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Yukon River Sternwheelers: the Columbian

by Murray Lundberg

Roster of Yukon/Alaska Sternwheelers

Northern Ships and Shipping

Memorial to the victims of the explosion of the Yukon River Sternwheeler Columbian     The Columbian was lost in the worst accident in the Yukon River's history. On September 25, 1906, she was destroyed in an explosion at Eagle Rock when a crewman accidentally fired a gun into a load of explosives carried on the bow (some early reports said that a fire spread from the boiler to the powder). Six men were killed; Phil Murray, deckboy; Edward Morgan, fireman; Joe Welsh, mate; Lionel Cadogan Cowper, purser; John Woods, deckhand; and Carl Christianson, deckhand and coal trimmer (he shipped on as J. Smith). Welsh and Morgan were killed immediately, Woods, Murray and Christianson died before the Victorian arrived, and Cowper died several days later of his injuries). Also lost was her cargo of 150 tons of vegetables and meat, and 21 head of cattle.

    The disaster is described in "Fire on the Yukon" by Sam Holloway. A memorial to the victims was erected in what is now called the Pioneer Cemetery in Whitehorse by the employees of the British Yukon Navigation Company, which owned her. The photo to the right shows the memorial as it looks today - click on the photo to enlarge it. An interpretive panel is mounted at the Eagle Rock Rest Area just downriver from the site of the explosion.

    Below are miscellaneous facts about the Columbian extracted from a wide variety of sources, but primarily from the ooficial records of the British Yukon Navigation Company.

  • Canadian Shipping Registry #107091, registered at Victoria.

  • wooden sternwheeler; 146.5 feet long, with 33.4 foot beam and 4.7 foot hold. Gross tonnage 716.42, registered as 455.15 tons. One deck, carvel build, sharp head and square stern. Licenced for 175 passengers, 75 in first class, 100 in second class.

  • engine room was 35 feet long, housing 2 horizontal, high-pressure, surface-condensing engines built in 1898 by James Reese & Sons of Pittsburgh; the cylinders had 15 inch diameter and 72 inch stroke (Affleck says 60 inch stroke), developing 15 NHP.

  • 1898, built at Victoria by John Todd, for the Canadian Development Company.

  • Knutson and Affleck stated that, with the Victorian, she was operated on the Stikine River by the Canadian Development Company in 1898. Given her arrival time in St.Michael, that seems unlikely.

  • 1898, went to St.Michael under her own power, arriving July 15. There were 4 of the Moran steamers sitting at False Pass Bay when she passed.

  • August 20, 1898 (MacBride says Aug. 18), she was the first Canadian Development Company steamer to arrive at Dawson. On board were 2 prefabricated steel steamers for the North West Mounted Police, 1 to be based at Dawson, the other at Teslin.

  • operated on the upper river run by the Canadian Development Co.

  • William Ogilvie commented that the Canadian, Columbian and Victorian were all "rather heavily built, and too bluff in the model for the run, but they did wonderfully good service nevertheless, and running them taught every pilot on the upper river how to navigate it."

  • 1899 season crew: in command of Captain Shaver; Second Mate, Peter Dunn

  • June 1899, steam steering gear installed in the Canadian, Columbian and Victorian.

  • early June 1899, struck a rock 9 miles down the Fifty Mile River from Whitehorse; sunk in 20 minutes, in 9 feet of water. On June 16, the Canadian was alongside, helping to pump her out.

  • July 29, 1900, Second Mate Peter Dunn was drowned at Five Finger Rapids, "while the mate and two of the crew were putting out the cable through the rapids... By some accident the small boat was upset and the men thrown into the foaming rapids." The other men reached shore.

  • 1900, on the Whitehorse-Dawson run; for most of the season, medical inspections were required as boats arrived at Dawson. The Columbian arrived on July 13, 20, 28, August 6, 15 and 24. After August 24, the inspections were done at Log Cabin.

  • April 1, 1901, all 17 CDCo. steamers were bought by the British Yukon Navigation Company; this included 3 Stikine River boats, 4 lake boats, and 10 Yukon River steamers.

  • ca. July 16 1902, Commissioner J. H. Ross had a paralytic stroke while en route to Whitehorse; he was laid up in Whitehorse until August 20, then moved to hospital in Victoria.

  • 1902, tied up for last part of July and August due to a lack of cargo.

  • 1903 season crew: Master, F. B. Turner; pilot, Charles Bloomquist; mate, C. F. Dillon; purser, H. B. Berdoe; chief engineer, J. R. P. Gaudin; second engineer, Robert Ryder; steward, W. S. Brown.

  • 1903, refrigeration plant removed to increase its freight capacity by 75 tons.

  • 1903, caught in Dawson for the winter when navigation closed with no warning (they expect manageable ice to run for at least a week first). She wintered in the ice in front of the BYN docks, receiving "nominal damage" in the spring.

