The Canada, a Klondike gold rush shipwreck in Nahku Bay

The Canada, a Klondike gold rush shipwreck in Nahku Bay

At first glance she’s merely a stain on the beach visible only at low tide at the head of Nahku Bay, also known as Long Bay or Fortune Bay during the Klondike gold rush, some four miles from Skagway by the Dyea Road. The Canada, however, is far more than that. She’s the earliest known documented archaeological example of a “Downeaster.” Her long trim hull with square stern, billet head, and three masts, all square rigged, exemplified the classic look of merchant vessels of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. She is also the most easily accessible Klondike gold rush era shipwreck in Alaska.

The Canada was built in Bath, Maine, and officially enrolled on Dec. 14, 1859. Her tonnage was recorded at 1,144, her length at 176.6 feet, her beam at 38.6 feet. The vessel reflected an evolution of design to fit the diverse needs of New England’s long distance and coastal trades. She was a “windjammer,” a clipper ship, but in 1887, newspapers start referring to her as a “barque” which means that her aft mast had been re-rigged to increase her maneuverability in coastal waters and decrease the number of crew she required.

During the 19th century, newspapers were the internet of the day and reported in detail on the commerce of the world. Their “Shipping News” columns reported on the comings and goings of ships in port and in other domestic and foreign ports. If two ships met on the high seas, that information would later be conveyed to the people back home by a “Spoken To” column in the paper, listing which ships met and where and what was said. Some newspapers might even provide a brief synopsis of a ship’s entire voyage. The papers also mentioned unusual events that happened on the waterfront or at sea and advertised ships that had space available for cargo.

Because the volume of news was so large, the papers tended to report in an almost twitter like code. For example, here is the account of the first voyage of the Canada found in the Boston Traveler of Dec. 24, 1859: “Bath Sailed 22d, ship Canada (new), Wyman, New Orleans.” Translated this meant that the new sailing ship Canada, commanded by Captain Wyman, sailed from Bath, Maine on Dec. 22, 1859 bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. While we have yet to determine all the ports she stopped in, it is clear from the newspaper accounts available that the Canada was a world traveler. For example, she is known to have traveled to Australia, Burma, Egypt, India, Peru, Mexico, Wales, Ireland, England, Gibraltar, France, the Philippines, several Caribbean Islands, Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, and Italy. In the United States she sailed to and from ports in Maine, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington, California, and of course, Alaska. She also carried a diverse cargo which included: barley, cigars, coal, coffee, copper, cotton, doors, dye woods, flour, guano, hay, harnesses, hemp, horses, iron, lath, lumber, lead, piles, powder, quicksilver, rags, railroad iron, railroad construction items, raisins, rope, salmon, salt, sandal wood, sapan wood, shingles, sugar, tools, wagons, wheat, windows, wood and wool.

New York’s Commercial Advertiser of Sept. 16, 1872, reported on perhaps the Canada’s most unusual cargo:

“One iron church in sections, weighing 800 tons, 26 Corinthian columns, one Roman altar, weighing 3 tons, and 16 fortress doors with bolts, bars, etc… [The church was constructed] entirely of iron, being 135 feet long by 65 feet; and comprises besides the main building a vestry, dead house, tower, steeple, belfry, and altar. It is also accompanied by a flue organ by Jardine. The entire expense of the contract amounted to $150,000…[The church was] designed to be erected in the small town of Ancon, Peru, which is used as a watering-place by the fashionable society of Lima…This is perhaps the first instance of the shipment of an iron church from [New York].”

