The Sinking of the Clara Nevada…Alaska’s Largest Mass Murder in History?
SKAGWAY HOONAH ANGOON COUNTY - Built in 1871 by Dialogue & Wood at Camden, New Jersey, this 159.5-foot steamer was commissioned as the Hassler, named after Ferdinand R. Hassler, the first superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey.
This vanguard iron ship went into service on the Hassler Expedition (1871-1872).
The history of this ship begins innocuously enough, but after being decommissioned, her history becomes shrouded in mystery, death, and a tale of sunken treasure.
The vessel was plagued with problems from the very beginning.
Defects in the hull design were immediately observed during the Hassler Expedition, which resulted in the U.S. Coast Survey dumping substantial funds into repairs just to keep her afloat. By the early 1880’s, Captain Henry Nichols reported to his superiors that the Hassler was rapidly aging before her time.
The hull’s double bottom design made it impossible to inspect, scrape or paint critical areas amidship. The resulting corrosion proved impossible to treat.
In October 1892, the Hassler ran into a storm while on a voyage from Alaska to San Francisco, resulting in one iron plate above the water line cracking and others severely warped.
Further inspection revealed that the ship flexed enough to separate the main steam pipe from the inside hatch in the engine room by one inch.
In the fall of 1893, Hassler Captain Giles Harker reported the vessel was “on her last legs.”
An inspection done later that year revealed many iron plates along the main rail had partially separated from the frames and were “badly eaten away.” It was recommended that the Hassler only work inside protected waterways and channels and not return to sea.
On May 25, 1895, the Hassler was decommissioned, docked and covered with a fresh coat of paint inside and out.
While the Hassler wasn’t considered sea worthy, she still had some life left in her.
A major overhaul in 1892 left the ship’s engines and machinery in good condition, but for the next two years she remained docked and for sale.
Then, in 1897, word reached Seattle, Portland and San Francisco that gold had been discovered in Alaska.
News of the impending Gold Rush to Alaska resulted in a huge demand for anything that would float.
In August 1897, the McGuire brothers purchased the Hassler for $15,700. The brothers, well known for their dubious business dealings, saw a get rich quick opportunity they weren’t going to pass up.
They insisted the sale be kept a strict secret, insisting that the transfer occur by mail and not telegraph so they could take possession of the ship “without publicity.”
On January 26, 1898, the Hassler left port under new ownership.
Now sailing under the name Clara Nevada, the vessel was immediately pushed into service as one of many Klondike gold rush era steamers.
She left Seattle for Skagway, Alaska, a voyage described in newspaper accounts as being a “fiasco.”
The Clara Nevada collided with a federal revenue cutter backing out of a pier in Seattle, rammed the dock at Port Townsend, and was forced to stop twice for boiler repairs.
Further eyewitness and newspaper accounts reported the ship’s crew as inexperienced, incompetent, drunk, and unruly.
She eventually arrived at Skagway and her passengers disembarked, but this doomed ship would never complete her first voyage.
On February 5, 1898, the Clara Nevada departed from Skagway with an unknown number of passengers, reputed to have been between 25 to 40 souls, plus her 40-man crew.
Within a few hours, winds from the north reaching 50 to 80 mph were reported in the Lynn Canal, south of Skagway.
That night the southbound steamer struck an unchartered submerged pinnacle a few hundred yards north of Eldred Rock.
What happened next is still a mystery. Eyewitness accounts reported “a flash” was seen on shore as far as eight miles away, followed by an explosion where witnesses described seeing “a bright orange fireball and a ship burning off Eldred Rock.”
Official accounts report there were no survivors, only one body was recovered.
Reports circulated that the vessel’s boilers had exploded, but early divers to the wreck reported finding the boilers intact, thus ruling out catastrophic boiler failure.
Reports circulated that she carried dynamite onboard, which was illegal if the ship was carrying passengers, which it was.
While most investigators dismiss this possibility, not everyone agrees.
