Death and Disappearance on the Yukon River -
the Sinclair scow wreck, 1905
Arctic & Northern Biographies
Over the past 100 years in particular, hundreds of people from around the world have left their homes, bound for adventure and riches in the Yukon or Alaska, and have then vanished without a trace. Police records and personal diaries explain a few of these disappearances, but most remain mysteries.
The newspaper reports that follow, gathered from papers across North America, explain what seems to have happened to a party led by B. F. Sinclair, which left Dawson City on October 25, 1905, heading down the Yukon River to Circle City on a scow. The initial report sounds good, then the reality of the tragedy begins to unfold and efforts are made to discover who the men were.
The men lost were:
* Jacob Graf
* August Johnson
* John Lund
* Alexander McLean
* Benjamin F. Sinclair
* James W. Sullivan
* Ernest Trelawney
* possibly one other man who has never been identified
Vancouver Daily World (Vancouver, British Columbia) - Friday, November 3, 1905
Dawson, Nov. 3. - (Special) - Information was received last evening from Forty-Mile that the scow in which B. F. Sinclair and others left Dawson for Circle City a few days ago, was wrecked in the Yukon, ten miles below Forty-Mile. The men escaped from the scow and made their way to Eagle along the East bank of the river.
The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington) - Thursday, November 30, 1905
DAWSON, Nov. 30 - James Sullivan and B. S. Sinclair, of Seattle, and four or five other men are thought to have been lost in an ice jam below Forty Mile. The news was brought to this city by Andrew Mercereau, a prominent Dawson trader.
Mercereau says a watchman at Coal creek told him he saw a scow plunge into a jam. Three men tried to gain the shore over the ice. The watchman says the men ran for a short distance and then disappeared. They were about a mile away and he does not think they gained the shore in safety. A scow similar to theirs was found below the jam.
Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, California) - Friday, December 1, 1905
By Associated Press.
VANCOUVER, B. C., Nov. 30. - With sure death facing them, and without fighting chance left, elght men were caught in an ice Jam at Coal Creek, below Forty Mile, October 26, and were drowned.
Benjamin F. Sinclair, James W. Sullivan, John Lund, C. Johnson and four others left Dawson on October 25 in a scow for Circle City, whence they intended going overland to Fairbanks.
The ice was running heavily at the time, and the party was unable to make a landing at Forty Mile the next morning to report to the police, which is the custom. No report being made of their having passed Eagle the police made an investigation and concluded that they had passed Eagle In the night.
Henry Isaacs, Andy Meiserau, C. W. Adams, who arrived at Dawson from Fairbanks yesterday, say that Capt. William Moore reports having seen eight men in a scow strike a jam about noon on October 26. The ice was heavy at the time, and the jam piled high. One man got out of the scow and started to crawl over the ice toward the shore. Moore ran into his cabin to get his binoculars, and when he returned the scow had been crushed and the men on the ice had disappeared. An immense jam formed at the place.
The Isaacs party say this must be true, for not a roadhouse on the entire river has seen any of the party.
Sinclair leaves a wife and three small children.
It is believed that Alexander McLean, a former champion oarsman, was in the party. McLean came to Vancouver five years ago with A. Stansbury, an Australian oarsman. He was here for several months and rowed against Bob Johnston of Vancouver.
East Oregonian (Pendleton, Oregon) - Friday, January 19, 1906
Has Jacob Graf, who was lost in the Yukon river, last week, a brother in Umatilla or eastern Oregon?
This information is being sought by the chief of mounted police at Dawson City, and to this end the East Oregonian has received a request to publish the following account of the drowning of eight men in the Yukon among them Jacob Graf, supposed to have a brother in this county or eastern Oregon. The following article is from the Dawson News:
The web of identification of the eight luckless men lost on the Sinclair scow is being drawn closer and closer, and there are more clews being obtained daily which promise to clear up the mysteries of the names of all of the victims. The men known positively to have left here on the scow are B. S. Sinclair, owner of the scow; James W. Sullivan, August Johnson and John Lund.
Detective Welsh is looking carefully into the matter and has ascertained a clue that makes him feel that Jacob Graf and Ernest Trelawney are among the lost. Trelawney told Jimmy Berry, now in Dawson, that he (Trelawney) was going on the Sinclair scow. Trelawney went to Berry and left a key with Berry and told Berry good bye the day the scow left. Welsh has found that Henry Kusenbacher hauled down goods and put them on the scow for Graf.
People who knew Trelawney say that he had lived here with two men in a cabin in South Dawson, near the Klondike dairy, and that the two partners said they were going with him. They then disappeared. One of the men's Christian name was Dick. He was an Englishman, 25 years old. The name of the other man is not known.
Trelawney and the two partners and one other man came here last September from the outside. They came down the river on a cattle scow. The fourth man, named George, who worked as yard man for the Merchants' restaurant, and who is supposed to be in the country yet, should know the full names of Trelawney's two partners,
Graf has a brother in eastern Oregon, in the sheep raising business, Graf formerly drove a brewery wagon for George Hert, of New York city.
