A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Racing to record the vessels that opened the Canadian Northwest
In June 1936, the elegant 210-foot stern-wheel steamer Klondike was cruising down the Yukon River. First-class passengers had white tablecloths and fine food in the dining room, wicker chairs and hanging plants in the lounge, and small but comfortable private cabins. Those who paid less slept on cots down on the freight deck and ate whatever they brought along.
Suddenly the steamer hit a rock, which disabled the paddle wheel and stove in several planks. The Dawson Daily News reported that while "water poured into the hull she drifted three miles farther, striking in several places before she finally came to rest in about sixteen feet of water." The crew put the dozens of passengers ashore, women and children first, set up temporary shelters, and retrieved food and blankets. Another steamboat quickly picked them up and salvaged what it could of the cargo: "general merchandise and mining equipment, four horses and one cow. It is reported that two of the horses were saved." The captain called his ship, its hull "badly twisted," a total loss.
The engines and other machinery were removed and put into a new Klondike of identical dimensions, which was launched in 1937. It operated until 1955, the last of its breed, and is now beautifully restored as a heritage site on the riverbank in the city of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The old hull was left to the raging currents and winter ice. It is still there in the shallows, sad testimony to the fate of many steamboats, but also a target of interest for a small team of nautical archaeologists who are studying what remains of the Yukon stern wheelers.
Nearly 300 steamers plied the Yukon and its tributaries from the 1890s to the 1950s. Before roads, the rivers were the only practical way to move people and goods in a territory that extends 2,000 miles from Canada through Alaska to the Bering Sea. Most vessels were eventually wrecked, destroyed by explosion or fire, or dismantled for their lumber, machinery, and valuable hardware. But while the steamers operated, the Yukon was an efficient river highway that opened the Canadian Northwest to economic development.
"Upwards of 110 stern wheelers were built in 1898 alone," says John Pollack, a British Columbia forestry research scientist, trained surveyor, cave explorer, and diver who has studied steamboats on land and underwater for many years. "There were great shipbuilding booms in Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle, and as far south as San Francisco." One history of paddle-wheel ships notes, only half jokingly, that in Seattle the Moran Brothers shipyard built 12 Yukon steamboats that year, assembling them "by the mile" and cutting them off "when necessary." Haste meant that the builder's plans were lost or never committed to paper.
Fortunately, Pollack, sponsored by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, is now leading a multiyear research project. Using everything from traditional tape measures and photography to the latest imaging technology, the Yukon River Survey is gathering crucial information about the mechanical features and construction of boats that coped with the unique conditions of the northern rivers.
Last summer I spent a few days clambering through the broken hulls of Yukon stern wheelers with Pollack and Robyn Woodward, a nautical archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, whose underwater research has been mainly in the Mediterranean and Jamaica. Assisted by Sam Koepnick, a Texas A&M graduate student and diver, they focused on a cluster of seven stern wheelers that had been brought together and pulled up on a few acres of shore near Dawson City decades ago.
Tom Koppel is a freelance journalist and author of Ebb and Flow: Tides and Life on Our Once and Future Planet.