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San Juan Archipelago, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 650, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

06 March 2016

❖ Expedition to the Wreck of the PORTLAND ❖ Almost 100 years later.

Wreck site near Katalla, AK.
Remains in the mud S. S. PORTLAND
Wreck of the S.S. Portland Found.
Text by Dave McMahan, State Archaeologist.
(This is a followup to the smuggling days of the PORTLAND posted here on 4 March 2016.
Text and images for this post below submitted by Michael Burwell, 5 March 2016.)

The S.S. PORTLAND is best known as one of the “Ton of Gold” ships that helped launch the Klondike gold rush in 1897. Earlier, as the HAYTIAN REPUBLIC, the trading ship was caught smuggling on more than one occasion in the West Indies and along the Pacific Northwest Coast. After 1897, the increased traffic kept the ship serving Alaska ports. On November 12, 1910, the ship hit a rock and grounded near Katalla. All passengers and crew survived.
      Last November, Gabriel Scott, a Cordova resident, reported shipwreck remains near Katalla to Mike Burwell, U.S. Minerals Management Service, who maintains a statewide shipwreck database. Because the remains are on state tidelands, Burwell contacted the Office of History and Archaeology. Dave McMahan, State Archaeologist, organized a field trip to the site that took place May 18-20. McMahan, Burwell and Scott, were accompanied by Karl Gurcke (NPS Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park archaeologist), John Jensen (marine historian/consulting nautical archaeologist), and a five-person PBS crew. The U.S. Forest Service manages the uplands adjacent to the site, and Linda Yarborough, Forest Service archaeologist, worked with the project team. Preliminary observations on cylinder size and vessel constructions, corroborated by archival records, suggest the wreck is the S.S. PORTLAND. Readers should check for the History Detectives TV segment, scheduled to air late this summer, for the verdict.
by Joel Gay
Published by Anchorage Daily News, 8 September 2004
The well-preserved remains of a steamship that once smuggled guns, drugs and illegal workers -- but which is best known for launching the Klondike Gold Rush -- have been identified near Cordova, sticking out of the mud.
      The S.S. PORTLAND, whose historic cargo of Yukon miners and their gold earned international headlines in 1897, had been largely forgotten after it sank 13 years later. But a fortuitous combination of tectonics and television have brought the PORTLAND back into the limelight.
     That's only right, said shipwreck specialist Mike Burwell of the U.S. Mineral Management Service.

      "For Alaska, it's probably the most significant wreck you could find," Burwell said.
      The most recent chapter in the long, colorful history of the Portland began two years ago in Katalla Bay, about 50 miles southeast of Cordova, when the wreckage was spotted at low tide. It wasn't always visible, locals say, but the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 lifted the ground 12 feet, and erosion has exposed its upper half.
      Not everyone thought it was the Portland, Burwell said, but he was convinced. So after the producers of the public television show "History Detectives" heard the story, they decided to fund an expedition last May to clarify the ship's identity. The show repeats tonight at 10 p.m. on KAKM.
      But the real story of the Portland began in 1885, when the wooden-hulled 191-footer was launched in Bath, Maine, and pressed into service hauling goods in the West Indies trade. It was named the Haytian Republic, reflecting the popular spelling of its namesake country at the time, Hayti. 

