Sunday, November 14, 2010

A fascinating piece of pioneer history

There are strange things done in the midnight sun,
by the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Whether you spell the name 'Lebarge', as did Robert W. Service in his famous poem, 'The Cremation Of Sam McGee', or 'Laberge', as do modern maps, Lake Laberge on the Yukon River is a place redolent with adventure, tragedy and the lust for gold. Named for Robert de la Berge, one of the original colonists of New France in the 17th century, it became one of the major corridors along which prospectors traveled during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's marked by the letter 'A' in a red circle in the maps below. (Click any of the three images below for a larger view.)

Lake Laberge, Yukon Territory, Canada

The reason for its being an important travel artery are immediately apparent when you look at the rough, mountainous terrain surrounding it. By taking a boat the length of the lake, prospectors could avoid having to hike much further through the mountains than the distance by water. This would shave weeks in summer, and months in winter, off the travel time northward along the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City, center of the gold fields.

Unfortunately, of course, there were no boats on Lake Laberge when the Gold Rush began except for some native canoes. Rafts, dinghies and rowboats were hurriedly cobbled together by prospectors, but most proved unseaworthy, and more of a hazard to their occupants than the terrain - which was quite an achievement, given the grim reputation of the Yukon! However, prospectors persevered. The alternative of hiking around the lake through snow-bound mountains was ghastly, as this September 1898 photograph of prospectors on the Chilkoot Trail, south of Whitehorse, shows all too clearly.

Chilkoot Pass, September 1898 (image courtesy of Wikipedia - click for a larger view)

The long hike was made worse by a requirement (rigorously enforced by Canada's North West Mounted Police) that prospectors had to bring with them sufficient supplies for a full year. (A list of recommended supplies, per person, may be found here. It's daunting, to say the least!) Carrying almost a ton of freight by foot (or, for the fortunate few, by dogsled) over the steep mountains from the Alaskan ports of Skagway and Dyea to Whitehorse in Canada, and then along the Yukon River for hundreds of miles to Dawson City, was appallingly difficult. A way had to be found to make travel easier. Railways and steamships were the obvious solutions.

Railway construction began as early as 1897 to link Skagway and Whitehorse. Meanwhile, an American entrepeneur named Arthur James Goddard ordered two 150-ton stern-paddlewheel steam vessels from shipbuilders in San Francisco. According to the Muscatine Journal of Iowa:

... Goddard was born in 1863 in Sweetland, Iowa. He was the son of Jesse T. and Elma M. (Underwood) Goddard. In 1886, he married Clara Herrik in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

He attended Iowa Agricultural College and worked as a salesman before moving to Seattle in 1888 to open a foundry with his brother Charles.

In 1897, when word of the Klondike Gold Rush made it to Seattle, Albert Goddard had two identical ships built in San Fransisco - the A.J. Goddard and the Kilbourne. Both were small, iron sternwheel steamboats.

. . .

Goddard, accompanied by Clara, dismantled the boats in Alaska and hauled them over the mountains to Lake Bennett, Yukon.

. . .

Once the boats were reassembled, Goddard navigated several hundred miles of the the Yukon River to Lake Laberge, where he was one of the first captains to establish regular boat service between Whitehorse and Dawson. Clara earned distinction as the first woman steamboat pilot in the North. At the peak of the gold rush, more than 300 boats carried people, goods and barges between Whitehorse and Dawson.

Historical records indicate Goddard sold his interest in the A.J. Goddard in 1899 and returned to Seattle where he resumed his business life and was eventually elected to the state Legislature. It appears he and Clara did not have children.

There's more at the link. It must have been an enormously difficult task to break down two 150-ton steam vessels into small loads and move them over the mountains, on a still-incomplete railroad, to Lake Bennett. It speaks volumes about Mr. Goddard's drive and leadership abilities that he was able to motivate his workmen and the railroad to complete the task.

