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A riverboat caught in a gale on the open sea

<b>A painting depicting the sinking of the Alaskan, from Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1895.</b>
A painting depicting the sinking of the Alaskan, from Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1895.
Courtesy Superior Publishing<br><b>The Alaskan docked in Seattle a few months before its final fateful journey.</b>
Courtesy Superior Publishing
The Alaskan docked in Seattle a few months before its final fateful journey.

Dec 9, 2013


By Finn J.D. John
Special to the News-Register


Paddlewheel riverboats are, of course, not designed to be used on the open sea. Their scant freeboard, so convenient for passengers clambering aboard for a trip down the river or across Puget Sound, becomes a major liability in a storm at sea; their ornate deck covers and big-windowed deckhouses, so nice for watching the scenery gliding by, take the full force of boarding seas when things get rough.

And yet riverboats did, in the late 1800s, have to venture out into the open sea from time to time, either for an overhaul or for a transfer to a different inland route. When they did, everyone tried to move them at calm times of year, and hoped for good weather. But once in a while, the plan didn’t work out.

Case in point: Railroad mogul Henry Villard’s sidewheel steamboat Alaskan, in late spring of 1889.

The “White Elephants"

The Alaskan was one of two massive 260-foot-long sidewheel steamboats commissioned by railroad mogul Henry Villard in the early 1880s. The big riverboat, along with its sister ship, the Olympian, came “around the horn” in 1884 and got right to work losing money for Villard on the Portland-Astoria run.

Villard, at the time, was a newcomer to the steamboat trade. He’d acquired a big, sleepy riverboat monopoly – the Oregon Steam Navigation Company – that was in the process of having its markets disrupted by a smart, scrappy upstart named Uriah B. Scott. Scott, who was one of the best naval architects in the history of steamboating, had virtually taken over the Portland-Astoria service with his fast, luxurious riverboat, the Fleetwood. Naturally, Villard had cast his eye around for something that would one-up the upstart, and these two enormous floating palaces were it.

The problem was, the two vessels had been built to the specifications of successful Chesapeake Bay steamboats. In Northwest waters, they were a terrible fit. Most obviously, they were sidewheelers; sidewheels, as the greenest rookie riverboat man in the company would have told Villard if asked, did not work well on the Columbia. The boats were also huge, with hulls that drew 8 to 10 feet – so they could only make runs in which they could stay in deep water. On those runs, their coal-fired power plants, built for speed rather than efficiency, gobbled coal at a rate that ticket prices just wouldn’t support.

Soon the two of them became known as “Villard’s White Elephants.”

Still, Villard stuck it out, and when Scott put the legendary steamboat Telephone into service in 1884, there was no alternative. 

Coal-guzzler though the Alaskan might have been, Villard’s only alternative would be to hand over the Portand-Astoria run to his competitor. And so, as the 1880s wore on, the Alaskan and the Telephone developed one of the Northwest’s most well-known riverboat rivalries. Races between the two became common events, much relished by the passengers. The Alaskan occasionally won those races, although it’s not entirely clear how. Maybe, knowing what a draw the spectacle was, the Telephone was throwing a race or two here and there.

By 1889, though, all that hard use was taking a toll on the Alaskan, and the big vessel was too large to fit in any of the local dry docks. 

To perform the needed maintenance, it would have to be sailed to San Francisco.

Which is how the big steamboat came to be 18 miles off Cape Blanco on that fateful day in May, thrashing its way south in seas that were starting to look ominous.

Caught in the open sea

On the morning of the Alaskan’s last day, the Alaskan was pounced upon by an unexpected late-spring gale. Captain R.E. Howes ordered a small sail rigged to keep the bow pointing south and rang for the engine room to cut the power to “dead slow.” On a sidewheel steamer taking seas on a beam, the danger was that the ship would roll far enough to one side to lift the opposite wheel free of the water, and if that happened under full power, the wheel could be destroyed when it contacted the water again.

The Alaskan struggled on all day, making almost no headway. The seas got worse and worse. By midnight that night, ominous signs were beginning to appear. The aft deckhouse had started to rip free, which meant each time a wall of “green water” poured onto the deck, it was going straight down into the bilge. And the Alaskan, built for calm and protected rivers rather than the open sea, had only a few feet of freeboard; it was shipping a lot of green water.

Desperate to keep the boat afloat, crew members stuffed blankets into the gaps – $2,000 worth, according to the Daily Morning Astorian’s report afterward, or $50,300 in today’s dollars. But then, shortly after midnight, came the coup de grace: A massive comber swept across the Alaskan’s decks and tore the portside paddle box off the ship. The box took numerous strakes and planks away with it, leaving gaping holes through which thousands of gallons of seawater poured with every wave. The Alaskan was doomed. Captain Howes gave the order to abandon ship.

Somehow, in the pitch-dark storm, the crew managed to get three lifeboats launched and tethered in the lee of the ship. Crew members climbed down the ropes into the boats and cast off. Captain Howes stayed aboard, as per maritime custom; the aged steward refused to get in a boat, and so did the chief engineer. Perhaps they were hoping for a miracle.

Broken in two

The boats were barely away when the Alaskan’s iron hull, teetering in the crest of a huge wave, broke in half and sank out from under the feet of Captain Howe and the other men still standing on deck.

But unlike a regular oceangoing ship, the poor hard-used riverboat had left plenty of flotsam behind on the waves – bits of planking torn away by the waves, chunks of superstructure, bits of deckhouse. 

Struggling against time in the icy waters, Howes found the chief engineer and together they managed to cobble together enough wreckage to make a makeshift raft, big enough to get most of the way out of the water and let their wool clothing warm them a little. Nearby, three seamen were clinging to the top of the pilothouse.

The engineer didn’t make it – he tried to swim to the drier pilothouse roof and didn’t make it. The remaining four of them, shivering in the weather as dawn turned to day, waited 13 hours and were finally rescued by a tugboat that had seen their distress flares the night before.

Of the three lifeboats, two made it and the other vanished.  According to news reports at the time, a total of 21 people – plus any un-accounted-for stowaways – died in the wreck.

(Sources: Daily Morning Astorian, 17 May and 19 May 1889; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984)

Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: finn@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

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