Ship Tragedies of the Klondike Gold Rush

Miners Climb Chilkoot Pass Near Can-Am BorderOften unqualified crews navigated these unsafe vessels that were often boarding more passengers than was safe. There were hardly ever passenger lists. Often if a ship sank nobody even knew their kin were aboard. These were nameless casualties of the race for Klondike gold.

Here are six ships that met such a fate.

The Mexico

The Pacific Coast Steamship Co. liner Mexico, commanded by Capt. H. C. Thomas, was the first and largest of those lost. It carried passengers bound for Sitka, Juneau and Skagway.

The ship foundered July 26, 1897 just off Prince Rupert, BC, when it hit a rock. No lives were lost, but this incident probably enhanced the idea that such trips were safe. Although passengers praised the captain and crew for getting everyone safely to shore, inspectors revoked the license of both the captain and pilot.

The Clara Nevada

This Feb. 5, 1898 disaster in icy waters of the fjord leading to Skagway is thought to have begun when The Clara Nevada caught fire during a storm. A big explosion sent her to the bottom. No one is known to have survived.

Passing boats spotted floating debris for days. The ship Islander brought the sad news to Seattle (It went down several years later.) A $50,000 reward was offered for recovery of the body of purser George Beck, a stockholder of the company which owned the ship. It was the only body recovered. There was no passenger list, but the identity of much of the crew, including Capt. C. H. Lewis, was known.

The Constantine

Capt. Arthur Riggs of Portland, Oregon, left this report: We lost the Constantine on the 4th day of July, 1898, about 600 miles from Dutch Harbor (in Alaskas Aleutian Islands). We were rescued by the SS PortlandAt St. Michaels (at the mouth of the Yukon River) our company bought the steamer J. P. Light. The crew manned her and took her to Dawson City, where I was given command of the steamer TyrrellI towed the barge Duff to Fort Selkirk, the first barge ever towed above Dawson City.

The Corona

After hitting a reef Jan. 28, 1898, the Corona was left high and dry, according to observations from the Islander, which cruised on by. All 300 passengers had been rescued by the steamer Al-Ki.

The Islander

A 240-foot luxury steamer built by the company that built the Titanic, the Islander was flagship of the Canadian Pacific Navigation Co. It, too, was considered unsinkable because of its steel hull. Built for 300 passengers, in 1898 it carried at least twice that number. Fortunately, she was returning from Alaska with crew and only 111 passengers on this 1901 trip. The ship probably struck an iceberg near Juneau at 2 a.m. Aug. 15. It was reported that 42 lives and $3 million in gold were lost when the ship went down. A partial list of victims is available.

Lars Brekke was lucky. He and his party missed the boat. Many years later about 30,000 pounds of gold was recovered from the wreck.

The Princess Sophia

The 1918 wreck of the Princess Sophia was long after the Klondike strike, but its 313 lost passengers were among the most prominent citizens of Alaska and the Yukon. Many had profited from the 1896 Yukon strike. One victim was the first climber to reach the summit of Mt. McKinley, North Americas highest peak. Others were going home to retire after two decades of prospecting. The ship ran aground in the Lynn Canal, stayed afloat for 40 hours, then slipped off the reef and went to the bottom. All aboard were lost.

Sources:

The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1966)

The H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1966-1976, ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1977)

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