Authors Ian MacDonald and Betty O’Keefe, in their book The Klondike’s “dear little Nugget”
(1996), claim the Clara Nevada was carrying a “large cargo of dynamite” when she sank near Eldred Rock.
Though possible, it seems unlikely the ship would’ve been carrying explosives after departing Skagway with a southbound destination.
In August of 1916, 18 years after the Clara Nevada went to her icy grave, renowned Alaskan diver C.F. Stagger spent two days diving and salvaging nearly a half-ton of copper and brass parts from the ship.
Though he could not clear the hatches to open them, the Fairbanks Daily Times reported…
“Mr. Stagger is positive from the examination made that the vessel had not caught on fire.”
Since then a popular theory arose that the sinking of the Clara Nevada was an intentional act perpetrated by the McGuire brothers with the aid of some of her crew.
Many believe the ship was secretly scuttled in the Lynn Canal in order to steal $1.5 million in gold that was ship’s cargo, plus an undetermined amount of gold owned by its passengers and kept in the ship’s safe, none of which has ever been salvaged.
If this theory were ever proven true, it would be presumed that something went wrong that prevented the co-conspirators from having safely removed the gold from the ship before she sank.
Thus the sinking of the Clara Nevada would be the largest mass murder carried out in Alaska’s history.
To date, no clear answers have presented themselves as to what happened to this ship and all hands, except that she collided with the submerged pinnacle near Eldred Rock.
Today the Clara Nevada can be found in about 12 feet of water, “100 feet from the extremity of the ledge extending WNW from Eldred Rock.”
At low tide, about two feet of the wreck can be seen from land. Divers report the wreck’s debris field is spread out over a 150-foot area.
The wreck of the Clara Nevada remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of Alaska.
Alaska’s Lake of the Golden Bar
YUKON-KOYUKUK (CA) BOROUGH – I have two slightly different versions of this tale, one was published by Floyd Mann on his website, LostTreasuresUSA.com, the other is a copy of an unpublished manuscript entitled America’s Treasure Tales, by an unknown author.
In essence, the story goes that three prospectors discovered a rich gold mine near the Yellow River in the St. Elias Mountains.
The year was 1879 and the three worked the site for around five years.
Then, in 1884, the men had accumulated about 500 pounds of nugget gold, which was cached in a nearby cave for safekeeping. That same year the party became trapped in a blinding blizzard that cost all three their lives.
Their remains were discovered along the Yellow River and the treasure mentioned had been reported in one man’s diary entries, along with their fate at the hands of Mother Nature. The site has never been located.
The Lost Seal Pirate’s Treasure
ALEUTIANS WEST – An estimated gold treasure worth in excess of $1 million dollars was buried by Captain Gregory Dwargstof on Adak Island.
Dwargstof was the captain of the Hitslap, a ship engaged in killing seals, which were then sold to the Sealing Association.
The story goes that Dwargstof had taken the gold from the association and buried it in 1892, somewhere on Red Bluff.
It is not known why he never returned for the hoard, but no reported recovery has occurred to date except for several gold coins found near there.
NOAA History, Coast & Geodetic Survey Ships-Ferdinand R. Hassler, http://www.history.noaa.gov/ships/hassler.html
National Maritime Sanctuaries, The Hassler’s last days and the wreck of the Clara Nevada,
Fairbanks Daily Times, Relics of Clara Nevada Brought to Juneau, Fairbanks, Alaska, August 4, 1916, p. 3, c. 3
Daily Sitka Sentinel, “February 5, 1898-SS CLARA NEVADA,” Sitka, Alaska, February 1, 1999, p. 4
Terry, Thomas P., U.S. Treasure Atlas-Volume 1, 1985, La Crosse, WI, Specialty Publishing Company, p. 34 # 122C
Wreck-site, SS Clara Nevada (+1898), http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?25225
Henson, Michael Paul, America’s Lost Treasures, 1984, South Bend, IN, Jayco Publishing Company, p. 4.