I’ve been digging around the Internet and the library for a few days now pursuing my own interest in the great ships of Alaska’s history. The information is startlingly scattered so I have set about creating an account of the boats that have been a part of Alaska’s discovery, boom, gold rush, fishing industry, tourist industry and society. If you have anything you’d like to add, correct or another boat you would like to see in the article just use the comments section at the bottom to tell me what’s on your mind. Otherwise, enjoy a glimpse into Alaska’s maritime history.
The HMS Resolution and Discovery
While I don’t intent to present the ships of Alaska in chronological order I will start with the oldest boat I could find a photograph or a painting of. The HMS Resolution of the Royal Navy and her companion ship the HMS Discovery, built in 1771 and 1774, respectively. Both ships were involved in the third and final expedition (1778-1779) of Captain James Cook and attempted to navigate the Bering Strait without success. During the expedition, however, he “found” what was later named the Cook Inlet by George Vancouver. There were already sparse English and Spanish settlements in Alaska when Cook made it to the Bering Strait. The Spanish claims on Alaska date back as far as 1493 and the HMS Resolution was proceeded in 1775 by the Sonora of Spain (no photo available), which reached a latitude of 58 degrees North. The Sonora claimed the Sitka Sound during her expedition.
I don’t know if anyone realizes how cool it is that the New York Times has started to archive its historical prints and make them available and searchable online. To your left is scan of a New York Times Article from the 3rd of December, 1910 reporting the Steamer Northwestern of the Alaska Steamship Company on the rocks at San Juan Island. The bits and pieces that I have been able to put together about the Northwestern rank it in my second favorite ship for this article. Over the course of her illustrious career the Northwestern ran aground an amazing 18 times and was refloated in each instance. It was a Japanese bomb that eventually put her down for good at Dutch Harbor in 1942. One of her groundings took place after she lost her course on a snowy December night in 1927. The ship was loaded with Christmas goodies bound for Alaska. When she was abandoned near Cape Mudge residents of Quadra Island looted her for all the presents they could carry, a timely and unexpected, enormous, steel, Christmas miracle. The Steamer Northwestern also plays a role in the history of Cordova, Alaska, where I am writing from. 1910 saw the copper boom getting under way in Cordova and during its operational period through 1938 the mines at Kennicott up the Copper River yielded more than $200 million in copper. That first load of ore was loaded aboard the Northwestern and taken to the smelter in Tacoma, Washington. Researcher at Large put together a great site that covers the bombing of the Steamship Northwestern complete with photographs. By the way, I know you love the “Jail for Exorcising Devils” article more than the steamer article. It’s okay. I’m not hurt about it.
Shame on me for not remembering where I got this from, but it’s a short story that includes the Steamship Northwestern (found it [sitenews.net]):
“So, you think it’s inconvenient and time-consuming to get to Juneau today?
Consider this: Two would-be politicians from Nome, Charles D. Jones and Elwood Bruner, were so confident of their election chances that they left Nome for Juneau on the last southbound steamship of the season at the end of October, before the November election had even been held. And both did win!
The four other successful candidates from Nome, Conrad Freeding, Frank Aldrich, J.C. Kennedy and Tom Gaffney, hitched up their dog teams and departed Nome on January 7, headed for Fairbanks. En route they stopped at Ruby for rest, a banquet and revelry, and there picked up Ruby’s new legislator, Dan Sutherland. The five mushed on to Fairbanks for another rest and recreation pause before continuing on to Valdez. The last musher arrived there February 13, where they all boarded the southbound steamship NORTHWESTERN, bound for Juneau. Henry Roden of Iditarod and Milo Kelly of Knik also are said to have mushed to Valdez.
Eight senators and fifteen of the sixteen elected representatives finally arrived in Juneau for the opening session March 3, 1913. The missing sixteenth was a Fairbanks man, J.J. Mullaly, who had left Alaska before the November election returns were in; he failed to return to the territory to claim his seat.”
SS Princess Sophia
The SS Princess Sophia holds the single saddest maritime incident in Alaska’s waters. The Sophia was a coastal liner that operated through the inside passage between British Columbia, Canada and Southeast Alaska. On October 24, 1918 the ship struck Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal South of Juneau, Alaska. After being beached on the rocks overnight she sank the following day in a storm with all 75 crew members and 268 passengers on board. Curiously, more than 100 of which were found in their cabins, below decks. The only survivor was a small dog which swam to a nearby island.
King & Winge
The schooner King and Winge tells the tale of 80 years at sea. She took her maiden voyage to Alaska in 1914 and sunk in the 18 foot waves of the Bearing Sea in 1994. She ended her life as a crab boat and started it on an Arctic expedition, hunting, trading and film making. In between the King and Winge was one of the rescue ships for the SS Princess Sophia above, the rescuing ship for the Stefansson Arctic Expedition and even had a quick stint as a rum runner during prohibition.
SS Sackett’s Harbor
This almost seems impossible to believe and I wish I had a photo to go along with this one, but I can’t bring myself to leave it out. The SS Sackett’s Harbor was a T2 Tanker built for the Merchant Marine during World War II, 1943. The ship survived the war intact and then on March 1st 1946 it just broke in half 800 miles out of Adak, Alaska. The bow sunk and the stern stayed completely afloat. The stern section was able to make it the 800 miles back to Adak without assistance. Later that year the stern was towed to Anchorage, Alaska where the ship’s electric drive supplied more than half the electricity used by Anchorage for the next decade. In 1957, displaced by a new hydroelectric plant the ship was given a new bow and used to haul wine from California to the East Coast by way of the Panama Canal. Splendid. Please see comment from Al Grove below for fascinating clarification on the life of this boat.