Like any world traveler, the Canada had its share of trouble, especially weather related. The New York Herald on Oct. 5, 1874 reported that on July 31, 1874, the Canada encountered a strong northeast gale with:

“heavy rain and squalls; at 8 PM it veered to [the] north and continued from that quarter blowing with hurricane violence … At 2:30 AM on the 2d the gale veered to [the] NW blowing in terrific squalls. The ship was thrown over to port, the upper deadeyes and…lower ratlines … underwater. Several sails were blown away, and the bees of the bowsprit were smashed. The sea made a clean breach over the ship, [damaging] …everything on the deck … The pumps were … sounded, when it was found she had [five] feet in the well … at 0:30 PM a tremendous sea came on board, washing several of the hands from the pumps, among whom was the captain, his leg being broken by the violence of the fall. The man at the wheel was also thrown down and the steering gear carried away. After the deck load had been thrown over it was found that … lots of lower rigging [was] loose, [the] mizzen mast and bowsprit sprung, [the] topmast trestletrees carried away, all the iron work aloft badly broken, standing rigging strained and water tanks leaking … The gale continued throughout the 2d and did not moderate until noon of the 3d, when the decks were cleared up and some temporary repairs effected, after which [she] bore away for Sidney.”

Repairs in Sidney, Australia, lasted four months and cost $35,000. Almost a year later on June 29, 1875, “a heavy sea struck the [Canada] and killed Alfred Johnson, a seaman, and also stove [in the] bulwarks, boats, side-lights, ventilators, and poop steps” (San Francisco Bulletin, Sept. 16, 1875). In May 1880, still another storm caused a cargo of railroad iron to shift resulting in extensive damage. The Canada managed to make it to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The damage was so great that the ship was expected to be condemned; however, she was repaired instead, which took five months and cost $60,000 (San Francisco Bulletin, Oct. 19, 1880).

In her last accident before Alaska, the Canada collided with the Steamer City of Puebla in heavy fog off the Oregon coast. The steamer made it to San Francisco quickly and for a time no one knew who had collided with her. Then the Canada limped in. When Captain Wickberg of the Canada was interviewed by the San FranciscoCall on Nov. 10, 1896, he said:

“When the Puebla ran us down the Canada was on the starboard tack and our foghorn was being blown every minute. We could hear the steamer’s whistle … but they did not hear ours. The wind was very light and …when the Puebla came down on us we were almost stationary. It was a glancing blow and the damage was not great. They are now putting a new anchor aboard, and when the cathead and the martingale are replaced the vessel will be as good as new. A big piece of the Puebla’s bow molding came aboard and we have it now. Captain Debuey can have it any time he calls for it.”

Almost as interesting as the Canada’s accidents, were its legal troubles. In Oct. 1866, Captain L. Scot Wyman of the Canada was charged with “beating and wounding” two of his crew, Charles O’Brian and James Jackson. A trial was held but the jury was unable to come to a verdict. Apparently the prosecutor planned to try the captain again so he had to put up a bond of $500 to insure his appearance and the seamen put up $200 each to insure theirs but nothing more on the second trial has been found (Boston Herald, Oct. 17, 1866).

In 1876 six seamen were charge with mutiny by Captain Bursley of the Canada for refusing to work. The men, on the other hand, alleged negligence on the captain’s part for refusing to have the ship surveyed to determine if she was still seaworthy after running her aground three times in three months in the waters around the Philippines. The American Consul in Hong Kong refused to decide on the matter and passed the case on to San Francisco. The alleged mutineers were locked in irons for 45 days while being shipped from Manila to San Francisco. After hearing the case, they were released by the court for want of sufficient evidence to hold them and Captain Bursley never sailed on the Canada again (Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, June 12, 1876).

In 1881 the Canada was libeled for debt. Her total indebtedness was listed at $40,000, an amount the ship’s owners apparently were unwilling to pay. It’s interesting to note that this occurred right after the ship was severely damaged in a storm and had to be extensively repaired in Brazil. The ship was seized by the U. S. Marshall’s office in Portland, Oregon and sold at auction to Hanson, Ackerson and Company for $26,500 (Portland Oregonian, April 7, 1881). From then on the ship’s voyages became routine. Voyage after voyage, year after year the Canada went down the west coast bringing lumber from Tacoma, Washington to San Francisco. She then returned to Tacoma apparently without a cargo, loaded up with wood and began the journey all over again. From 1881 to 1897 back and forth she went and about the only difference between voyages was the number of days the trips lasted and the amount of lumber the ship carried.

