Monday, November 30, 2009

Lake Laberge gives up a secret

Wreck of fabled sternwheeler from Klondike gold rush era found in 'pristine condition';

A team of marine archeologists has discovered a "perfectly preserved" 19th-century sternwheeler that went down in a storm more than a century ago in the Klondike setting made famous by the Robert Service poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.

The A.J. Goddard, a long-lost shipwreck in the depths of Yukon's legendary Lake Laberge, is being hailed as a "national treasure" and a "time capsule" from the Klondike.

The ship was named for an intrepid U.S. shipping merchant who pioneered Yukon River transport during the wild race for Canadian gold in the 1890s.

In Service's ghoulish 1907 rhyme, a Tennessee gold-seeker's frozen corpse finds blissful relief from the fatal Yukon cold in the fiery boiler of a sternwheeler stranded in ice on Lake Laberge.

The lake, a widening of the Yukon River north of Whitehorse, was a key leg in the treacherous, five-day journey by steamboat for tens of thousands of "stampeders," who came from across the U.S., Canada and elsewhere to search for gold in the Yukon's Klondike region in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

Most of the miners trudged from Skagway, Alaska--which could be reached by Pacific steamers--across dangerous mountain passes to the Yukon River headwaters in northern British Columbia.

Goddard took the same arduous route with the materials used to build his sternwheeler, was assembled on the shores of B.C.'s Lake Bennett and in June 1898 became the first steamboat to reach Dawson, which at the time was only a tent city filled with fortune hunters.

Goddard's historic arrival at Dawson in his self-named boat--to the thunderous cheers of miners -- has become part of Klondike lore, recounted by author Pierre Berton and other Gold Rush chroniclers.

The steamer sank in October 1901, drowning three of the five crewmen on board at the time.

Doug Davidge, president of the Yukon Transportation Museum, and B.C. archeologist John Pollack, a research associate with the Texasbased, international Institute of Nautical Archaeology, had led several searches for Klondike-era wrecks before discovering the sternwheeler in 2008 and positively identifying the 15-metre wreck this year.

"She is, indeed, a Gold Rush time capsule," said INA president James Delgado, former director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

"The boiler door is hanging open with the firewood they'd thrown in," he said.

"There are bags of tools and somebody's coat lying there on the deck, and the boots that the engineer probably kicked off as he was drowning lie close to his station."

In a statement announcing the find, the researchers also describe how a trapper camping on the shore of Lake Laberge in 1901 "saw Goddard's tiny pilothouse, torn off the sinking steamboat, with two survivors, half frozen, clinging to it. He saved them . . . Diving on A.J. Goddard, it is as if these events happened yesterday."

They also said "an axe used to chop the tow line for a small barge loaded with supplies still rests on the deck where a crew member dropped it."

The discovery, backed by funding from INA, National Geographic, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Yukon government and others, is to be followed next summer with further dives documenting the wreck site and its debris field.

"As this discovery now shows," the team notes, the steamboat also operated as a small floating repair shop, forge and kitchen--a self-sufficient depot on the Gold Rush frontier."

For additional stories see:
Los Angeles Times.
National Geographic News. This site has beautiful pictures and a video.
CBC News.


Boswell, Randy. 2009. "Lake Laberge gives up a secret". Edmonton Journal. Posted: November 24, 2009. Available online:

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