      It didn't take long for the ship to get into trouble, according to a 1955 article in the Alaska Sportsman. In 1888, the government seized the vessel 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.
      U.S. gunboats eventually escorted the ship to Cuba for repairs. While the HAYTIAN REPUBLIC never returned to Haiti, it kept the name after its owners sent it around Cape Horn to supply Alaska canneries and whaling bases.
      That work never panned out, but by 1892 the ship was making money -- suspiciously, according to historians. Customs agents suspected it of hauling contraband. Then the uninsured Haytian Republic burned and sank near Portland, allegedly with illegal opium on board.
      The ship was raised and repaired and later 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. On its first voyage as the S.S. Portland, in 1894, it nearly sank in a great storm that claimed at least two other ships.
      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 down the Yukon River to St. Michael, the Portland was there.
      So was the steamer Excelsior, and it reached the Lower 48 first, landing in San Francisco on July 15, 1897. But news of the Excelsior miners' fortunes -- men carrying $100,000 or more in gold nuggets and dust -- only 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 and, after interviewing miners, sped back to shore. 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. It enjoyed more than 15 minutes of fame, according to Burwell.
      "Especially when the Gold Rush was on, everybody wanted to be on that boat," he said.
      It hauled miners and their gear to Skagway and St. Michael, the two routes into the Klondike, near present-day Dawson City, and then to the next gold strike in Nome. But fame passed, Burwell said, and before long the Portland was just another Alaska coastal freighter.
      On Nov. 12, 1910, it was heading from Juneau to Prince William Sound when it pulled into Katalla Bay, bringing groceries and freight to Alaska's first oil field. After striking an uncharted rock that smashed a hole in the hull, the captain drove the ship onto a sand bar, where it lies today.
      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.
     "It's really cool looking," he said of the big ship sticking out of the mud.
      He sent photographs to Burwell, who contacted Alaska state archaeologist Dave McMahan. They thought it was the PORTLAND but the existence of two other shipwrecks in the region made them uncertain. Then a producer from "History Detectives" called to ask about a shipwrecked schooner in Southwest Alaska. McMahan 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.
      During the extreme low tides in May, the party of 10 spent two carefully choreographed days, McMahan said.
      "We just waited for the right tide and waded out," taking measurements, inspecting the engines and other mechanical gear and taking samples from the wooden hull. "We only had a couple of hours each day," he said.
      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."
      In the meantime, the state isn't planning to remove or protect any of the PORTLAND, McMahan said.
      The goods on board when it sank nearly 90 years ago are long gone, and the gold it once carried is a memory.
      Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310. The U.S. Mineral Management Service Website: www.mms.gov/alaska/ref/ships/index.htm


1885 Haytian Republic launched at Bath, Maine at the yards of the New England Shipbuilding Company for owners Hayti Mail Steamship Company of Boston who hoped to establish a general freight and passenger service to the island republic. (Leighthead 1955, 14; PT Weekly Message 8/5/97, 3; NYT 10/30/88, 4)

"She was a two-deck wooden vessel, 191.5 feet long, 36.1 feet wide, with 20.2 feet depth of hold. A compound reciprocating engine with cylinders twenty-two and forty-four inches in diameter and a stroke of thirty-six inches drove a single propeller." (Leighthead 1955, 14)

1888 Oct. 27, "Captured by Haytian man-of-war Dessalines 'while attempting to force the blockade of the insurgent port of St. Marc, with rebel troops, arms, and ammunition on board. The vessel has been taken to Port Au Prince and her case referred to the Prize Court. The prisoners of war and the crew are well treated by the authorization of Port Au Prince.'" (NYT 10/28/88, 6)

Oct. 30, "Department of State [decides] to send a naval vessel to that country for the protection of American Interests...It was at first decided to send the Boston now cruising in the West Indies, to Port Au Prince; but this plan was abandoned owing to the difficulty of communicating with the vessel. It was finally decided to send the Kearsarge, now undergoing repairs at Norfolk..." (NYT 10/31/88, 3)

Oct. 31, "The Prize Court of Port-au-Prince, after trial, has condemned the American steamer Haytian Republic to confiscation for violating the blockade of the port of St. Marc..." (NYT 11/19/88, 5)

1889 Feb 11, "The steamer Haytian Republic arrived here [Boston] this evening [Mon.], but remained at the light some miles below the city." (NYT 2/11/89, 1)

Repairs made to vessel but remained idle and without a route for several months (Leighthead 1987, 85)

Kodiak Packing Company heard about the idle vessel and bought it as a supply vessel for its facilities in Alaska. Brought around the Horn but proved too large and expensive to operate as a supply ship. (Leighthead 1987, 85

Fall, sold to Getz Brothers and Company of San Francisco; they placed her on the Puget Sound to San Francisco passenger route but was not successful competing with the Pacific Coast Steamship Company on the route..." (Leighthead 1987, 85; PT Weekly Message 8/5/97, 3)

Laid up in San Francisco for almost 2 years. (Leighthead 1987, 85-86)

1890 Laid up

1891 Laid up

1891, May: Occasionally, the vessel got a reprieve from its normal work. When President Benjamin Harrison steamed into Seattle from Tacoma aboard the City of Seattle in

1891, May: the Politkofsky was part of the welcoming fleet off Alki Point along with other popular steamers of the day: the City of Kingston, the Bailey Gatzert, the T. J. Potter, the Greyhound, and the Haytian Republic (later the Portland). Jim Faber, Steamer's Wake (Seattle: Enetai Press, 1985), 120.