In August 1896, gold was discovered on Rabbit Creek in the Yukon and soon the Klondike gold rush was in full swing. Anything that floated was drafted into carrying passengers and cargo to Alaska and “the veteran coastal bark Canada” was no exception. The Tacoma Ledger of Jan. 30, 1898, announced the ship’s impending departure for Skagway and Dyea. The Canada:

“…lies in the stream off the St. Paul and Tacoma mill loaded to her utmost capacity with Washington products for the thriving cities of Dyea and Skaguay. She is expected to leave today in the tow of the tug Pioneer … The Canada has 800,000 feet of Puget Sound fir lumber, 400 bundles of shingles, 200 doors, 200 windows, a few wagons and horses and a lot of miscellaneous building material. The Canada’s lumber is for the Chilcoot Railroad and Transport Company and Palmer & Weinburg of Tacoma. The latter company [has] opened a lumber yard at Dyea, and the arrival of the cargo of lumber for the general market there will be heralded with delight by the builders of that town.

The tow up the coast apparently went without incident although it lasted two weeks rather than the normal one. The Canada dropped anchor in Skagway on Feb. 14, 1898 and prepared to unload her cargo. On Feb. 19 a storm arose and:

“Almost without warning one of the anchor ropes parted and the vessel swing around to the wind. The other anchor soon gave way and the bark was soon on the rocks…at the foot of the mountain across [from] the harbor. She was subsequently floated and moored to trees along the shore (“San Francisco Call,” March 3, 1898) …but so great was the force of the wind that the trees were torn up by the roots and on Tuesday, Feb. 24 the doomed vessel was driven down Lynn Canal by the fury of the storm” (Helena, Montana, Independent, March 3, 1898).

On Feb. 20 Captain Andrews of the Canada gave orders to shoot the horses on board in order to end their misery. He then ordered the officers and crew to take whatever personal effects they could carry and leave the ship because it was listing at a 45 degree angle and “…water flooded the ship to its cabins.” Abandoned and adrift, the Canada was sighted two days later by Captain Piper of the tug Coleman on her regular mail run from Dyea to Juneau. The Coleman came alongside, attached a line and then towed the Canada to Pyramid Harbor where he beached her. Captain Piper then left three men in charge and steamed down to Juneau to deliver the mail and file the paperwork to acquire salvage rights to the vessel.

Captain Andrews, upon hearing of the rescue:

“…became greatly incensed and swore he would capture the ship…He got a small steamship and with ten men …sailed for the spot where the Canada was beached. A pitched battle occurred, in which both blood and hair were shed. It required all of the ten men to take the ship from the Coleman’s three, who fought as did the noble trio of Thermopylae. [Upon returning to the Canada, Captain Piper] was startled by the peremptory command to ‘keep off…’ Instead of three men, quite a crowd was standing along the rail” (San Francisco Call, March, 12 1898).

Undaunted by this show of force, Captain Piper and his men attempted to heave a line aboard the Canada and tow the prize to Dyea but each time he tried, the line was cut away. Captain Piper then attempted to board the Canada but Captain Andrews “leaped upon the rail, and holding fast to the halyards, flourished a revolver and shouted: ‘I’ll shoot the first man who steps aboard.’” Realizing he wasn’t in an armored vessel, Captain Piper steamed for Dyea. There he consulted with U.S. Commissioner J. U. Smith. Warrants were issued for the arrest of Captain Andrews and his men on charges of piracy, attempted manslaughter, and firing on a vessel carrying the United States mail. Deputy Marshall Cudyhee boarded the Coleman for the journey back to the Canada. Once there, the Deputy Marshall declared himself and the warrants were served without trouble, Captain Andrews declaring “Well boys, my bluff didn’t work” (Hal Hoffman, Special Dispatch to the San Francisco Call, March, 12 1898).