  • December 15, 1903, the WP&YR applied to the Customs office at Whitehorse for a refund of the $65.28 paid for the annual Inspection Certificate of the Columbian; in late April, the fee had been eliminated.

  • 1904, brought to Whitehorse from Dawson, then not put into service until August 10.

  • 1904-05, wintered at Hootalinqua; diagram in Cohen, p.67 shows her anchored in the slough by 4 DM (deadmen), 150 feet from Dan Snure's store.

  • 1905, Canadian, Casca, Columbian and Victorian converted to burn coal from the Tantalus mine: Bonanza King is already on coal.

  • 1906 season crew: Master, J. O. Williams; pilot, H. C. Baughman; mate, Joe Welch; second mate, C.Smith; purser, A. D. Lewis; chief engineer, Frank J. Mavis; second engineer, A. Borrowman; steward, C. D. Phillips; deckboy, Phil Murray; Mr. Morgan, fireman.

  • September 25, 1906, destroyed in an explosion and fire. Read the entire story from The Weekly Star here.

  • October 5, 1906, Star: "Photographer E. J. Hamacher returned Sunday evening on the steamer White Horse from a professional trip along the river. He obtained some excellent views of the wreck of the steamer Columbian near Eagle Rock."

  • In 1907, her boiler was retubed and installed on the Casca.

  • April 5, 1907: "To Honor Dead. B. Y. N. Employes To Erect Costly Monument. On his late visit to Victoria Captain J. O. Williams, of this place, representing fellow employes of the B. Y. N. company, selected the monument which the Victoria Colonist speaks of as follows:
    The employes of the British Yukon Navigation Co., Ltd, have decided to erect a monument to the memory of the members of the steamer Columbian, who lost their lives in the burning of the vessel on the Yukon river. Alexander Stewart, the local monumental dealer, has received an order for a large red Scotch granite monument which will be shipped to Whitehorse in the very near future. The monument stands about ten feet high and is a magnificent sample of the stonecutter's art. It will be erected at Whitehorse and when completed will bear the following inscription: "To the memory of J. Welsh, 1st Officer; L. C. Cowper, Purser; P. Murray, Sailor; J. Smith, Sailor; E. Morgan, Fireman; J. Woods Fireman, who met their death by the burning of the steamer Columbian near Eagle Rock on the Yukon River Sept. 25h, 1906. Erected by the employes of the British Yukon Navigation Co., Ltd."

  • The charred wreckage, which was a menace to navigation, was floated downstream a short way and abandoned in what became known as "Columbian slough".

Sternwheeler Columbian at Dawson, 1899. Photo by E. A. Hegg.
Sternwheeler Columbian at Dawson, 1899. Photo by E. A. Hegg. Yukon Archives #4012.

Sternwheeler Columbian, ca. 1900, with extended house.
Columbian, ca. 1900, with extended house. Yukon Archives #2244.

Sternwheeler Columbian at Dawson.
Columbian at Dawson.

Launching the sternwheeler Columbian at Whitehorse.
Launching the Columbian at Whitehorse. Yukon Archives 89/86 #25.

Headline reporting the Columbia diaster, 1906.
September 28, 1906.

The wreckage of the Columbian, September 1906. Photo by Eli Hamacher.
The wreckage of the sternwheeler Columbian, September 1906. Photo by Eli Hamacher. Yukon Archives #5644.

Interpretive sign about the Columbian disaster at Eagle Rock, Yukon River
Interpretive sign about the Columbian disaster at the Eagle Rock Rest Area on the Robert Campbell Highway.

Interpretive sign about the Columbian disaster at Eagle Rock, Yukon River
A closer look at the interpretive sign. The story reads:
    The worst accident in the history of the territory's riverboat travel occurred here at Eagle Rock, on the Yukon River. In September 1906, the sternwheeler "Columbian" exploded and burned, killing five men and badly burning another. The steamer was carrying a crew of 25 men and a full cargo, including cattle and three tons of blasting powder destined for the Tantalus butte coal mine, 30 miles downriver.
    The fire started when Phil Murray, the deckhand, showed his loaded gun to Edward Morgan. Morgan, ironically, the fireman on watch, accidently fired the weapon into a load of blasting powder stored on deck. The powder exploded and a sheet of flame swept the boat.
    Captain J. O. Williams was protected in the wheel house, but could not work the steering or communicate with the engine room. He raced down to the freight deck and told the engineer to stop the engines. As they headed into a bend in the river, he ordered the engines started again to ram the bank. After the bow hit, the stern swung around in the current and Williams ordered full astern to back the vessel up on the shore. His quick thinking allowed the crew to jump ashore and prevented the disaster from being much worse.
    "The explosion blew out the sides of the vessel, scattered men and cargo in the water, and in less than five minutes had involved the whole inside of the ship in a mass of seething flame." (Dawson Daily News, Sept. 26, 1906)