Steamer That Triggered Klondike Gold Rush Found Off Alaska's Coast

Roundup: Talking About History

Randy Boswell, The Gazette (Montreal), 11 Sept. 2004

The ship that triggered the Klondike Gold Rush when it arrived laden with tons of Yukon nuggets at the Seattle dockyards in July 1897 has been discovered off the coast of Alaska.

It's being hailed as the state's greatest shipwreck find ever, but this country's history buffs will be equally thrilled about the discovery of the S.S. Portland, the steamer that put a young Canada on the map for much of the world and became a ship of dreams for the tens of thousands of miners she carried north on a frenzied quest for riches.

The sunken vessel lies in shallow water in Katalla Bay, about 300 kilometres east of Anchorage and close to where the borders of Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon meet.

It was first reported two years ago by an Alaskan environmentalist who was exploring the shoreline and noticed parts of a ship sticking out of the sea. In May, a team of U.S. archeologists, marine historians and other experts - co-funded by the state government and the PBS television show History Detectives - combed the site for clues to identify the wreck.

Dave McMahan, an archeologist with Alaska's department of natural resources, says the team simply waited - and waded - to examine the relic.

"It's in a very remote area. My suggestion was to go and have a look at it at very low tide."

What they found was a 19th-century steamship all but buried in silt where it had run aground nearly a century before. Measurements of the engine and vintage photographs taken the day the ship was abandoned in 1910 - and which showed distinctive mountain peaks in the background - confirmed the vessel's identity.

Heritage officials are now celebrating the rediscovery of the ship McMahan describes as having"quite an illustrious history." Fellow team member Mike Burwell, a mining historian with the U.S. government, has added:"For Alaska, it's probably the most significant wreck you could find."

comments powered by Disqus