Saturday, 5 October 2013

Anecdote Saturday - SS Clallam

Built in 1903, in Tacoma, the Clallam was a 170 ft steamer, commissioned by the Puget Sound Navigation Company to ply the route from Tacoma to Seattle, Port Townsend, and Victoria. She was luxuriously fitted with 44 staterooms, and could sustain 13 knots from her compound steam engine driving a single propeller.

Things got off to a less than auspicious start when during her launch the champagne missed her bow, and the flag when unfurled was upside down, signalling distress. Many seafaring witnesses interpreted this as a bad omen for the steamer. But certainly the most bizarre portent of disaster came in the form of one 'bell sheep'.  The steamer transported sheep bound for Port Townsend and Victoria, and in order to get the sheep to board there was what they called a 'bell sheep' to lead the flock. On the occasion of the disaster, the 'bell sheep' simply refused to board the Clallam and was eventually left behind.

On Friday 8 January, 1904, Captain George Roberts at the helm, the Clallam departed Port Townsend at 12.15 (midday) heading across the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading to Victoria. She should have arrived at Victoria by 4 pm, but was listed as overdue. The Clallam steamed into a storm with gale force winds. She was spotted off the Canadian coast, near Trial Island, dead in the water and rolling heavily.  Later she was seen being blown by the winds eastwards away from Vancouver Island towards the San Juan Islands.

Frantic efforts were made to get a tug to go after her, but the sea going tugs were out of port and the small tugs refused due to the severity of the storm. Eventually a small steamer, the Iroquois, ventured into the storm from Sidney, Vancouver Island, after the stricken Clallam. She was later joined by the sea going tugs, Sea Lion and Richard Holyoke, only Holyoke locating the Clallam by midnight.

The Clallam's location was hampered by lack of distress flares (against the law of the time).
The storm caused a deadlight to stove in and the steamer took on water. The deadlight previously damaged was repaired to a poor standard. The hole was plugged with whatever came to hand including blankets. To make matters worse the bilge pumps were not clearing the water and in fact some claimed that they were clogged with debris and were pumping water INTO the steamer. At about 3 pm the rising water extinguished the boiler fire leaving Clallam without power.

At 3.30 pm Captain Roberts ordered 'abandon ship' resulting in lifeboats being lowered without officers to man them.  Loaded with women and children the first three lifeboats capsized and all were drowned. Men had to watch while their wives and children perished. One man on his wedding trip watched his bride drown.[4] Newell describes the scene:

“The second boat was said to have been launched safely and was about to pull away from the ship’s side when an fear-crazed man leaped into it 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. Then the hero’s 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.[1]”

Those who remained started bailing the steamer with buckets. She managed to stay afloat until the following morning. The tug, Richard Holyoke, did however find her by 10.35 pm and took the Clallam under tow. The Clallam never made it to shore and her Captain Roberts realized that she was about to go down and ordered the tow line be cast off, to prevent his vessel dragging the Richard Holyoke down with her. The Clallam sank quickly and her remaining crew and passengers were rescued from the waters by the tug. This totalled 36 people. It is noted that Captain Edward Hickman from the Holyoke dived into the icy water and managed to rescue 15 of the survivors. A total of 56 people drowned, of which 35 were passengers. Not one of the seventeen women and four children survived.

As a direct result of the disaster, Captain Roberts' license was suspended, and the Engineer DeLaunay's licence was revoked. The Clallam did not have distress rockets which resulted in a crackdown on defective or insufficiently equipped vessels.

In 1918, the Princess Sophia went aground in Lynn Canal. Her Captain, aware of the Clallam disaster refused to allow passengers and crew onto lifeboats due to the severity of the storm and fears the lifeboats would capsize. As it turned out the sea and wind came up in the night and washed the Princess Sophia off the rocks, drowning all aboard.

I wonder if Captain Ilbery had similar fears about launching lifeboats and elected to keep his liner moving in an attempt to get back to Durban.


SS Clallam


Princess Sophia stranded on rocks - Lynn Canal

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

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