The Riverboat Discovery – I, II & III
The riverboat Discovery is the creation of Captain Charles (aka-Jim) M. Binkley Jr. Captain Binkley designed the Discovery based on the river boats he had piloted earlier in his career and started construction in his back yard during the winter of 1955. By the summer of 1956 the Discovery was on the water and displaced the Godspeed as the number 1 boat in the Captains flourishing tour business on the Chena and Tanana rivers near Fairbanks, Alaska. The Discovery 1 holds 150 passengers.
With ever increasing demand on the daily tour business Binkley purchased the Riverboat Yutana which started its life as a freight boat on the Tanana and Yukon rivers in 1953. The Yutana was retired to dry dock on the Chena in Fairbanks in 1967 until purchased by Binkley in 1971. The Yutana was immediately converted and set back to float christened the Discovery II. Accommodating almost 400 passengers the Discovery II served for more than 15 years and 5,000 runs without so much as a delay on account of mechanical issues.
The Binkley family tour industry once again outgrew the 400 passenger Discovery II and the Discovery III was born. This time the Captain and his three sons set to planning the ship. The plans were finalized in the fall of 1986 and Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on Whidbey Island in Washington was hired to handle the construction. The Binkleys have come a long way from the days of backyard boat building. So how exactly do you get an enormous river ship from Washington State to Fairbanks, Alaska? Well, first you put it on a barge and you tow it to the mouth of the Yukon River at St. Mary’s, Alaska. Then, you sink barge out from underneath it and drive the ship 1,000 miles up the Yukon River. The Discovery III went into to service on July 4th of 1987 and still services trips on the Chena and Tanana Rivers near Fairbanks, Alaska twice daily during the summer. The discovery is as good as a legend in interior Alaska.
The Bear is a ship of many names and many places, but she has always been called *something* Bear, USS Bear, USCGC Bear, Arctic Bear, Cutter Bear. Built in 1874 at the shipyards of Dundee, Scotland the she spent her first decade as a sealing ship before being sold to the United States Revenue Cutter Service, which would later be a part of the Coast Guard. The bear did search and rescue for the Greely Expedition, assisted with the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and was the star of the film version of Jack London’s Sea-Wolf. Somewhere in the middle of all this the ship had time for a 41 year detail patrolling Alaska’s 20,000 miles of coastline. The bear retrieved American personnel from Antarctica before World War II and served in the Northeastern Atlantic Greenland Patrol from 1941-1944. The Bear spent half of her life on the coasts and sounds of Alaska before finally sinking on her way to Philadelphia for a permanent station as a floating restaurant in 1963. I reckon she wanted no part of that.
The last, definitely the slowest, but certainly not least the Eliza Anderson, more commonly know as “Old Anderson,” was the Volkswagen Bus of the sea. And she has a story. This is my favorite ship of the article and it’s so worth the 10 minutes to read the entire story at Wikipedia if you like the summary here. It was said of her that “no boat ever went slower and made money faster.” Built in 1858 this old steamer even played a role in the Underground Railroad before her ultimate demise in a last ditch run for Alaska’s Klondike Gold Rush in 1898. Gold was something Old Anderson was familiar with. She got her start in Canada running miners in the Fraser River Gold Rush. On her first trip down the Fraser the boat had 40,000 worth of gold dust on board. That’s quite a bit for 1859. In 1860 she delivered the news of Lincolns election to Port Townsend, WA. Another decade of mail service and common tasks passed and by 1877 Old Anderson was falling to pieces. With another gold rush on the horizon she was patched together for the Cassiar strike in Northern British Columbia and made it all the way to the docks of Wrangell, Alaska. After her second gold rush subsided she was tied up at the dock in Seattle in 1878 and within a few years sank at her moorings. You would think that’s the end, but it’s not – This is where the story starts to get interesting. In 1883 the boat was raised, patched together again and ran hard for five years as a ferry in the Puget Sound before being tied up and left to rot, this time as a roadhouse and gambling hall. Old Anderson’s final call came with the Yukon Gold Rush. Times were hard and people would book passage on just about anything that would float to get to Alaska. These boats of ill repute were nicknamed the “floating coffins.” She was patched back together for her third gold rush. On August 10, 1897 she set sail on her final trip for St. Micheal, Alaska. From the New York Times: “In spite of the opinion of the inspectors, many seafaring men pronounced the Anderson unseaworthy, and dozens of persons who came here from the east to go north on her were influenced by local friends to change their minds and take passage on other boats. Every day since she left Seattle it has been common talk that if she withstood the seas of the North and reached St. Michael in safety she would do something no one expected her to do.” Underway, overloaded, boarded up without so much as a compass there was general bedlam on board. Upon reaching Kodiak Island five passengers got off the ship and refused to reboard citing certain death as the cause. I’m getting a little hazy on the story here, but apparently they were towed out of Kodiak and the tow line snapped in a storm. “The Anderson it turned out had run out of coal in the middle of the storm. Her lazy crew had not fully coaled the ship at Kodiak and had simply hidden the sacks that they were supposed to haul on board and heave into the coal bins. The crew and passengers were forced to burn the wooden coal bunkers, and eventually the cabin furniture and even the cabin partitions. Passengers were writing notes to loved ones and tossing them overboard in bottles, of which there was an ample supply since most of the boat’s stock of whisky had been consumed in an effort to keep up morale. Just as Captain Powers had given the order to abandon ship (which would have been difficult to execute as the lifeboats had been swept away), the tale goes that a tall ghostly white-haired bearded figure clad in foul weather gear entered the pilot house, took the wheel and steered the ship to safety. Some of the more superstitious said the spectre was the ghost of Captain Tom Wright. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed the story as coming from ‘an old sailor.'” The ship was abandoned in Dutch Harbor after the steam pipe exploded and it collided with the dock. The mystery man was revealed as a stowaway 58 years later.