2008 Research Grant Recipient - 2008 Yukon River Survey
John Pollack and Doug Davidge
Institute of Nautical Archaeology
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, more than 35 sternwheelers were
reported lost along the Thirty Mile section of the upper Yukon River. A team of
volunteer underwater archaeologists, surveyors and divers is now working to
locate and document these vessels, scattered along the river and its shores and
thought to be among North America’s largest collections of freshwater shipwrecks.
“It’s like an outdoor museum,” says John Pollack, the project’s
leader and a British Columbia-based research associate with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology
at Texas A&M University. Unlike other North American wrecks, he says, many of the Yukon
sternwheelers are exceptionally well preserved because of the dry, cold winters and the fact
that some of the boats were pulled onshore to protect them from river ice. “On some
vessels, you can walk the decks, swing the tillers and turn the rudders,” says Pollack. “The
paint is still on the walls in some of the engine rooms.”
The researchers travelled by powerboat along the Thirty Mile section in June, part of a
multi-year project launched in 2005 and funded in part this year by The Royal Canadian Geographical
Society. Despite high and turbulent water, they located three new vessels: James Domville,
La France and a small, unidentified sternwheeler.
— Shawna Wagman
Engines and paddlewheel machinery from small sternwheeler, Thirty Mile Section of the Yukon River, north of Lower Laberge.
The 2008 Yukon River Survey would not have been possible without the strong support of
Dr. James Delgado and Dr. Kevin Crisman of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Likewise,
staff of the Yukon Territorial Government stepped forward with permits and contributions-in-kind,
and we are deeply indebted to Bruce Barrett, Tim Dowd, Jeff Hunston and Doug Olynyk.
Grants were received from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Vancouver Maritime
Museum, and the Yukon Historic Resources Fund.
Individuals and organizations including Norm A. Easton and the Underwater Archaeological
Society of British Columbia, helped with equipment loans and advice.
We thank you all.
Notched timber on the wreck of the James Domville
The Yukon River Survey is a long-term project of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology,
designed to survey and document the sternwheelers on the Yukon River. Participants include
professional and avocational archaeologists and students, all of whom are volunteers. The
Survey has been funded through a variety of small grants, private donors and participants
since 2005, and to date we have added 13 vessels to the database of the Yukon Territorial
This year our field objective was a search the Thirty Mile River for new sites, operating
under a Class 2 Permit 08-1ASR We hoped to locate the James Domville,
and the Columbian, and to survey the wreck of the Klondike1
at low water.
The total value of the 2008 project was approximately $25 k if all travel costs, supplies
and services were purchased. The reality was we ran the project on far less cash, largely
because the grants were smaller than anticipated. No salaries were involved as all participants
are volunteers, and they cover their own travel costs to Whitehorse. Additionally, many organizations
and individuals supported the Survey via contributions-in-kind. Hence this year's cash budget
was approximately $7 k which covered vehicle gas, equipment rentals, rooms, camp food and
freight costs for scientific equipment.
The main contributors for 2008 were:
- Private donors via the Vancouver Maritime Museum (donations)
- The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (grant)
- Underwater Archaeological Society of BC (survey equipment loan)
- Simon Fraser University (survey equipment loan)
- Yukon Territorial Government (boat and operator contributions-in-kind))
- Yukon Historic Resources Fund (grant)
- Chris Atkinson (Texas A&M graduate student, INA)
- Doug Davidge ( Whitehorse, Yukon Transportation Museum, INA)
- Tim Dowd ( Whitehorse, Yukon Government Heritage Branch)
- John Pollack (Nelson, B.C., INA)
- Dr. Robyn Woodward ( Vancouver B.C., INA)
4. Field Program:
Robyn Woodward with the first fragment of La France. June 4, 2008
May 30: Arrive Whitehorse in the late afternoon.
May 31: Pollack and Davidge take Atkinson and Woodward for a low-water
orientation/ photographic visit of the sternwheelers Gleaner at
Carmacks and the Clara Monarch at Whitehorse.
June 1: General logistics, electronics testing, and grocery shopping
June 2: Depart Deep Creek on Lake Laberge and travel to Goddard Point
where a sidescan sonar was deployed. Our first day out was a bad day for the equipment. First,
the 90 HP Honda on the 21' Carolina Skiff was not running smoothly and some tinkering was
required. Second, the 110 v charger on the sidescan laptop kept tripping the breaker on the
1000w inverter generator. We decided to pull the sidescan until we could sort out the charging
problem as we needed to preserve the batteries for other searches on the river. The search
off Goddard Point had been planned a trial run of the equipment .
Then our luck changed and a large target standing 3 m off the bottom, was located in 10
m of water in the area where Doug Davidge had scanned (but not pinpointed) a man-made target
in the mid-1990's. We pinpointed the location with the GPS. We did not investigate this lead
further as Doug will need return to it in July with a remote camera to document the target.
It is too early to speculate if this is the Goddard, but it is
located in the correct area, and now it has been precisely located with GPS.
