Outdoors
Shipwrecks of freight and passenger vessels were more frequent in the “olden days” in Alaska. These days, the tour boats and Alaska Marine Highway ferries have all the modern navigational aids.
Luck did not bless the steamer ‘Townsend’ 070914 OUTDOORS 1 FOR THE CAPITAL CITY WEEKLY Shipwrecks of freight and passenger vessels were more frequent in the “olden days” in Alaska. These days, the tour boats and Alaska Marine Highway ferries have all the modern navigational aids.
Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Story last updated at 7/9/2014 - 3:46 pm

Luck did not bless the steamer ‘Townsend’

Shipwrecks of freight and passenger vessels were more frequent in the “olden days” in Alaska. These days, the tour boats and Alaska Marine Highway ferries have all the modern navigational aids. Not so, for the steamships that traveled between Alaska and Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland in the early 1900s. Those vessels had no GPS units, no depth-finders, no radar, inaccurate charts, no weather channel on the radio: all contributed to going aground or hitting a rock mid-channel. Of course, there were always pilot errors and mechanical breakdowns.

One of the latter was the Townsend, a tramp steamer that met its doom in 1900 near Haines. Built in 1882, in Astoria, Ore. as the Emma Hume, she was lengthened in 1885 and rechristened the Alliance. She was sent to Alaska on whaling expeditions until 1888, and then purchased in 1889 by the Portland & Coast Steamship Co. that used her along the Columbia River. She sank in the Willamette River after a collision with another steamer, was raised and continued on her run until 1892 when she was laid up.

The accident was the beginning of her bad luck.

A group of Port Townsend men, when the news of the Klondike gold rush was heard, chose the ship and renamed her the Townsend. However, before they could set sail, she caught fire and that was the end of that plan.

The remains were sold to California parties who formed the Copper River Development Company. Rebuilt, she operated between Puget Sound and Copper River points. The next problem occurred in Union Bay, British Columbia where she suffered a machinery breakdown in March 1898. This resulted in a libel suit that took time to settle.

She went on the run between Seattle and Nome in the fall of 1899 and no mishaps occurred. The next year, she was transferred from up north to Skagway. The old coaster was not as large as other steamers at only 125 feet long and with a 27-foot beam. There were only 42 state rooms.

On her first trip in January 1900, the Townsend took a cargo of explosives and thus was forbidden to take passengers. All went well on that voyage.

Had the jinx been removed?  

It definitely had not been for the mail steamer Mocking Bird that tried to force her way between Dyea and Skagway at about that time. She hit something that punched a hole in her bow and it wasn’t long before she became a total wreck on a beach.  

January continued to be a stormy month: gale winds blew, snowstorms reduced visibility and it was often 10 below zero. Steamer captains felt that Lynn Canal was a boisterous and treacherous passage with few places to anchor. Berners Bay was the only harbor of any size. Most captains had learned to hold at various places until the Lynn Canal winter storms passed.

The third trip in January was the Townsend’s last. On Jan. 16, from what was then called Haines Mission to Juneau, one of her steam valves gave out and weakened the machinery to such an extent that she was soon adrift helplessly.

A heavy wind blew gust after gust and soon it threw her stern on the rocks at Rocky Point, midway between Battery Point and the mission. The name Rocky Point is no longer in use so we do not know exactly where she met her end. She was driven broadside on the reef and began to fill with water. Captain William McKenzie ordered a lifeboat lowered and sent passengers ashore. Ten minutes after the strike, the captain ordered Purser Carey below to summon all hands on deck to abandon ship. He feared she would list to starboard and roll over into 62 fathoms.

A lifeline was cast ashore to enable the remaining men to reach land. Twenty minutes after striking, she listed so far her keel was showing on the rocks. The lifeboat pulled back to the boat to help the officers ashore. These included Captain McKenzie, Pilot A. Gillespie and Chief Engineer Patrick Gard, and all slide down the line. Once everyone was ashore, the passengers and crew set out in the stormy weather to walk to Haines Mission.

Possibly, the Townsend survivors used a reported common-use trail created sometime around 1892. Today, there is a hiking trail to Battery Point that is 1.2 miles from the trailhead. Perhaps this trail passes Rock Point where the Townsend eventually rolled over into deep water. It is now a long-forgotten shipwreck.     


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