On a cold, stormy winter’s night in 1904 the steamer Clallam took at least 56 souls to the bottom of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and wrecked the careers of at least two professional sailors.
The Clallam was commissioned by the Puget Sound Navigation Company to share the Tacoma / Seattle / Port Townsend / Victoria route along with the steamer Majestic. Built of Douglas fir in 1903 at Tacoma’s Edward Heath Shipyard, she had 44 staterooms, was 168′ in length, 32′ on the beam, with a 13′ depth of hold. She was rated at 657 tons, powered by an 800 horsepower (600 kW) compound steam engine driving her propeller to a cruising speed of 13 knots (24 km/h).
On the event of her 15 April 1903 launch, the christening bottle of champagne missed her bow and dropped to the skid way below to follow the vessel Into the sea. Then, the U.S. flag at her stern unfurled upside down, the American signal of distress… ominous signs both.
The Last Voyage
Nine months later on the morning of Friday, 8 January 1904, the Clallam departed Tacoma on her regular run under command of 55 year old Capt. George Roberts, a veteran of 29 years afloat. She picked up northbound passengers and freight at Seattle’s Pier 1. There, the ship’s mascot, a bell sheep1, refused to board and was left behind as the ship departed the foot of Yesler Way at 0830.
She cleared customs at Port Townsend at 1215 then, bound for her 1600 scheduled Victoria arrival, the Clallam headed into the teeth of strenghening Strait of Juan de Fuca westerly that eventually reached gale force speeds up to 36 mph (58 km).
As the Clallam steamed further into the strait First Officer George W. Doney was in the wheelhouse while Captain Roberts was in his cabin. As the ship’s roll increased, Roberts entered the wheelhouse. Chief Engineer Scott A. DeLaunay called up the engine room speaking tube to report a deadlight that had been previously damaged and poorly repaired had been stove in and the ship was taking on water.
Roberts went down to the engine room, where he found himself waist deep in oily water. The engineering crew had tried to plug the hole with blankets held in place with nailed down boards to no avail.
Whether Clallam’s pumps were clogged with coal dust and debris, or were operated incorrectly was never established though rather than pumping water from the vessel, the pumps began to pumped water in. It was then discovered the backup pumps were inoperable. At about 1500 the rising water quenched the vessel’s boiler fire, leaving her powerless in the gale. Dead in the water and rolling heavily off Trial Island, she was blown before the wind towards the San Juan Islands.
The Puget Sound Navigation Company’s Victoria agent, Edward E. Blackwood, notified of Clallam’s distress, began his frantic efforts to find a tug to go to her. All Victoria’s seagoing tugs were serving away from port, and the little harbor tugs refused to venture into the gale. Blackwood was able to get word to the master the little passenger steamer Iroquois docked at Sidney. With waves breaking clear over her bridge Iroquois was unable to find Clallam and returned to port near midnight. It should be noted that the Iroquois ,with 14 aboard, was lost in similar circumstances eight years later during a Gulf Island storm in the on 10 April, 1911.
At Blackwood’s behest the dispatcher of the Puget Sound Tug Boat Company dispatched the tug Sea Lionfrom Seattle and Richard Holyokefrom Port Townsend to search for the stricken Clallam. The Richard Holyokedeparted Port Townsend at about 1730 though locating the Clallamin the stormy night proved difficult as, contrary to law, she carried no distress signal rockets.
Lowering the Boats
At about 1530 Captain Roberts ordered the lifeboats lowered, and into them went the little ship’s women and children, with apparently no officers in command, although four crewmen and a passenger who was an experienced merchant officer went with the first boat. All three boats capsized or failed to properly launch, drowning all aboard. Many of the men remaining on board watched their wives and children drown, including a chap on his wedding trip who witnessed his bride disappear in the raging waters.
A passenger, Newell, describes the fate of one of the boats:
“The second boat was said to have been launched safely and was about to pull away from the ship’s side when a fear-crazed man leaped aboard from the hurricane deck shouting, ‘By God, that boat don’t go without me!’ As he landed in the heavily loaded boat his heavy boots struck the head of one of the women, crushing her skull. His floundering about turned the boat over and it sank. A young mother from the overturned boat floated by the steamer’s side, a baby held high out of the water by her up-stretched arms. A man went over the side on a rope and had his hands on the child when a hissing wave snatched it away.”
Other accounts state that the second boat capsized about 600 feet (180 m) from the steamer.
At about 2235 the steam tug Richard Holyoke, under command of Capt. Robert Hall, found the Clallam between Smith and San Juan Islands. Although Victoria was closer, prevailing weather conditions were such that it seemed best to head for the American shore. Captain Hall got a line on board and took the Clallam under tow. Meanwhile, those remaining on board the Clallam bailed for their lives with buckets. The tug Sea Lion joined the scene at about 0100, 9 January.
Capsize and sinking
The Clallam never made it to shore. Captain Roberts, realizing she was about to founder, signaled the Holyoketo cast off her towline. Holyoke misunderstood the signal so Roberts had the line cut lest his sinking drag Holyokedown with her. The Clallam rolled over and sank quickly at about 0115 hrs. The tugs then picked most (if not all) of the 36 who had remained aboard from the black, freezing wave-tossed sea. Capt. Edward D. Hickman (1876–1928), then serving as mate on Richard Holyoke, dove into the icy water to rescue 15 people. He suffered from poor health as a result long after.
The Tacoma Times subsequently reported the hulk of the Clallamhad been salvaged and sold at auction, with the British Columbia Coastal Service purchasing “the capstan and some of the more movable parts” while a Victoria pawnbroker bought the hull, with the intent of displaying it at exhibitions, but by June 1904 it was found abandoned on a beach outside Oak Bay.
The 56 people, of whom 45 were passengers, who had taken to boats drowned. None of the seventeen women and four children on the passenger list survived. It is surmised that more than 56 were lost because several children under fare age had not been registered on the rolls..Disastrous as it was, things could have been worse as the Clallamhad embarked only 92 people (31 crew and 61 passengers) on her last voyage, though she was licensed to carry 250 passengers with freight, or 500 on excursions without freight.
Engineer DeLaunay’s license was revoked and Captain Roberts’ license suspended. Noting the absence of legally required signal rockets on board the Clallam, the steamboat inspection service launched a crackdown on defective or insufficiently equipped vessels, of which there were many. The Clallam’s route was taken over by the Alaskan Steamship Company, operating first the Dolphin and then later the old Majestic, which had been rebuilt and renamed the Whatcom.
Joshua Green, then in charge of the Puget Sound Navigation Company, determined to put much more reliable ships on the inland seas, shortly thereafter purchased the steel hulled steamers Indianapolis, Chippewa, and Iroquois from the Great Lakes, bringing them through the Straits of Magellan to Puget Sound.
The ill fated Princess Sophia
One other significance of the Clallam disaster may be that when the Princess Sophia went aground in October 1918, in Lynn Canal, her captain, undoubtedly familiar with the Clallam sinking, refused to put the passengers into the boats, even though rescue vessels were at hand. This proved a fatal misjudgment in the Princess Sophia’scase, as the sea and wind came up during the night, washed the Sophia off the rocks, drowning all aboard.
1 Bell Sheep Puget Sound Navigation Company vessels often transported sheep aboard their vessels. Each vessel had a sheep with a bell around its neck that led each new flock aboard. The bell sheep served as the vessel’s mascot.