HAINES — Missing gold, missing passengers, dynamite, a sinking ship and the beginning of lighthouses in Alaska are all at the center of one of Southeast’s best-known mysteries: the sinking of the Clara Nevada.
Feb. 5 marked the 125th anniversary of the SS Clara Nevada shipwreck and to help commemorate the event, the Haines Sheldon Museum opened its first ever exhibit dedicated to the maritime tragedy, “A Mystery Lies Beneath the Waves: Legend of the Clara Nevada.” The exhibit, sponsored by the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation, features information and artifacts related to the wreckage, which took place on the north tip of Eldred Rock Island, 55 miles north of the major port of Juneau and approximately 35 miles south of Skagway.
In 1898 the steamship Clara Nevada, formerly the United States Coast Survey Schooner Hassler, sailed from Seattle on Jan. 26, commanded by Capt. C.H. Lewis, with a crew of 40 and 160 passengers, though no official record of these numbers has so far been recovered.
Heading south into a winter storm toward Skagway and the Klondike Gold fields, the three-masted steel-hulled schooner was said to potentially be holding up to 800 pounds of Klondike Gold, and possibly an illegal load of dynamite. Just over 30 miles into the voyage, the ship ran aground on an uncharted rock several hundred yards north of Eldred Rock.
Witnesses from nearby Seward City reported seeing an explosion and fire, and it was assumed all lives were lost, though only one body was ever reported as being recovered and identified. Mysteriously, however, a dinghy from the Clara Nevada was supposedly discovered on the mainland and Lewis, along with a fireman named Paddy MacDonald, were later reported as being alive based on their names later surfacing in newspapers well after the wreck.
In addition to the honorary exhibit, on Friday and Sunday the Lynn Canal Community Players presented a reading of a play written about the sinking ship titled, “The Strange Fate of the Clara Nevada,” written by Dan Henry and Pam Randles in 2001. Haines resident Dena Selby has served on the Lynn Canal Community Players board for roughly 10 years and is the organizer of the Reader’s Theatre.
Selby said Friday was a recorded performance for the Haines radio station KHNS, and then on Sunday the eight actors performed a staged reading of the play at the Haines Sheldon Museum.
With 14 characters in total, Selby said the actors had to double up on characters by wearing different hats for the audience to help tell them apart, with one actor set aside to help provide sound effects. Selby said in her opinion, the play, which runs a little over an hour, is the best way to learn the ship wreck’s story as it teaches audiences everything they might ever want to know about the Clara Nevada.
“The writers did an incredible job researching the facts and writing the play,” Selby said. “It’s one of the funnest plays that I’ve had for script lines, the characters and all of the different things they say is just fun for verbalizing.”
Selby, and many others within the Haines community, speculate the sinking of the ship was a “robbery gone bad,,” and that there’s still gold left in Lynn Canal even though countless searches have yet to turn up evidence of sunken treasure.
Museum curator Cordelia Nelson said the biggest challenge of taking on her first exhibit was trying to balance the introduction of newer archaeological information while still paying respect to the legendary aspects of the story that many have come to know and love.
“According to the archaeologists, there’s really no way to tell what happened within the last 12 hours of the Clara Nevada,” Nelson said. “A lot of the historians within Haines have been telling the robbery story, which is absolutely a possibility, it could have happened, but judging off of the record of the boat, it most likely was negligence. I’m now coming in with the archaeological point of view that was developed in 2007 after NOAA’s Hassler expedition, which then declared the site to be state protected.”
Michael Marks, who serves as the secretary for the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association, provided the sound effects for the reading performance at the museum. He said he was proud to be a part of a production that further sheds light on the lighthouse itself.
“The Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association is proud to sponsor ‘A Mystery Lies Beneath the Waves: The Legend of the Clara Nevada,’” Marks said. “This new exhibit at the Haines Sheldon Museum showcases a unique story and one of the historic episodes that led to the creation of the Eldred Rock Lighthouse.”
Sue York, executive director for the ERLPA, said the shipwreck wasn’t only of importance within Southeast, but also had national significance based on the pressure the wreck then placed on Congress to finally address the serious need for lighthouses throughout Alaska.
“It was the inspiration for the lighthouse, and it actually accelerated all of the lighthouses in Alaska being built,” York said. “It sort of spurred the maritime industry to prompt Congress to take the issue more seriously based on all of the traffic from the gold rush that was going on at that time.”
York further said that the ERLPA is only roughly three summers into repairing the lighthouse, which has been unstaffed for 50 years. York said the association is currently about 60% done with remediation and removal of contaminants of lead paint to make it safe for the public.
People interested in getting involved in the effort to repair the lighthouse through volunteering or memberships, can find more information online at eldredrocklighthouse.org/history-eldred-rock.
“We’re hoping to open the lighthouse to the public in 2025 for rentals, tours and retreats,” York said. “Currently, we’re on schedule for that timeline.”
• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at firstname.lastname@example.org.