Subtle Treachery: Shipwrecks of the Lynn Canal and Juneau Area

Princess May on the Rocks
S. S. Princess May on the rocks, Aug. 5, 1910.

The soaring mountains and pristine waters of Southeast Alaska mask subtle treachery. Violent storms, icy waters, submerged rocks and an average twenty foot fluctuation in tides makes for dangerous passage, especially before the introduction of lighthouses such as Eldred Rock at the turn of the nineteenth century. Even then many vessels came by calamity. Illustrated below is but a few.

Clara Nevada, February 5, 1898

Clara Nevada
Clara Nevada at port, pre 1898.

On the cold stormy night of February 5, 1898, a steamship captained by Charles H. Lewis wrecked on Eldred Rock, in Lynn Canal, Southeast Alaska. It had been bound for Seattle with miners from the gold fields of the Klondike. Some had been highly successful. In fact, there may have been some 850 pounds of gold on board. There was also illegal dynamite. The Clara Nevada ran aground on Eldred Rock, then exploded in flames. The papers reported that all were lost. Only one body was ever recovered, the charred remains of the purser, George Foster Beck.

“It was an outrage,” said Editor Colonel Alden Blethen of the Seattle Time. The port authorities allowed a poorly refitted old coast survey ship to haul people to the treacherous waters of The North. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer disagreed. The ship had been thoroughly inspected, the editor said. The Times countered, if the boilers were so good why did they explode? Mr. Sanderson, who had inspected the wreck within a week of its sinking, said the boilers were intact. They hadn’t exploded. But someone had set three little fires in the boiler room, and there was a blackened hole in the side of the ship. Steam boilers wouldn’t make a blackened hole. But dynamite would.

Meanwhile, in the back pages of those same newspapers, there was a discreet advertisement recruiting people to invest in a riverboat to go to the gold fields by way of the Yukon River. The captain, C. H. Lewis, was an experienced captain. In fact, he had been the captain of the Clara Nevada. The fireman on the Clara Nevada, a nefarious fellow named Paddy MacDonald, showed up in the Nome Gold fields. And two other miners on the Clara Nevada showed up in their homes in Indiana after an unsuccessful trip to The Klondike. So, perhaps everyone didn’t go down with the ship.

And, what happened to the gold? That question has yet to be answered. Over a hundred years later, the gold has not been found. Salvage crews have explored the Clara Nevada since one week after the wreck, but no trace of the gold has been located. By modern standards, 850 pounds would bring $22.6 million dollars (as of 2013 at $1,662 an ounce).

What about the captain? And the fireman? And the two other miners? How did the captain get to Seattle in five days to take up his next venture? He did not seem to have a great deal of money, because he had to sell 51% share of his new boat to Wm. H. Evans in order to finish it and set sail. He retired to Baltimore and lived until 1917. Paddy MacDonald, who was characterized as an “all round crook” by the authorities, went to Nome, where he showed up in “The Nome Nugget” from time to time. The two miners managed to make it to shore in a lifeboat, but the other three or four lifeboats were never found. The miners went back to their farms in Indiana, where they stayed for the remainder of their natural lives.

Because of that wreck, there was a furor in Congress, and money was appropriated to build navigational aids in Southeastern Alaska. One of those lighthouses was built on Eldred Rock, the site of the wreck, in 1906. Nils Adamson, John Selander and Scotty Currie were the first keepers. It must have been lonely duty on The Rock. Eldred Rock is aptly named. It is not big enough to be called an island, and it sits in the middle of Lynn Canal, open to all the weather the north can dish up. After one particularly stormy night in March 1908, Currie ventured outside to check the outbuildings. On the north end of the rock - to his horror - was the resurrected wreck of the Clara Nevada, complete with grisly remains. After several hours, the storm returned it to the deep. The keepers buried the remains on the mainland.

So, what really happened on that fateful night in 1898? What caused theClara Nevada to explode and sink? What happened to the gold? How did the captain and fireman survive?

Pam Randles, 2005
Updated by Blythe Carter, 2013.

S.S. Mariechen, January 25, 1906

S.S. Mariechen
S.S. Mariechen, False Bay, Alaska, Jan 25, 2006.

The steel German steamship Mariechen struck a rock in a snow storm January 25, 1906 in False Bay, Chatham Straits, Alaska. The following are excerpts from the wreck report:

“Disabled Dec. 25, 1905, deadlight in coal bunker sprung open, adrift until Jan. 25, 1906.” “Unable to see on account of snow storm and lack of steam.” “Struck rock in snowstorm.” “No charts of this coast, compass frozen up.”

