1898 Yukon Nuggets
Clara Nevada. Sounds like the name of a movie starlet from a Hollywood flick of the Thirties. Not so! Instead, it was a three-masted sailing barque with a wood-fired boiler producing steam for power from an inboard engine. The old wooden hulled ship - at almost 200 feet long - worked out of San Francisco in the days of whaling on the Pacific coast.
By 1897, the ship was past her prime. But when the word of gold in the Klondike reached a depression-ridden US west coast, any ship that floated was good enough for men who thought their future was in finding an instant fortune in the far-off Yukon goldfields.
The Clara Nevada - like other unseaworthy ships - was Shanghaied into service to deliver poor wretches from Seattle to Skagway. Her first voyage north in January 1898 was plagued with problems. Overloaded, she hit another ship while leaving the Seattle dock. On the voyage up the inside passage in stormy January, constant problems plagued the boilers. At one point she even caught fire!
When the Clara Nevada somehow reached Skagway, most of her passengers got off, but some were already so discouraged by the whole "adventure" that they stayed on board. They were ready to head home before they even reached the goldfields.
Others, like Robert Banks, had journeyed to Alaska from his farm near Seattle in the fall of 1897. He did get some work, but after a few months in Skagway, he decided to take the next ship home because he missed his wife and six children. That ship was the Clara Nevada.
On February 6, 1898, the Clara Nevada headed south, reportedly with 60 passengers and 800 pounds of gold on board. There is speculation that she also carried an illegal load of dynamite. What exactly happened as the Clara Nevada passed through Berner Bay near Elred Rock, about 30 miles south of Skagway, is uncertain. But the ship ran aground on Eldred Rock. Witnesses reported a flash and a burst of flames. The ship was blown out of the water. Everybody on board was reportedly killed in the explosion.
However, one week after the sinking, divers said the boilers were intact. They had not exploded. But they did report a blackened hole in the side of the ship. Newspapers engaged in wild speculation about the gold on board and the cause of the sinking. A month after the disaster, the ship's carpenter notified The Seattle Daily Times that, although the newspaper reported his death, he remained "alive and hardy and well".
Strangely, that same newspaper posted ads after the accident recruiting miners for an expedition up the Yukon River. The skipper of that Yukon riverboat was listed as C.H. Lewis, the captain of the Clara Nevada.
Even more curious, a boilerman on the Clara Nevada later showed up in the gold fields of Nome. Two other miners onboard showed up in their homes in Indiana after a prosperous Klondike trip. So it appears that not everyone went down with the ship, but at least 60 lives were lost, including farmer Robert Banks.
Whether the loss of the Clara Nevada was an accident, or an act of sabotage, may never be known, but the US Congress viewed the incident as sufficient evidence that a lighthouse on Eldred Rock was needed and the lighthouse was activated June 1, 1906, making it the last of the ten lighthouses constructed in Alaska between 1902 and 1906.
Today, the wreck of the Clara Nevada lies in pieces in 40 feet of water and is a popular spot for divers, although none have ever found traces of the gold.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.