"The W. K. MERWIN was built in Seattle in 1883, for Captain W. K. Merwin, who then sold her to the Washington Steamboat Co. She was assigned to the Olympia-Seattle run for a short time and then was switched to run the Skagit River, which served the rich agricultural towns of the region, under the command of Capt. Merwin. A disastrous collision with the railroad bridge in Mt. Vernon, 19 January 1896, wiped out all the upper works, including the pilothouse and Texas deck, which was reduced to kindling back to the smokestack.
Repairs were made to the superstructure, after the accident, and the W.K. MERWIN was used for a few months on Puget Sound––then the old vessel was laid up to rot on the Snohomish River.
The gold rush days of the Klondike brought on a demand for anything that would float so the MERWIN was prepared for a tow up the coast to St. Michael by the Moran Shipyards in 1897. One of the noticeable changes made in the vessel was the installation of public toilets the entire width of the upper deck abaft of the glass-enclosed saloon. She was encased from bow to stern in a wooden jacket to protect her against possible high seas en route. The stack and the wheel were removed and stowed on deck.
The steam tug RICHARD HOLYOKE took the W. K. MERWIN, the POLITKOFSKY, an old vessel which was filled with coal, and a small yacht, the BRYANT, and headed for Alaska with 16 passengers boarded up inside. These people were willing to do anything to reach the gold fields. The MERWIN's towline parted once en route when she encountered a terrific storm but the tug succeeded in getting a second line aboard. Capt. Tom Lyle was in charge of the MERWIN and eventually started her up the Yukon. They were forced into winter quarters in a blind slough at the Indian village of Nanook. Here they spent nine months icebound and still hundreds of miles from the gold fields.
The MERWIN arrived in Dawson the end of June 1898, taking ten months and 20 days to make the trip from Seattle. On her next trip, she left Dawson on 4 July 1898, for a trip to St. Michael. Late in the season she again reached Dawson and was credited with bringing 50 tons of freight into the city on each trip.
The Columbia Navigation & Trading Co was shown as her owners and as far back as 25 December 1897, that company was listing the name of the W. K. MERWIN as one of their boats in Seattle P-I ads soliciting freight and passengers for the trip up the Yukon to Dawson.
The W. K. MERWIN was then assigned to the upriver run, making a trip to White Horse Rapids before coming back down to Hootalinqua to lay up for the winter. This trip was almost her downfall as on her way back down river from the rapids she was trying to get by the sunken steamer JAMES DOMVILLE in Thirty Mile River and was driven against the hull almost wrecking the MERWIN.
She delivered 200 tons of freight to Dawson the following spring from her winter quarters. While wintering at this location, the Messrs. Hamilton, LeBlank and McGrade bought the vessel.
The new owners elected to withdraw her from the upriver run because of the hazards of Five Finger Rapids and removed her steam capstan.
The new owners had a change of heart about the need for a steam capstan because on 15 July 1899, they sent outside for a replacement. That year the MERWIN wintered in Dawson in 1900, where Alex McDonald chartered her to make a trip to Nome and arranged to have her fitted for ocean travel. By this time the excitement of the Dawson strike had died down and the new find of gold in Nome was the news of the day.
The W.K. MERWIN was poorly stocked with food for the trip and her 200 passengers soon lowered the supply to the danger point. The boat and her barge were so crowded that people had to stand up on the way, and they were forced to eat in shifts. At Circle City, they tried to stock up with provisions but the town had nothing to sell except whiskey so they took a 40-gallon keg aboard for the bar. Captain R. A. Talbot disappeared at this point and the crews refused to work as they had not been paid. Finally, the MERWIN got on the way again and stopped at every trading post from then on but found not a thing for sale. The trip had started from Dawson on 31 May 1899, without replenishing the stock cleaned out the previous winter. The food shortage became so acute that the MERWIN resorted to stopping occasionally so passengers could try their luck at shooting ducks and geese and to gather eggs on the shore. Upon reaching St. Michael they found plenty of food.
The W. K. MERWIN was wrecked on the beach at Nome during a storm on 2 August 1900. She was declared a total loss which was a sad ending for the oldest boat to be taken over the ocean route to the Yukon River.
As a special note of interest, Capt. Jack Green showed up in history for the first time as pilot of the W. K. MERWIN in June of 1899. Capt. Green went on to other vessels and was captain of the second steamer YUKON when its ill-fated crew lost their lives in the fall of 1918. They had finished a successful season on the river and were on their way to their homes on the outside, aboard the steamship PRINCESS SOPHIA which hit a rock south of Skagway and sank with all hands." Arthur E. Knutson. The Sea Chest journal of the Puget Sound Maritime; Seattle, WA. March 1988.
- Saltwater People Historical Society
- San Juan Islands, 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 500, 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.
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