The Mariechen departed Seattle December 19, 1905 bound for Vladivostock, East Siberia. She had a crew of 50 and a cargo of 5,000 tons of general merchandise worth $100,000. The vessel herself was worth $250,000. At the time the wreck report was filed by Rudolph Heldt, master of the Mariechen, the damage to the vessel and cargo had not been ascertained. Later reports have the vessel salvaged and towed back to Seattle.

S.S. Princess May, August 5, 1910

Princess May
S.S. Princess May on the rocks, Aug. 5, 1910.

The steamship S.S. Princess May, departed Skagway and was proceeding south down Lynn Canal in heavy fog when it ran aground on the rocks near the north end of Sentinel Island. It was high tide and the momentum of the ship forced it well up onto the rocks, with the bow jutting upward at an angle of 23 degrees. This produced a number of dramatic photos that were sold all over the west coast (to the captain’s everlasting shame, we’re sure).

Thanks to the close proximity of Sentinel Island, passengers, crew and valuable cargo were easily evacuated. After blasting rocks, the Princess May was eventually floated free and repaired.

P.J. Abler Ablaze, September 29, 1915

P.J. Abler
J.P. Abler ablaze, Sept. 29, 1915.

The 116 ton 97 foot gas screw P J Abler was destroyed by fire September 29, 1915 at Douglas Island near Juneau. The blaze was ignited when a lighted candle was dropped into the bilge while the vessel was undergoing repairs.

Appraisers who examined the wreck several weeks after the disaster found the burned vessel on Douglas Island destroyed to the bilge and beyond repair. Both the P J Abler and her cargo were total losses. The 16 persons aboard survived the disaster. The vessel was bound for the Kuskokwim River with Captain E B Hoffman at the helm.

Divers at Work. Admiral Evans Wreck, March 9, 1918

Admiral Evans
Divers at work. Admiral Evans wreck, March 9, 1918.

This Pacific Steamship Company steamer, built in 1902, was originally named the Buckman. The Admiral Evans ran aground in Hawk Inlet off Chatham Strait. The ship was lured off course by a stray buoy and suffered two holes in its hull. The passengers aboard were landed safely ashore by cannery tenders, and then brought to Juneau by the S.S. Princess Sophia. The steamer was later salvaged and returned to service.

S. S. Princess Sophia, September 24, 1918

Princess Sophia
S.S. Princess Sophia on the rocks, Sept. 4, 1918.

The ill-fated Canadian Pacific Railway Company steamer was built at Paisley, Scotland. On a southbound voyage between Skagway and Vancouver, British Columbia, the Princess Sophia struck Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal in a blinding snowstorm during the early morning hours of October 23, 1918. The steamer was positioned on the rocks with its entire hull out of the water at high tide. Heat and light were maintained on the ship, and the 268 passengers and 75 crew members apparently remained calm, waiting for more favorable weather to transfer to rescue vessels. At 4:00 P.M. on October 24th, the U.S. lighthouse tender Cedar received a radio message from the Sophia that it was taking on water. By that time there was a thick blizzard with gale force winds in the area, and all efforts to locate the ship were unsuccessful. Next morning, the Cedar located the ship, with only its mast above water. It was assumed that the Sophia had finally sunk at 7:30 A.M. on the morning of October 25th. All the passenger and crew, 343 in all, were lost. It was the worst disaster in the history of Northwest shipping.

Fornance”, pre 1950s

"Fornance" pre 1950s.

We only know the name of this vessel from the word “Fornance” penciled on the back of the original photograph. This was most likely the name of the vessel, or possibly its captain. Passengers can be seen on the boat's deck and on the rocks to the right.

S/S Princess Kathleen, September 7, 1952

Princess Kathleen
S.S. Princess Kathleen aground on Lena Point, Sept. 7, 1952.

Heavy squalls and poor visibility while traveling between Juneau and Skagway landed the luxury liner, Princess Kathleen, aground at high tide on Lena Point, a point of land about 14 miles northwest of Juneau. As the water receded and winds battered the stern, the ship began to list dangerously. All passengers and crew were evacuated. When the tide came in again, the Princess Kathleen slipped under the surface. But that’s not the end of her story; scuba divers now enjoy visiting the underwater wreck, which has become a popular dive spot.

Blythe Carter, 2013

Industry & Business