The second find of the day occurred approximately 200 m downriver of the Lower Laberge
campsite and on the opposite site of the river. Here we easily located a small set of engines,
a paddle wheel axle, 2 eccentric arms, a pitman arm, a steam driven air (?) pump, and a cylinder
valve assembly all of which are consistent with a small (15-20 m est.) sternwheeler. No remnants
of the superstructure, hull or boiler were noted, and a large scattering of hull fastenings
suggests the ship may have burned completely at low water in this location. We did not find
any charred wood on the site, however, which is inconsistent with a fire.
Measurements included low pressure cylinders with a 23 cm bore and 130 cm stroke, and high
pressure cylinders of 17 cm bore and 115 cm stroke. The paddle wheel axle is 437 cm long
with 3 cast flanges with sockets. Flange diameter is 77 cm and flanges are spaced 145 cm.
Axle diameter is 12 cm. Two eccentrics are located at each end of the axle. Arm sockets are
12 x 5 cm.
This is a new site and a Site Inventory Form will be prepared.
We then moved downriver and established our first camp on an island at the US Bend.
The model bow of the Julia B. at West Dawson. June 9, 2008.
June 3: From camp we travelled by skiff 1.3 km down river to an area
where the surrounding hills matched a historic photographic shortly after the sternwheeler James
Domville was wrecked in 1899. Here again we had success. Doug
Davidge put us on the beach within 15 m of where we found spikes, drift pins, and other fastenings
associated with a sternwheeler hull. A foray into the woods above the high water mark yielded
small ships timbers and superstructure tongue-and-groove planks.
Atkinson, Pollack and Davidge donned dry suits and did 13 drift dives down through fast,
1 m deep water just offshore of the metal debris field. They found hull planking and frames,
a cylinder timber, and lengths of steam pipe partially buried in cobbles. It was difficult
to stay on station due to the 10 kph current, but we learned to hold onto pipes and engine
bolts and remain in place for a few minutes. The water was too fast to survey the site by
conventional baseline techniques. We observed no large machinery, superstructure, or deck
beams remained, and it appears the remains of the James Domville consist
of the lower hull and stern. The vessel's bow is on shore at low water and buried, with the
stern angled at 50 degrees, down river. The port (upstream) side of the frames rises just
above the gravel, whereas the engine beam and some piping rise 40 cm or more above the river
bottom. The transom would be in 1.5 m of water. Downstream of the wreck is a deep (>3
m) containing more steam pipes.
Our documentation consisted of photographs of materials on shore, and video images captured
using an underwater pole camera to record the submerged hull, frames and timbers.
This is a new site and a Site Inventory form will be prepared.
We returned to the US Bend camp for the evening. The water remains too shallow for sidescan
June 4: We broke camp and headed 21 km downriver to the general area
of the (unlocated) LaFrance wreck, landing on an island just upstream
of LaFrance Creek. A walk around the island yielded minor superstructure wreckage above high
water, but nothing definite. Pollack spotted iron across the channel and we landed just above
the mouth of LaFrance Creek. Pollack and Woodward walked 200 m upriver and determined the
metal was likely hull sheathing and a strap, while the rest of the crew went downstream to
the mouth of the creek and found our third new site in as many days. Burned superstructure
tongue-and-groove planking sat in the brush above the high water mark, and on the (normally
submerged) cobbles we found a 360 cm length hot chain with its turn-buckle and a hog post
cap, and an large (520 cm) and as yet unidentified piece of metal resembling a bow guard.
Pollack drifted across the site three times in his drysuit, and noted steam pipes lying
in 1.0-1.5 m if water and an upright, round timber buried in the cobbles. It appears most
of vessel and remaining material is buried in the river bed, at least near shore. The river
becomes deeper (>2.0 m) and faster just off-shore, hence this is a good candidate site
for SCUBA under low-water conditions.
We continued downriver, hitting a rock with the leg once. Again the river was too shallow
to deploy the sidescan sonar. Camp was set up at Shipyard Island where we spent a considerable
amount of time on the 1908 sternwheeler Evelyn.
June 5: The Teslin River joins the Yukon River just 2 km upstream of
Shipyard Island, and it was running solid brown with 20 m trees - complete with roots and
foliage - floating down it. Locals Davidge and Dowd are at a loss to explain why the Thirty
Mile is so low and the Teslin so high, but the reality is the high water levels and low visibility
pose major problems for our plans. There is a very good chance we will find the Klondike submerged,
and it will be impossible to perform a total station survey at that site.
By noon we are at the Klondike 1 site, some 13 km downstream
of Shipyard Island, and our worst fears are realized. Instead of the (expected) dry ship,
we have > 70 cm of fast water roaring over the deck. The cylinder beams - exposed in late
July 2005 - are submerged, and the wreck resembles a shoal mid-river. Nothing lies above
water and the mid-channel current makes any work impossible. Our next attempt will need to
occur in late August or early September.
Disappointed, we move downriver, scout the junction at Big Salmon, and camp at Twin Creeks
at km xxx.
Doug Davidge and Chris Atkinson operate the pole camera at the La France site. June 4, 2008.
