOS was promptly flashed on the air, but on the wrong frequency. [What the ?!?!]
After two hours without an answer it occurred to someone to check on the situation and a ship-to-shore telephone call was placed to the Alaska Communication System, after which a nearby Coast Guard cutter hastened to the scene, arriving at 6 a.m.
Although the Princess Kathleen remained high on her rocky perch for nearly twelve hours after her stranding, no apparent effort was made to seal off her hull from the sea, nor was any of the passenger’s baggage removed. At 2:40 p.m. the incoming tide floated the liner briefly, but she filled fast, slipping back until she literally stood on her stern, then slipped under 90 feet of water.
The unhappy passengers filed damage suits for the loss of personal property-clothes, jewelery, watches, luggage, cameras-which all went down with the ship, the claims averaging over a thousand dollars per person. CPR attorneys, however, quoted that interesting provision of admiralty law which limits the liability of shipowners ‘to the value of the vessel at the termination of the voyage’ (which was zero, since the Kathleen was a total loss), plus her ‘pending freight,’ which consisted mostly of the fares paid by the passengers for a voyage that was never completed. [what clever attorneys!!]

Eventually the company refunded the fares paid and settled property losses at the rate of $200 per passenger. Although there were those who felt they had received their money’s worth in having taken part in a spectacular and much-publicized shipwreck, a good many of the Princess Kathleen’s passengers view her last voyage, to this very day, as an extremely high-priced lesson in the vagaries of maritime law.”

Newell: “Pacific Coast Liners” 1959.

Princess Kathleen

The Cruise Ship Princess Kathleen was built in Glasgow in 1924 and went through the Panama Canal in 1925 on route to her “triangle service” between Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria. The King and Queen traveled aboard Princess Kathleen en route to Victoria in 1939.
In 1949 she started her Inside Passage runs and was the preferred cruise ship that could carry 1800 passengers and 30 automobiles.
Unfortunately on September 7, 1952 the Princess Kathleen ran aground at Lena Point in Alaska’s Lynn Canal at low tide; it was later determined that radar was not operational at the time of the grounding. The United States Coast Guard was alerted two hours later and a rescue cutter arrived at 0630. The crew tried to reverse off Lena Point, however as the tide rose, her stern became swamped. All passengers and crew were transferred to lifeboats and ashore as she slid into deeper water and then sank.
The wreck of Princess Kathleen sits in approximately 50 ft -100 ft of water and is accessible to divers, however, tides and currents in the vicinity of Lena Point are strong. The wreck contains approximately 155,000 US gallons of Number 6 fuel oil and in April 2010 crews began operations to salvage the fuel in advance of a possible catastrophic leak.

The Princeton wreck

Today is Sheldon Jackson’s birthday and I was researching any connection he may have had with Skagway and found that in 1925 his mission purchased a motor vessel. This little 63-foot Diesel powered boat was used to transport orphans and students around Southeast Alaska. It was “a floating hospital, a children’s bus, and a gospel boat, which will cruise the perilous seas of the Alaskan coast. The little vessel is propelled by a gasoline engine and contains sleeping accommodations for nine persons besides a sick bay. It has been constructed of especially stout material to weather the rough waters of southeastern Alaska. The Princeton will regularly visit Alaskan Coast churches and villages, and in the summer season, the fishing canneries, where a large part of the native population are employed.”

The Princeton apparently was not quite stout enough for Alaskan storms because on a stormy day in October, 1939, it ran aground in Lynn Canal. The captain, John Falconer stayed onboard but the other passengers: two men and three Native orphan girls went ashore on the rocks. Fortunately, they were all rescued, but the ship was reported lost.

Ellensburg Daily record of October 13,; wikipedia


Another Canadian Pacific Railroad liner, the Princess Kathleen, grounded on Lena Point during a fierce squall and sank northwest of Juneau on this day, September 7, 1952.

Fortunately the over 400 passengers and crew were able to climb ashore with no loss of life. The massive ship now rests on her port side in around 80-140 feet of water. Like the Sophia, limited visibility and strong currents frequent the wreck site. Located relatively close to Juneau, the site is a popular recreational dive destination. Since the sinking, periodic fuel releases and oil sheens have been noted in the vicinity. The vessel sits at an angle on its port side at a depth ranging from 52 feet at the bow to 134 feet at the stern.

Recent inspection of the ship’s integrity showed it to be coming apart since the rivets have mostly disintegrated.

Small amounts of oil will still be released at the site, since dive crews could not scrub the ship clean. The leaks will result in small oil sheens on the surface, as had been observed before the work.

The cost to recover about 110,000 gallons of bunker oil from the ship has surpassed $10 million and likely will cost more than $12 million, U.S. Coast Guard officials said.

Federal funding to pay for the oil removal project will come from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, the emergency fund discussed as a source for cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico associated with BP’s oil rig explosion.

Project coordinators with the U.S. Coast Guard and state officials consider the Juneau project a major success. Removing the oil eliminates the potential for a large environmental disaster, Alaska On-Scene Spill Response Coordinator Scot Tiernan said.

The price tag also is worth it, U.S. Coast Guard Response Chief Cmndr. Kurt Clarke said.

Juneau Empire article from June 13, 2010.

Hector Morrison McDonald

One of the most common ways of death in Skagway was not murder or disease, but curiously, drowning. Skagway is a port town and ships come and go all the time. These days, the docks are wooden and concrete, but around the turn of the century they were just wood. As any local resident knows, wood becomes slippery and so you generally walk in the street or walk with ice-creepers if you take the boardwalks.
Poor Hector, born in Wood Island, PEI, was only 41 when he began his trip south. The Edmonton Daily of December 17, 1907 reported:
“Halifax, Dec 13, Hector McDonald, of Prince Edward Island, master builder for the Guggenheims at Bonanza Creek, Yukon, was drowned recently at Skagway on the eve of his departure for San Francisco, when attempting to make his way across the dock to the steamer Princess Royal, which was about to sail, he tripped over a guard rail, fell backwards into the bay and was drowned. A boat was lowered and the steamer’s searchlight turned on, but no trace of MacDonald could be found.”
Although the Skagway Death Record says he died on October 30, 1907, the Dawson Daily News pinpointed his death on Friday November 5, 1907. Since by December they still had not found the body, it must of sunk to the bottom of Lynn Canal. His is not the only body to disappear in the frigid waters. In any case, in the winter, be careful when walking on the docks and don’t lean over if you hear a peculiar cry coming from the water below.

S.S. Islander sunk

The British S.S. Islander owned by the Canadian Pacific Navigation company, collided with floating ice which cut through the port bow into the water-tight bulkheads and to the coal bunkers. The ship sank in 20 minutes. The crew of 62 men plus another 20 passengers all drowned.

This occurred at 2 o’clock a.m. on Thursday August 15, 1901 between Douglas and Admiralty Islands. The report was written to Edward Scott Busby, the Canadian Custom Office in Skagway, by the Senior Purser in Juneau on August 17, 1901.

You can see the original document with the names at: