Thursday, September 09, 2004


Guns, gold and opium: Alaska's "SS Portland" shipwreck


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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (8 Sep 2004) -- The well-preserved remains of a steam ship that once smuggled guns, drugs and illegal workers -- but which is best known for launching the Klondike Gold Rush -- have been identified near Cordova, sticking out of the mud.

The S.S. Portland, whose historic cargo of Yukon miners and their gold earned international headlines in 1897, had been largely forgotten after it sank 13 years later. But a fortuitous combination of tectonics and television have brought the Portland back into the limelight.

That's only right, said shipwreck specialist Mike Burwell of the U.S. Mineral Management Service.
"For Alaska, it's probably the most significant wreck you could find," Burwell said.

The most recent chapter in the long, colorful history of the Portland began two years ago in Katalla Bay, about 50 miles southeast of Cordova, when the wreckage was spotted at low tide. It wasn't always visible, locals say, but the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 lifted the ground 12 feet, and erosion has exposed its upper half.

Not everyone thought it was the Portland, Burwell said, but he was convinced. So after the producers of the public television show "History Detectives" heard the story, they decided to fund an expedition last May to clarify the ship's identity.

But the real story of the Portland began in 1885, when the wooden-hulled 191-footer was launched in Bath, Maine, and pressed into service hauling goods in the West Indies trade. It was named the Haytian Republic, reflecting the popular spelling of its namesake country at the time, Hayti.

It didn't take long for the ship to get into trouble, according to a 1955 article in the Alaska Sportsman. In 1888, the government seized the vessel and charged its captain with smuggling arms to the Hippolyte rebels. The crew was sent home after one died from yellow fever. Strong winds blew the ship onto the rocks, and a Haitian ship rammed it.
U.S. gunboats eventually escorted the ship to Cuba for repairs. While the Haytian Republic never returned to Haiti, it kept the name after its owners sent it around Cape Horn to supply Alaska canneries and whaling bases.

That work never panned out, but by 1892 the ship was making money -- suspiciously, according to historians. Customs agents suspected it of hauling contraband. Then the uninsured Haytian Republic burned and sank near Portland, allegedly with illegal opium on board.

The ship was raised and repaired and later caught several times smuggling Chinese laborers and opium into Canada. U.S. Marshals ordered the ship sold. The new owners overhauled the vessel and renamed it. On its first voyage as the S.S. Portland, in 1894, it nearly sank in a great storm that claimed at least two other ships.

The Portland was among about two dozen Alaska coastal steamers hauling freight and passengers when gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896. When the first successful miners floated down the Yukon River to St. Michael, the Portland was there.

So was the steamer Excelsior, and it reached the Lower 48 first, landing in San Francisco on July 15, 1897. But news of the Excelsior miners' fortunes -- men carrying $100,000 or more in gold nuggets and dust -- only primed the nation for Portland's arrival in Seattle two days later.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporters on a chartered boat met the Portland miles out of town and, after interviewing miners, sped back to shore. The newspaper's special edition was on the streets when the ship docked, with the headline "Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!"

Five thousand people greeted the ship. The rush was on.

It enjoyed more than 15 minutes of fame, according to Burwell.

"Especially when the Gold Rush was on, everybody wanted to be on that boat," he said.

SOURCE - Anchorage Daily News

Article from Maine News and from Juneau Empire.

The S.S. Portland is shown in June where it
was grounded in 1919 near the mouth of the
Katalla River. Looking from the bow of the
ship toward the stern, the boilers and engine
are in the amidships area.
(Photo by Dave McMahan / Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources)

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