On March 9 the Canada was towed back to Skagway and is seen in a series of photographs as being located directly off Yakutania Point in April and May 1898. On May 14 the Canada and her cargo were once again sold at a U. S. Marshall’s auction and fetched a grand total of $2,250. The new owners planned to salvage the cargo, remove the masts, and turn the vessel into a barge (San Francisco Call, May 18, 1898). The legal action was settled on Jan. 28, 1899 when the court decided in favor of both parties, splitting the proceeds from the auction in half after covering the court costs (The Federal Reporter, Volume 92, April-May 1899). The Canada is next seen at the head of Nahku Bay in a series of photographs dated July 24, 1900 during a visit there by the YMCA camera club. How she got there from Yakutania Point is still a mystery. A couple of additional photographs taken in the first decade of the 20th century show the Canada still at the head of Nakhu Bay along with an unnamed barge. We are still searching for information and photos of the Canada from 1910 to 1990.

In the spring of 2012 I was approached by several Skagway locals who informed me that the Canada was breaking up and why didn’t I do something about it. Fortunately I had recently been corresponding with Doug Davidge, at that time President of the Yukon Transportation Museum in Whitehorse. We had been discussing another Klondike gold rush shipwreck, the A. J. Goddard. I asked Doug if it would be worthwhile to conduct an archaeological survey of the Canada like he had done on the Goddard. He kindly agreed to visit Skagway and examine the wreck site and afterwards we agreed that such a survey would indeed be worthwhile. We were then able to convince several of our colleagues at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the National Park Service – Submerged Resources Center, the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, the Municipality of Skagway, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, the Yukon Transportation Museum, and Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park – Alaska to support this project. An archeological survey was conducted of the Canada wreck site on April 12-15, 2013 and again on March 30-April 2, 2014 at extreme low tide. A report on our findings is nearing completion and will be published soon.

An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station. Information for this program was supplied in part by Robert L. Spude in his 1979 report on the Canada’s Legacy. Additional information was found in the following newspapers: the Boston Traveler, December 24, 1859; the Boston Herald, November 13, 1866; the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, June 12, 1876; the New York Commercial Advertiser, Sept. 16, 1872; the New York Herald, Oct. 5, 1874; the Portland Oregonian, March 15, 1881; the San Francisco Bulletin, Sept. 16, 1875, June 12, 1876, Oct. 19, 1880, and April 8, 1881; the San Francisco Call, Nov. 10, 1896, March 3, March 12, and May 18, 1898; the Tacoma Ledger, Jan. 30, 1898; the New York Times, March 13, 1898; and the Los Angeles Herald, March 3, 1898. Most of the newspapers quoted here were tracked down by Michael Burwell.

I would also like to thank all who helped in the archaeological survey of the wreck site: John Campbell Pollack, Dave McMahan, Doug Davidge, and Sean Adams. In addition to the crew, I wish to thank the following for their contributions and support of the project: James Delgado, Dave Conlin, Michael Burwell, Stan Selmer, Matt O’boyle and Chris Potter (of the SERV-U), Bud Matthews, Dave Curl, and Bob Spude.



Karl Gurcke is a historian at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. “Southeast in Sepia” is a column about the fascinating, varied histories of Southeast Alaska as related by historians around the region.



The Canada at sea near Port Townsend, Washington, circa 1880. Photo by George Schutze. State Library of Victoria, Australia, Malcolm M. Brodie Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, H99.220/2460; KLGO Digital Library.

The Canada at sea near Port Townsend, Washington, circa 1880. Photo by George Schutze. State Library of Victoria, Australia, Malcolm M. Brodie Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, H99.220/2460; KLGO Digital Library.

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