The ships went to work sailing the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City, cutting the arduous journey by many weeks. They ferried prospectors, North West Mounted Police officers, outlaws, supplies, equipment, even sled dogs. The A. J. Goddard also boasted a kitchen, a forge and a repair shop, making it almost a self-contained base ship for the pioneers. Goddard's two ships were, by all accounts, among the largest in a fleet of almost 300 vessels, some steam-powered, others propelled by oars, that plied the river and its lakes. Here's the A. J. Goddard on Lake Laberge in 1900, loaded to the gunwales.

After Goddard sold his interest in her, the ship continued to ply the Yukon River until October 22nd, 1901, when she encountered a severe early-winter storm on Lake Laberge. She foundered in the storm, taking three of her five-man crew to the bottom with her. Her pilot-house floated off, and two of the crew clung to it until they were rescued by a trapper on the lake shore.

From that time onward, the A. J. Goddard's fate became a story re-told by old men in the dark Yukon winter nights. She may have vanished, but she was not forgotten.

In 2005, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology began a Yukon Gold Rush Steamboat Survey in the Yukon. The Institute describes it as follows:

When the Gold Rush exploded, forty-three West Coast shipyards responded to the demand, and in 1898, 131 sternwheelers were constructed in yards as far south as San Francisco, and as far north as Dutch Harbour in the Aleutian Islands. In total, 266 stern and side-wheeled steamboats operated on the Yukon River in Alaska and Canada.

When the boom dissipated in 1900, many steamship companies either went bankrupt or were bought out by competitors, and surplus tonnage was abandoned. Often vessels were left derelict on shore along the banks of the river, where they had been winched out of the water in the fall to protect them from ice damage. As a result, the Yukon now contains one of the greatest intact collections of stern-wheel vessels known, and many are in excellent condition.

The Yukon River Survey was initiated in 2005 by John Pollack and Robyn Woodward, and became an INA project in the fall of 2007. Given the many potential sites in this unstudied area, we are focusing our efforts on a specific subset of projects. The over-arching priority is to document the range of construction techniques used on these late 19th century vessels.

Research Foci

Comparative studies are underway to describe differences in construction techniques, notably among hull, rudder-and-tiller, chine and boiler designs. The West Dawson "boneyard" of seven relatively intact vessels, is important in this regard, and the large number of well preserved vessels in the Yukon, allow for multiple comparisons among hull types, tiller-and-rudder systems, boilers, chines, and related features.

Hull documentation is completed or underway on three and possibly four classes of hull design. These benchmark ship descriptions include Evelyn on Shipyard Island, Seattle No. 3 at West Dawson, and Moyie at Kaslo, B.C..

We are documenting the nomenclature of the day for Western Canadian vessels as it differs from (U.S.) western river stern wheeler nomenclature.

The survey of sites continues. With 22 sites catalogued and several more to be investigated, we expect the number of known sites will eventually exceed 30. The survey is fundamental as reconnaissance documentation has provided the opportunity for detailed studies specific instances, as well as allowing for the protection and management of known sites by the Yukon Government.

As part of the project, a sonar survey was conducted of the floor of Lake Laberge in 2008. The remains of a relatively large stern-wheel paddle steamer were discovered, and further investigation revealed her to be the A. J. Goddard. She was in remarkably good condition. The Institute announced in 2009:

An international team of archaeologists has discovered a perfectly preserved steamboat from the Klondike Gold Rush lying in the freezing waters of Lake Laberge, in the subarctic wilderness of Canada’s Yukon. Their images of the sternwheeler A.J. Goddard are the first views of the frontier steamer since it disappeared in a winter storm on the lake in October 1901.

Stern paddlewheel of the A. J. Goddard

While the team has documented dozens of broken and abandoned steamers off the Yukon’s rivers, the discovery of Goddard is the first find of an untouched ship from the Gold Rush.