With these clues, the police are hopeful that the public will help them to connect the links that will make the chain of evidence complete.
Dawson Daily News, February 16, 1906
George H. Finnegan, a woodman on the lower river, is in Dawson on business, and brings a detailed description of the ice trap which probably carried to death and destruction the entire Sinclair party of Dawsonites on the 26th day of last October.
Mr. Finnegan's description of conditions at the jam, of the jam half broken, narrowing the current into a torrent, ending in a vast maelstrom which sucked down vast cakes of ice, is vivid and striking. He said:
"Had the devil and all his imps enlisted all the powers of nature to construct and maintain an absolutely invincible deathtrap, they could not have done better than at Cliff creek just prior to the arrival there of the Dawson party in their scow.
I and a party of choppers camped on the scene the night of the 27th, and so diabolically perfect was the natural trap, we explored it thoroughly by daylight.
Let me describe it to you if I can, for I and my companions at that time remarked that never had we seen anything so deathlike, so invincible, so certain. Nothing made by man could have survived had it been caught anywhere within three miles of the last end of the trap.
Let me explain then that at Cliff creek the Yukon narrows. Along about the 20th I should judge there had been a terrible jam just below the narrows. The ice had been caught and piled further and further up the river reaching finally to a point three miles above the narrows I speak of. Then this collision of ice had given way but not the real jam, the accumulated water and ice finding an outlet under the center of the jam.
The result was diabolical. We explored every inch. Here is what any boat would find in passing down the river. Three miles above the jam it would be observed that the river commenced to rapidly narrow; sheer walls of ice, fifteen to twenty feet high, had appeared , the current flowing steadily between. Not a thing to indicate that the death trap had been entered and that death was now as certain as if the axe had fallen. Gradually, without a break, the walls pinched together, in the form of an elongated V, like Miles Canyon, only infinitely worse, for men have been known to climb out of the canyon, but nothing could land in that V trap and climb out. Nor would there be any indication of the terrible danger ahead - none whatever, for the appearance was as if some jam had given way and gone down river, leaving a lane of open water. The bend at the narrows concealed everything, and even diverted the ominous sounds. Gradually the water grew swifter and the V got narrower. Evidently the towering ice walls were grounded, and absolutely confined the water. When I stood on top of that chasm and looked down at the foaming waters, it was like looking down a well.
The last mile of the trap rushed like a millrace. Natural canyons are nothing in comparison. The V ended at the jam proper, in a whirlpool 60 feet across. Into this whirlpool the crazy current dashed and went down. Vast cakes of ice ran into it with the speed of a railway train, upended in an instant, and passed beneath the jam, to reappear in three-quarters of a mile all churned and ground into the finest of mush. The whole river dashed beneath the jam at that point, and nothing afloat could have hesitated an instant in taking the inevitable plunge.
Not a thing struck the jam, for the whirlpool could not be crossed. In fact, it was not a whirlpool, but a hole in the river, down which everything rushed with a frightful velocity. Even the water, when it reappeared just beyond the jam, was just foam.
I don't know that the Sinclair party met its fate there - nobody knows. This I know. If that scow entered that gorge three miles above the pool, it went down that hole in the water with every soul aboard. Not a dog could have escaped. The party left Dawson the 25th. I was at the jam on the 27th, and the indications were that the conditions I say had been the same for several days. I knew of no wreck when I was there, but myself and companions were struck with the infernal ingenuity with which nature had fashioned that death trap, and remarked it and explored it. A steamer would have gone down that hole in the water just as certainly. Nothing could have bucked the current, made fast to the icy sides of the gorge or have made a landing on the top of it."
The Victoria Daily Times, Thursday, August 16, 1906
CONTINUES THE SEARCH.
F. W. Bense Is Looking For Missing
Sullivan-Sinclair Party Along the Yukon.
F. W. Bense, who is making a careful search of the Yukon for the bodies of the members of the lost Sullivan-Sinclair party who left Dawson in a scow late last fall, left here last night to continue his search on down the river, says the Rampart Forum of July 20th.
Bense left Dawson in May and since that time has been unflagging in his efforts to find some trace of the bodies, but so far without success, Dynamite has been freely used in all eddies along the river. He has found numerous traces of the scow, Many wood choppers tn the Flats saw it go by in the ice this spring, and all agree on the description of the craft, even to the grips and trunks floating in the swamped and battered hulk. Bense is satisfied that he will find the wreck somewhere below Tanana.
Twenty miles below Eagle he found the body of an Indian lodged in a log Jam. This Indian had gone missing at Eagle last fall. Bense notified the authorities at Circle, but thinks that no attempt will be made to recover the body. According to Bense considerable money should be found upon the bodies of three of the Sullivan party. Bense is employed by Chas. Sullivan of Dawson, to make the search.