The Royal Canadian Geographical Society
Making Canada better
known to Canadians
and to the world.

Publishers of Canadian Geographic Magazine Publishers of géographica


Research Grants

2008 Research Grant Recipient - 2008 Yukon River Survey

John Pollack and Doug Davidge
Institute of Nautical Archaeology

Yukon wrecks
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

1. Introduction:
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 Government.

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.

2. Contributors:
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)

3. Personnel:

  • 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 in Whitehorse.

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 operations.

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 from Carmacks.

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 of Columbian.
  • 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:

  • 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.
View the full slideshow of photographs


Share this page

   Copyright © 2021 The Royal Canadian Geographical Society SITEMAP  |   CONTACT  |   PRIVACY POLICY  |   TERMS OF USE  |   FRANÇAIS