Windlass on the bow of the A. J. Goddard

What the team found was that the wreck is literally a time capsule - the boots, and a jacket of one of the crew lie on the deck along with the stove, scattered dishes, and tools. When the ship sank in a winter storm on fabled Lake Laberge in 1901, the crew had opened the fire box of the boiler and had thrown in more firewood to get steam in a futile effort to claw off the shore. The boiler door still lies open with the lightly charred wood in the firebox, 108 years later. An axe used to chop the tow line for a small barge loaded with supplies still rests on the deck where a crew member dropped it.

Again, there's more at the link, including more photographs. Here's a video clip of the discovery. To make it more interesting, and recall the incredible hardships of the pioneers, James Delgado, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, recites Robert Service's poem, 'The Cremation of Sam McGee', as the camera rolls.

That's not the end of the story. This year a detailed examination of the wreckage was made using three-dimensional side-scan sonar equipment. We've discussed this technology before in reference to shipwrecks at Scapa Flow, and those of the battleship Danton and the liner Britannic in the Mediterranean. It's become even more advanced since then, as this video clip shows.

It's astonishing to see how much detail the scan brings out. There's also more good news for marine archaeologists. According to CBC News:

Researchers from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology captured images of the sternwheeler with underwater sonar scanners supplied by the U.S. firms BlueView Technologies and Oceangate.

Millions of captured images were then assembled into a 3D model, similar to a recent map of the wreck of the Titanic off the east coast of Newfoundland.

. . .

[A post-graduate student from Texas, Lindsey] Thomas said the new digital scans show how exactly the sternwheeler parts were put together at Bennett Lake.

"The people who built the vessel on the shores of Lake Bennett, where they [could] cut corners, they did," she said.

"It's kind of like the way that we build furniture from Ikea: follow the directions for the most part but where you need to, it's not done exactly the same way they might have done it in the factory."

. . .

Divers retrieved artifacts from the shipwreck this past summer, including a phonograph player and some perfectly intact records.

"It's just a really unusual item to think of with a vessel that we know was really an industrial kind of workhorse," said Val Monahan, the Yukon government's heritage conservator.

"You don't think of something like music on board."

Monahan and Doug Davidge, president of the Yukon Transportation Museum, both said they hope some of the records can be restored to a playable condition.

"It does paint a quite a unique picture of how people would have enjoyed their time on the river," Davidge said.

"Hopefully there'll be something there that they can actually pull off the vinyl — in terms of a music track or sound or what have you — that might have been on that record, and hopefully in time we'll find out what type of music they were listening to."

Again, there's more at the link.

I find this a fascinating story. The Klondike Gold Rush opened up North-Western Canada and Alaska like nothing before - indeed, the only comparable inrush of people to the region would occur during World War II, and again in the oil boom of the 1970's. The Gold Rush also gave us renowned literary figures such as Jack London and Robert Service, the highest-grossing silent comedy film ever made (Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush), and a host of other cultural landmarks and memories. The A. J. Goddard, carrying as it did a full cargo plus the personal possessions of its crew, is an almost perfectly-preserved time capsule of the way these hardy pioneers lived and died. It'll be a different sort of gold mine for marine archaeologists for some time to come.



John Peddie (Toronto) said...

Fascinating story. Gold rushes, like other high-pressure situations, seem to bring out the best and worst in humankind-everything writ large.

As a footnote, I'd add that generations of Canadian schoolchildren, including me, were required to memorize The Cremation of Sam McGee.

Grown to adulthood, they continued to recite it in various bars and states of sobriety across the land:-)

Old NFO said...

They WERE pioneers, and I'd really wonder how many today could make the trek carrying NOTHING???

Anonymous said...

You have done a fine job at combining information from the many internet sites related to the A.J. Goddard. I would, however, like to respectfully clarify a few facts you have given in error and for your reader's benefit. The Goddard and Kilbourne were identical vessels but GT was only 50 tons (not 150) so this would make them two of the smallest steamers that operated on the lakes and rivers at that time. Also, the photo of the Goddard is actually from 1898 at Bennett, B.C. (not 1900).

Here is another recent web page you might like to have a look at and add to your article:

Thanks again for doing up such a good article.