1995 Yukon Nuggets
Flashback: The Remains of the Columbian - 1906
Riverboats were the life-blood of the Yukon at the turn of the century. One day - Tuesday, September 25th, in 1906 - one of them was the scene of a disaster which led to the death of six young men.
A photograph tells much of the story. The smoldering ruins show only the paddlewheel, some pieces of engine and other metal gear, and a few boards from her main deck. The Columbian had left Whitehorse, bound for Dawson with 150 tons, of cargo, including potatoes, hams, bacon, apples and canned vegetables. She also carried 21 head of live cattle - and three tons of blasting powder, covered and stored on the foredeck.
The Columbian was built in Victoria in the spring of 1898. It was sailed to Dawson by way of St. Michael and had performed excellent service on the Yukon, plying the river between Whitehorse and Dawson.
On that fateful day in September of 1906, she was five miles below the mouth of the Little Salmon River and 20 miles above Tantalus Butte (now Carmacks). Here, a young deckhand Phil Murray noticed a flock of ducks on the river. Murray had a loaded rifle on board although this was against company rules. The ship’s fireman, Edward Morgan, asked for the gun.
What happened next is uncertain. Some accounts say the gun went off by accident. Others say the flock of ducks flew over the ship and Morgan fired over the bow. What is certain is that there was a massive explosion on board the Columbian. The resulting fireball was carried the full length of the ship. Purser Lionel Cowper, Mate Joe Welsh, deckhands John Woods, Carl Christianson and Phil Murray, and fireman Ed Morgan, all died in the incident.
Passenger, EE Winstanley, a miner from Dawson was severely burned, but recovered. If there were any heroics in this sad affair, it was likely the actions of the ships Captain J.O. Williamson, who steered the stricken riverboat to shore where it smashed into the bank while the fire raged. His actions allowed the uninjured crew members, and what few passengers were on board, to jump clear.
The only body never recovered was that of fireman Ed Morgan, who was supposedly holding the gun when the blast occurred.
Apart from the tragic deaths of the six riverboat men and the loss of the steamboat, the biggest losers were the Barton Brothers whose consignment of 21 cattle died in the blast.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.