Postcards promoting a new podcast about the Star of Bengal hang on a Juneau refrigerator. A five-part series about a	1908 shipwreck near Wrangell that killed 111 of the 138 men on board, mostly Asian cannery workers returning home, will be narrated by various current and former residents of the community in a five-part weekly podcast starting Friday .(Ben Hohenstatt / Capital City Weekly)

Postcards promoting a new podcast about the Star of Bengal hang on a Juneau refrigerator. A five-part series about a 1908 shipwreck near Wrangell that killed 111 of the 138 men on board, mostly Asian cannery workers returning home, will be narrated by various current and former residents of the community in a five-part weekly podcast starting Friday .(Ben Hohenstatt / Capital City Weekly)

Tale of historic Wrangell shipwreck surfaces in podcast

1908 sinking of Star of Bengal, which killed 111, is narrated by locals in 5-part series.

A 1908 shipwreck near Wrangell that killed 111 of the 138 men on board, mostly Asian cannery workers returning home, will be narrated by various current and former residents of the community in a five-part weekly podcast starting Friday.

The Star of Bengal, a three-mast steamship built in 1874 by the same Irish the shipyard that later constructed the Titanic, was beginning a voyage from Fort Wrangell to San Francisco when it struck rocks and sank near Coronation Island during a storm on Sept. 20, 1908. A team of researchers embarked on a mission this May to find the remains of the wreck.

Ronan Rooney, who grew up in the tiny Southeast Alaska town and now lives in Oregon, said in an interview Tuesday it’s the most in-depth of the 10 podcast projects about Wrangell’s history he started doing in 2020.

“When COVID hit I was sort of lost, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “This was kind of the perfect thing. It lets me keep in touch with people back home.”

Among the other podcasts at Wrangell History Unlocked are “The Christmas Bombardment” when “after a drunken party on Christmas Day turns violent, Fort Wrangell unleashes two days of cannon fire on its Tlingit neighbors”; the arrest of Tlingit elder Tillie Paul Tamaree for “​​inciting” a tribal chief to vote; and a couple of notorious murder cases.

Rooney said his research into the town’s history and response from listeners extends far beyond the region.

“It keeps me connected with people all over the world because when you try to tell the story of a small town it’s connected to the whole world,” he said.

The Star of Bengal series, for instance, opens with the ship’s three decades of world passenger and cargo shipping before being sold to the Alaska Packers’ Association in 1905. From there the episodes focus on the ill-fated journey and the aftermath including the captains of the streamship and two supporting tugboats facing “charges of cowardice from the survivors.”

Rooney said he chose the shipwreck for his latest podcast project because “a lot of people in Wrangell have these kinds of jobs,” plus he was a trawler himself with his father while living there.

“I can vividly describe what it’s like to jump in that water because I’ve done it before,” he said. “It’s cold.”

While his earlier podcasts were simple narrations by himself, with possibly solo piano music by his wife, the Star of Bengal series features a broad range of music and sound effects. Furthermore, he had numerous residents he still knows in Wrangell “phone in” their narratives of various people that were a part of the shipwreck’s history.

Among the most notable contributions is from his mother, Alice, who still lives in Wrangell and in 1981 recorded an interview with a man aboard one of two boats towing the Star of Bengal from port out to sea when the storm hit, causing navigational chaos among the three vessels and resulting in the steamship’s wreck. Rooney said portions of the interview will be part of the first podcast.

But not everything he and those participating in the podcast were told and learned about during their research is factual. Rooney said his mother, for instance, was told many of the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino cannery workers who mostly perished were locked below deck while the ship was sinking. In reality, Rooney said, the Chinese workers in particular simply didn’t put on the lifejackets they were provided with.

“The cannery workers were not seamen, they didn’t necessarily know how to swim,” Rooney said. But he includes and sets the story straight about such myths because “I still respect the fact this legend exists.”

“One of my challenges was to go to the evidence, eyewitness statements and asking what makes sense,” he said.

“It’s been getting more and more elaborate,” he said. “I spent about a year researching this because there are so many twists.”

That year includes three months of editing and producing the series. He said it will be broadcast on Thursday on the Wrangell public radio station KSTK before the podcasts are available online a day later.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of June 22

Here’s what to expect this week.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, June 20, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Pins supporting the repeal of ranked choice voting are seen on April 20 at the Republican state convention in Anchorage. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
State judge upholds most fines against group seeking repeal of Alaska ranked choice voting

An Anchorage Superior Court judge has ruled that opponents of Alaska’s ranked… Continue reading

Joshua Midgett and Kelsey Bryce Riker appear on stage as the emcees for MixCast 2023 at the Crystal Saloon. (Photo courtesy Juneau Ghost Light Theatre)
And now for someone completely different: Familiar faces show new personas at annual MixCast cabaret

Fundraiser for Juneau Ghost Light Theatre on Saturday taking place amidst week of local Pride events

Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire
A section of Angoon along the coast is seen on June 14. Angoon was destroyed by the U.S. Navy in 1882; here is where they first pulled up to shore.
Long-awaited U.S. Navy apology for 1882 bombardment will bring healing to Angoon

“How many times has our government apologized to any American Native group?”

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon announced this week she plans to seek a third three-year term. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Mayor Beth Weldon seeking third term amidst personal and political challenges

Low mill rate, more housing cited by lifelong Juneau resident as achievements during past term.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, June 19, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

A king salmon is laid out for inspection by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at the Mike Pusich Douglas Harbor during the Golden North Salmon Derby on Aug. 25, 2019. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file photo)
Emergency order bans king salmon fishing in many Juneau waters between June 24 and Aug. 31

Alaska Department of Fish and Game says low projected spawning population necessitates restrictions

Three cruise ships are docked along Juneau’s waterfront on the evening on May 10, as a Princess cruise ship on the right is departing the capital city. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Sitka residents join those in Juneau proposing hard caps on cruise ships as tourism grows

Two ballot measures could be presented to local voters in the two Southeast Alaska towns this fall

Most Read