It was a dark and stormy night on February 5, 1898 in Lynn Canal in southeast Alaska. Nine months earlier the steamers Portland and Excelsior had arrived in Seattle and San Francisco with more than a million dollars in gold from Alaska. The Klondike Gold Rush was on. Every ship that could float, however precariously, was put to use transporting would be miners to the gold fields in the Yukon.
The Clara Nevada had just been pulled out of mothballs by the Pacific and Alaska Transportation Company. She had originally been the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey vessel the Hassler, retired after 26 years of service. The Pacific and Alaska Transportation Company had purchased her for $16,000 and converted her to Clara Nevada with the hopes of making good money off the eager gold seekers.
The ship’s captain was C. H. Lewis, a seasoned veteran of the sea. In 1898 he was 60 years old, having gone to sea at age 12. He was hired because he was noted for his bravery and coolness under pressure. He had captained the George F. Elder during the Chilean-Peruvian war. He had put on a divers suit and dived into the water to locate a wreck. When one of his ships caught fire, he stayed with the ship to rescue his crew until barely escaping on a hastily rigged raft. He ran guns to the South during the Civil War. He outran Canadian Customs in the paddle wheeler Eugene. He was known up and down the Pacific Coast as a hero and a scoundrel.
On January 27, 1898, Clara Nevada sailed from Seattle after being inspected and cleared by the U.S. Steamboat Inspectors. The old Hassler engine wasn’t the usual type of engine. The crews that had worked on the Hassler knew how to operate the engine, but the crew of the renovated Clara Nevada did not have the experience to make the engine run properly. They bumped into a revenue cutter while leaving Seattle. They rammed the dock at Port Townsend. They blew out boiler flues. In addition, they were transporting a ton of old style dynamite for the Treadwell mine in Juneau. Then, as now, it is illegal to carry dynamite and passengers on the same ship.
The trip north was difficult. In the words of Col. Fred Wilson of New York City, who got gold fever, and despite his “advanced years” headed north:
“It was in every respect an unpleasant trip. There was trouble almost from the beginning. The vessel seemed unmanageable. At Port Townsend, it rammed into the dock. The passengers came to the conclusion that the whole crew was drunk. I am sure this was not the case. A meeting of the passengers was held on the deck and the prevailing sentiment was in favor of leaving the ship. I was one of the few who were in favor of staying with the vessel and we persuaded the passengers to make the trip. But it was a stormy one, being only a succession of troubles. The passengers were well treated by the officers of the boat; we received naught but kindness from them. But there was something wrong with the ship. It never ought to have been allowed to go to sea.”
When they arrived in Juneau, inspectors were on the dock so they could not offload the illegal dynamite. They unloaded and loaded passengers and freight and continued on to Skagway. Northbound passengers were offloaded in Skagway and lightered to Dyea and the head of the Chilkoot Trail.
About a dozen southbound passengers were taken on board. Some had done well in the gold fields. Witnesses at the dock reported that southbound passengers had about $200,000 worth of gold with them. At today’s prices, that would be about $12,500,000. The Clara Nevada departed Skagway at 5:30 pm on Saturday, February 5th, 1898 in a snowstorm with perhaps 65 people aboard. She was never heard from again.
There is a chain of islands off the southern tip of the Chilkat Peninsula ending in Eldred Rock, a 2.4 acre promontory jutting out of the ocean. The Comet mine was located eight miles south of Eldred Rock on the mainland just north of Berner’s Bay. Some miners were waiting on the dock that night to be picked up and taken to Juneau. About 9 o’clock, they saw a ship on fire in the distance. They watched for twenty minutes until a huge explosion sent a fireball into the sky. They tried to launch boats to rescue survivors. The storm winds were too strong and the seas were too high. The next morning there was wreckage on the beach from Clara Nevada.
In the days and weeks to follow, a name board was found from Clara Nevada – and one body - was found. It was identified as George Foster Beck, the purser. It was presumed that all others had perished. A lifeboat was found beached with a Clara Nevada life preserver in it. It had clothing and bedrolls belonging to George Kasey and William Hemming. They had gone to the gold fields and were returning home to Rockport, Indiana. They both made it home and lived out their lives.
The ship was found wrecked on the north end of Eldred Rock. It made the national news. There had been quite a few wrecks of ships going to the gold fields, and the public was outraged and demanded the government do something about it. The Spanish American War started ten days after the wreck, so Congress didn’t authorize construction of lighthouses until 1901. Between 1901 and 1906, nine lighthouses were constructed along Alaska’s Inside Passage. The last to be built, and the only one of the original lighthouses still standing, is Eldred Rock.
There are many unanswered questions about the wreck of the Clara Nevada, and some remarkable events have taken place at Eldred Rock. Captain Lewis arrived in Seattle five days after the wreck, despite being declared dead. He continued his career until he passed away in 1917. Fireman Paddy McDonald, also declared dead, showed up during the Nome gold rush in 1899. The Clara Nevada rose again at Eldred Rock in 1908 during a storm and disgorged the bones of the drowned. The keepers of the new lighthouse buried the bones on the mainland. The gold has never been found even though divers have been searching the ship for 110 years. The lighthouse remains standing on Eldred Rock, reminding us of the unsolved mystery that caused it to be built.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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