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History

Searching for sternwheelers

Klondike-era sternwheelers once ferried prospectors to potential riches. Now the rush is on to locate the ships’ crumbling remains

  • Sep 30, 2013
  • 321 words
  • 2 minutes
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The shores of the Yukon river are scattered with the skeletons of decaying ships. Some are easy to find, for those who know where to look; others are hidden under water or in dense forest. Together these century-old sternwheelers form an archeological trove that provides a window into a formative period of Yukon history.

The 1896 Gold Rush saw thousands swarm into a roadless land that would eventually spit out more paupers than princes. But once the stampede ended in 1899, many of the sternwheelers used to reach Dawson City were forgotten — that is until John Pollack, a retired research scientist, and Robyn Woodward, an archeology professor at Simon Fraser University, decided to immortalize the ships’ story.

Since 2005, Pollack and Woodward have documented the location of 24 sternwheelers on the river. The northern climate and isolation have helped preserve the wrecks, providing a rare glimpse into a time when shipbuilding was on the cusp of a design revolution. Iron was beginning to replace wood as the primary material for hull construction, a shift that would effectively allow shipyards to standardize vessel construction and phase out the role of the craftsman.

But shipwrights along the West Coast had plenty of work from gold-hungry prospectors: 130 vessels, most of them wooden, were built in 1898 alone.

While Pollack and Woodward’s research is largely focused on the evolution of the mechanical aspects of sternwheelers, they occasionally find more personal clues: a lady’s hat pin between the floorboards, or the second mate’s scrawled notation about what he thinks of the first mate.

“These ships are the tangible remains of a remarkable story over a century old,” says Pollack. “We’re trying to learn what we can from them before they are lost forever.”

Here’s how a Klondike-era steamboat was found perfectly preserved.

See one massive steamboat from above.

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