Remains of Gold Rush-era ship identified

Producers of 'History Detectives' help bankroll investigation into wreckage

Posted: Thursday, September 09, 2004

ANCHORAGE - The remains of a steam ship found near Cordova have been identified as the S.S. Portland, the vessel known for launching the Klondike Gold Rush.

The Portland, which once smuggled guns, drugs and illegal workers, was one of the first ships to carry Yukon miners and their gold from Alaska in 1897. It helped spark the fever that drew thousands to Alaska in search of their fortune.

The Portland hauled miners to Skagway and St. Michael, the two routes into the Klondike, near present-day Dawson City. It also went to the next gold strike in Nome.

"Especially when the Gold Rush was on, everybody wanted to be on that boat," said shipwreck specialist Mike Burwell of the U.S. Mineral Management Service.

The well-preserved remains, first discovered about two years ago sticking out of the mud about 50 miles southeast of Cordova, were identified in June as those of the Portland.

"For Alaska, it's probably the most significant wreck you could find," Burwell said.

The wreckage wasn't always visible, but the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 lifted the ground 12 feet, and erosion has exposed its upper half.

The existence of two other shipwrecks in the region made its identity uncertain. Then a producer from the public television show "History Detectives" called to ask about a shipwrecked schooner in Southwest Alaska.

Alaska state archaeologist Dave McMahan said he didn't know anything about that one, but he mentioned the Portland. That changed everything, he said.

"Because the state doesn't have a lot of resources for field investigations, and really no expertise in nautical archaeology, we convinced the producers" to bankroll a trip to the site with Rhode Island expert John Jensen, McMahan said.

The wooden-hulled 191-foot steam ship was launched in Bath, Maine, in 1885 as the Haytian Republic. It was to haul goods in the West Indies trade.

According to a 1955 article in the Alaska Sportsman, the government seized the vessel in 1888 and charged its captain with smuggling arms to the Hippolyte rebels. The crew was sent home after one died from yellow fever. Strong winds blew the ship onto the rocks, and a Haitian ship rammed it.

Its owners sent the vessel around Cape Horn to supply Alaska canneries and whaling bases. That work never panned out, but by 1892 the ship was making money by hauling contraband, customs agents suspected.

The uninsured Haytian Republic burned and sank near Portland, Ore., allegedly with illegal opium on board. It was raised and repaired and caught several times smuggling Chinese laborers and opium into Canada.

U.S. Marshals ordered the ship sold. The new owners overhauled the vessel and renamed it the S.S. Portland. The Portland was among about two dozen Alaska coastal steamers hauling freight and passengers when gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896.

When the first successful miners floated reached the Lower 48, they were on board the steamer Excelsior, which landed in San Francisco on July 15, 1897.

The news primed the nation for Portland's arrival in Seattle two days later. Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporters on a chartered boat met the Portland miles out of town.

The newspaper's special edition was on the streets when the ship docked, with the headline "Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!" Five thousand people greeted the ship. The rush was on.

After some time, the Portland became just another Alaska coastal freighter. It struck an uncharted rock and was beached on a sandbar on Nov. 12, 1910. The owners stripped what they could, then abandoned the Portland to the silt and mud flowing out of the Katalla River.

Gabriel Scott of Cordova noticed the old steam engine when he visited the area in 2002 as part of his work with Cascadia Wildlands Project.

This summer, the party of 10 spent two days inspecting the engines and mechanical gear, along with taking samples from the wooden hull.

Jensen, who grew up in Alaska and now is a freelance archaeologist, said he was thrilled to determine the vessel was the Portland.

"It was an awe-inspiring site," he said. "When I looked at it, rather than seeing it all broken up, I saw a largely intact ship. A lot of it is buried, and it was surprising to see how well preserved it was."

He would like to see the ship placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Little could be removed to museums, he said, but the Portland should be documented for its place in Alaska's cultural history.

"Yeah, the gold story is great. But what it does is illuminate the role of coastal trade in the development of Alaska's economy and culture in the 20th century," Jensen said. "It's how they moved and how they communicated. Sea lanes were (coastal) Alaska's social network."

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