Over the Waves: Steamship Clallam

Everyone is a little superstitious. Whether you need to knock on wood when something negative is said, throw salt over your shoulder when it spills, or carry a lucky rabbits foot (or some sort of item like that), everyone has something they do to give themselves reassurance. This is even more evident when you are around sailors and fishermen - everyone has something they believe will keep fate on their side. From a proper christening when she's launched (or renamed), to objects, rituals and routines, many skippers and their crews have ways of doing things to make sure they stay on the right side of the water.

Sometimes, a spell of bad luck will be traced back to a ritual that wasn't followed. If you watch Cold Water Cowboys, you would have seen this season that one of the boats had a particular spell of bad fishing. The crew firmly believed that this was because the captain had renamed the boat and hadn't re-christened it. It wasn't until he smashed a new bottle of champagne across the bow that the problems seemed to disappear.

So, how superstitious are you? Or do you think everything is just coincidence? If it's the latter, then this article may change your mind. This weeks vessel had a spell of bad omens during her very short career before she suffered a fatal and tragic end. This week, we're looking at the story of the steamship Clallam.

Ship Stats

The steamship Clallam. Image from the University of Washington archives.

  • Nationality: American/Canadian

  • Length: 51 metres

  • Beam: 10 metres

  • Weight: 657 tonnes

  • Draught: 4 metres

  • Crew: 31

  • Capacity: 250 (with freight), 500 (without freight)

  • Speed: 13 knots

  • Year: 1903

Built in the shipyard of Edward Heath in Tacoma, Washington the Clallam was built with ferry service in mind. With a hull of Douglas fir and propellor-driven engines, she and her sister Majestic were designed to transport people and freight on a route servicing Tacoma, Seattle, Port Townsend and finally Victoria, BC.

From the day her keel touched water, she had people believing she was jinxed. At her christening on April 15, 1903 the woman who was supposed to break the champagne against her hull managed to miss her bow entirely. Later that day, when her flag was unfurled on board it was done upside down (the symbol of distress on a vessel). Still, a shaky christening wasn't going to keep her out of the water and her owners immediately put her into service with the Puget Sound Navigation Company.

Only nine months later, on January 8, 1904 her crew was in Tacoma again, loading the ship for another run with veteran captain, Capt. George Roberts at the helm. One important piece of freight were some sheep that were being sent to Port Townsend and Victoria. Usually for these trips there is a head sheep, or "Bell Sheep" that would lead the flock on board. Unfortunately, on this particular trip the Bell Sheep had different plans - it adamantly refused to board the ship. Nothing the crew could do would make this sheep budge from the dock, and when the ship departed Tacoma at 8:30am, the sheep was left on the jetty.

Turned out, that was a very lucky sheep.

The ship arrived and departed Seattle with no problems, and cleared customs successfully in Port Townsend, taking on more passengers and freight before setting off for Victoria across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The trip shouldn't have taken very long at all, and she should have arrived safely in port at around 4:00pm.

Unfortunately, the wind began to pick up, and in a short matter of time it was blowing a gale. The captain knew something was wrong and headed below decks to investigate. He found that one of the deadlights (portholes) that had previously been broken and repaired had given way under the force of the storm. The crew had tried to plug the hole by stuffing it with blankets and hammering wood over to keep them in place, but that didn't appear to be helping. On top of this, the pumps seemed to be pushing water into the ship instead of removing water from it. It was clear the ship was in trouble.

The sea tug Richard Holyoke. Image from University of Washington digital archives.

Capt. Roberts returned up top and ordered that three of the lifeboats be readied for launch. These were filled with all the women and children aboard, along with four crewmen and a couple of other male passengers. The ships were then lowered over the side, but the waves were too rough. All three boats either foundered or capsized, throwing their passengers into the water. The men who were left onboard the Clallam could only watch helplessly as their wives and children drowned in the storm.

The ship was tossed around in the high swells but stayed her course and was spotted off the coast of Vancouver Island around 5pm. She appeared to be dead in the water and rolling, but shortly after she came under steam again and moved away from Vancouver and towards the San Juan islands. Authorities on shore, including the ships agent, feared the ship was in danger and scrambled to assemble a search group. All the sea-going tugs were out of harbour, and none of the harbour tugs were willing to risk the swells. One small steamer, the Iroquois, attempted the trip but was driven back to safe harbour because of the storm. In addition, the Clallam did not have any signal rockets on board, even though they were required by law, so she had no way to indicate her location to those looking for her. The Clallam was on her own until morning.

On board, the remaining men set to bailing out the vessel. The water had extinguished all the boilers, leaving them in the dark and with no steering. Somehow, they managed to keep her above water until dawn. Two sea tugs sent from Port Townsend and Seattle eventually found her, with the Canadian vessel Richard Holyoke coming across her first. She took the Clallam under tow and began to head for shore. The second tug, an American vessel called the Sea Lion joined them in the early afternoon.

As they headed for safety, the Clallam began to destabilize. Captain Roberts recognized that the ship was going to founder and cut the tow line between his ship and the Richard Holyoke to prevent the tug from joining his steamer on the bottom of the Strait. The Clallam then proceeded to capsize and sink, sending its remaining 36 passengers and crew overboard. Luckily, with two ships nearby everyone was plucked out of the water and brought back to port safely.

Of the 92 souls on board, 56 perished. 45 of those were passengers, though that number is probably higher because some children who weren't of fare-paying age would not have been counted on the roster. Not a single woman or child who had been on board survived the ordeal. Although this is tragic, with a passenger license of 250 with freight, or 500 without, the death toll could have been much higher.

The sinking cost the Chief Engineer his license (it was decided he made a mistake with the pumps that caused them to pump water into the vessel) and Captain Roberts had his license suspended. Because of the lack of legally-required rockets on board, the port authorities began cracking down on ill-equipped and unsafe ships (of which, it turned out, there were lots). Finally, the owners of the vessels found two new, more reliable ships to take on the Clallam's route, driven with the hope that something like this would never, ever happen again.