June 6: We move into the general area of the Columbian loss
in 1906, again grounding the prop on the way downstream. Inspection shows a cracked plastic
collar between the leg and the prop, and we reduce our speed to an idle. Towing any instrumentation
upstream is now out of the question. There is a large ship beam, possibly from a bulkhead,
in a logjam on the north side of the river. Some 200 m downstream of the beam we find more
material, including tongue-and-groove material from superstructure, beam fragments, and a
piece of white tongue-and-groove with faint lettering and a star in a blue circle. This site
is on an island, 2 km upstream of Columbia Slough where the river guide suggests the Columbian
was lost. There is a side channel to the north of our island, and this channel would be an
excellent candidate for a search in lower water.
The water is too high to allow us to search the cobbles for metal and other types of "stationary" wreck
debris. We move to the head of the Columbia slough and send one team downstream and one upstream,
covering about a km of shoreline in total. The upstream crew finds two cable anchors and
the remains of a (logging) sleigh as well as a large timber that is a close match for the
arm on a paddlewheel. We spend most of the afternoon here searching. The river is too fast
and muddy to put a diver down, the boat too damaged and there are too many obstacles to tow
instrumentation, and we stay out of the water. The evidence on shore and in the log jams
suggests we are close to the site of the wreck, but low water is essential to pinpoint it.
That afternoon we move downstream to a good camp on the north shore, only 1 ½ hours
June 7 : We pull into Carmacks in the late morning and return to Whitehorse
in two vehicles. The flood conditions below the Teslin River have given us an unexpected
three days to spare. The decision is made to take Chris Atkinson to Dawson City and orient
him at the West Dawson site. Atkinson is a graduate student at Texas A&M, and has yet
to choose his thesis topic.
June 8: Woodward, Pollack and Atkinson drive 550 km to Dawson City and
do a 2-hour orientation visit at the West Dawson site.
June 9: The full day is spent inspecting the West Dawson site. Pollack
and Woodward spend the morning in the hull of the Julia B. capturing
information that was missed during 2007, and photographing the vessel's frames and chine.
In the afternoon Woodward concentrates on the bow structures at the Schwatka,
the Seattle No. 3, the Victorian and
the Mary F. Graff while Pollack and Atkinson collect chine measurements
and scaled photographs of the tiller-and-rudder systems from the remaining vessels.
Our observation confirmed the site is a world-class opportunity for comparative studies
on sternwheeler construction. We noted:
- Six different methods of chine construction exist on the site.
- A full inspection of the Julia B. determined it is heavily
built, but it is not a king post vessel. Only the Schwatka and
the Seattle No. 3 contain kingposts.
- We observed boilers in 4 vessels, including a substantially complete 3-boiler battery
in the Mary F. Graff.
- We observed engines or engine components in 4 vessels. The most complete systems appear
to be in the Julia B., the Mary F. Graff,
and the Schwatka.
- While the hulls are substantially complete in all 7 vessels, the Julia B.,
the Seattle No. 3, the Schwatka and
the Tyrell, are completely intact except for bow collapse in
the first three.
- Partially or substantially intact steering systems are found on 5 vessels.
Atkinson, as a Texas A&M graduate student, decided the site may be a good one for his
graduate thesis. He plans to talk to his major professor about options for 2009. i
June 10: Return to Whitehorse, sort gear and meet with Norm Easton.
June 11: Gear is shipped and we depart for the south.
5. Summary of Findings:
While the project experienced some complications due to high water downstream of the junction
of the Teslin River, and equipment problems, it was largely successful. Specifically:
- We have precise locations three new sites - the James Domville,
the LaFrance, and a small unidentified sternwheeler - on the
Thirty Mile Section of the Yukon River.
- Doug Davidge's search for the historic vessel Goddard has
been assisted with the precise location of the sidescan target near Goddard Point. This
location will be revisited within the next two weeks.
- Debris have been located and a general location established (+/- 2 km) for the wreck
- While we could not survey the Klondike 1 due to high water,
we know now we must return in late August to early September. That work will not happen
earlier than 2009.
- Finally, we have firm priorities for detailed work on the seven vessels at West Dawson.
6. Future Actions
Over the next ten months, we shall pursue the following:
View the full slideshow of photographs
- Doug Davidge will visit the Goddard site to verify the lake bottom target and the Columbian
locations to determine if the locations can be pinpointed.
- Doug Davidge will be discussing the requirements of the Yukon Transportation Museum,
for a display in Whitehorse covering known shipwreck sites on the Yukon River.
- The Royal Canadian Geographical Society will be presented with this short report and
a selection of photos as part of their grant requirements, and to determine if they wish
to pursue any publication opportunities.
- In November 2008 three new Site Inventory Forms will be submitted on the new Thirty
Mile wrecks. This will increase the number of sites reported by this project, to thirteen.
- By December 2008 an article on earlier work, will be published in the Annual Report
of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.
- A major paper will be given at the Society for Historical Archaeology Society meeting
in January 2009, covering work from 2005-2008.
- In March, 2008 a full file report on the project will be submitted to Jeff Hunston as
part of the Class 1 permit conditions.
- Work in 2009 is being planned and will depend upon staff availability and funding. West
Dawson and the Klondike 1 are the leading priorities.