1892, June: Chartered (with an option to buy) by the Merchants Steamship Company of Portland to operate as a passenger and freight vessel with the steel steamer Wilmington between Portland and Vancouver. Secured by Blum, Dunbar Co. and engaged in smuggling between Portland and British Columbia. (Leighthead 1987, 86; PT Weekly Message 8/5/97, 3)
1893: Financial Panic of 1893

Jan., Wilmington catches fire and sinks near Portland. It was a total loss. Found to have had opium aboard. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

Merchants Steamship Company forced to relinquish the Haytian Republic to the mortgagor, Northwest Loan, and Trust of Portland, but Merchants allowed to act as operating agent. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

U.S. Customs catches Haytian Republic smuggling Chinese "coolies" from BC into the U.S. Released on bond. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

Caught repeatedly for smuggling until finally brought to trial. Tied up in Portland during the litigation. Trial convicted syndicate heads Nat Blum and William Dunbar of smuggling opium and Chinese across the Canadian border. Vessel ordered sold by the U.S. Marshall (Leighthead 1987, 86)

1894: Bought by Sutton and Beebe of Portland for $16,000. They installed a new boiler, built additional cabins, and overhauled the entire ship. To distance the vessel from its unsavory past, they renamed her the Portland. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

Refurbished vessel sold to a group of San Francisco Businessmen who sent her to Nanaimo for coal. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

Dec. 7: Caught in the great storm of Dec. 7th. After leaving Nanaimo with a load of coal for San Francisco she ran head-on into the storm in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Capt. E.W. Holmes ordered the ship to put about and race for shelter. Portland nearly capsized before she reached Victoria. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

1895: On Central American run by charter to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

1896: On Central American run by charter to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

1897: Chartered by the North American Trading and Transportation Company of Seattle to make three voyages to Alaska hauling gold seekers. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

June 10, Leaves Seattle for St. Michael with the first group of gold seekers. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

June 27, Arrives at St. Michael. Excelsior has beat her by 4 hours. (Leighthead 1987, 86)

July 17, Returns to Seattle from St. Michael with the first wave of successful miners from Dawson and the "Ton of Gold." (Leighthead 1987, 87-88)

Portland becomes the GOLD SHIP. Passage on her is in great demand and she is booked solid for several years (Leighthead 1987, 89)

1902,  June: Trapped in the ice off St. Michael. Drifted in the ice for two months. Unable to free herself, she was taken through the Bering Strait and beyond until she was opposite Point Hope--600 miles from St. Michael. (Leighthead 1987, 89)

1903:  Trapped again in the ice but battered her way out. Damaged hull in the process. Dry-docked in Seattle for repairs. (Leighthead 1987, 89)

1905, 20 Dec: Ran hard aground on Spire Island, 9 miles north of Ketchikan. Wreckers floated her off 17 days later. Received $25,000 worth of repairs to her keel and planking in Seattle. (Leighthead 1987, 89)

1906 Bought by the Alaska Coast Company of Portland. Placed on the Southeastern Alaska run. (Leighthead 1987, 90)

1907:   Grounded near Nanaimo. Only minor damage. (Leighthead 1987, 90)

1910, Nov. 12: Struck an uncharted reef near Katalla. Water poured through a large hole in her hull and she began to settle. In an attempt to save her Captain Franz Moore ran her full speed onto the beach. She settled to the bottom in shallow water. The passengers and mail were taken ashore. Moore exonerated but the Portland was a total loss. Wreckers removed all items of value and the vessel was left to break up and disappear in the sand. The insurance company paid $41,500 to owners. (NYT 11/13/10, 1; Leighthead 1987, 90)

"She was destined to be in trouble for nearly all twenty-five years" of her life. (Leighthead 1987, 89)

1912: "In Seattle's Potlatch Festival of 1912, the re-enactment of the arrival of "The Gold Ship" had to be performed by the Bertha, a much less colorful steamer. It's too bad the Portland couldn't have been there.

Jim Faber, Steamer's Wake (Seattle: Enetai Press, 1985), 120.

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